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Uncovering the Secret Southern Soul of Kansas City's Food Scene

Traveling to Kansas City for the first time recently, I arrived with some assumptions about its Midwest restaurant scene. I expected to find the town's leading chefs interpreting modern Americana (comfort food, burly cuts of meat, an embrace of the season’s vegetables) and maybe a few immigrant specialties I’d read about — recipes like bierocks, a bun filled with beef and cabbage popular among some of the area’s Eastern European communities. And, of course, I anticipated barbecue. It notably appeared in the early 1900s via a pitmaster from Tennessee named Henry Perry, and the popularity of smoked meat continued to grow as African-Americans settled in the area during the Great Migration through the first half of the twentieth century.

I supposed barbecue would total the extent of Kansas City’s Southern-inflected cooking. Oh, perhaps starters like pimento cheese or chicken liver splashed with bourbon might pop up here and there: The gastronomic South has received so much nationwide attention over the last dozen or so years that many of its signatures have simply blended into the contemporary American restaurant vernacular.

As a Southerner myself, though, I ended up feeling a subtle kinship with Kansas City’s dining scene — through some of its other emblematic dishes and in the homey soulfulness I often encountered in the food. My first meal in town was at Happy Gillis, which sits on the corner of a sleepy street in Kansas City’s Columbus Park neighborhood among other two-story brick dwellings built early last century. Inside, the dinette is all Midwestern sweetness: mismatched midcentury kitchen tables with metallic rims and speckled designs; avocado-colored walls; floral print plates in a collage of circular, square, and hexagonal shapes mounted as art. Owners Josh and Abbey-Jo Eans concentrate on updated versions of breakfast sandwiches and lunchtime bacon melts and, in homage to the area’s history as a Little Italy, a meatball sub with marinara and provolone.

Grits with red-eye gravy and country ham at Happy Gillis

One dish, though, stands apart from the others like the town eccentric. It’s grits and red-eye gravy, as much an emblem of the Southern table as crackling cornbread or sweet potato soufflé. Josh Eans embellishes the grits with shards of country ham (a traditional pairing with the coffee gravy) that was cured at Burgers’ Smokehouse in the Missouri Ozarks two hours away. A poached egg’s orange yolk oozes into the fray, thickening and enriching. Pickled celery brightens every third bite. And for an Americana wink, Eans scatters over a handful of corn nuts for smart crunch.

Happy Gillis’s sandwiches impressed, particularly an open-face number with smoked trout on pumpernickel, but the grits easily showed up everything else on the table. I learned later it was the dish that Eans chose to cook for Ferran Adria, who passed through town in March as part of his "Notes on Creativity" exhibit this year at the city’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Fried chicken, walleye pike over grits, mac-and-cheese with herb crumbs and bacon, and strawberry-rhubarb pie at Rye

I encountered grits beyond the breakfast realms two days later at Rye, the handsome, casual restaurant owned by chefs Megan and Colby Garrelts that specializes in Midwestern cooking; the couple also run Bluestem, arguably Kansas City’s most lauded fine dining destination. Rye serves shrimp and grits pulled ashore with the addition of pulled pork. Grits also come under walleye pike in brown butter sauce. Walleye is the most Midwest of fishes, trawled from Lake Superior, but fish and grits is a classic in Florida and popular in Atlanta. Other standouts also veer southerly. Rye’s marquee dish is fried chicken: The bird steeps in herbaceous brine before the cooks dunk it twice in hot oil for extra-crispness; it comes with a side of ham gravy and some willowy sliced pickles. Hush puppies and fried catfish po’ boys sneak in among the steaks and chicken salad and salmon with wild rice. Megan Garrelts uses lard in the crust of her marvelous pies, among which strawberry-rhubarb was a springtime joy.

Chefs like John Currence and Sean Brock come through and jokingly say, ‘Hey, why are you stealing our stuff?’

So much of the food slips into a Southern drawl that I called Colby Garrelts, a Kansas City native whose local roots go back at least six generations, to ask him about it. "No, you’re not imagining things," he said. "There is an identifiable Southern aspect to our regional cooking. Chefs like John Currence and Sean Brock come through and jokingly say, ‘Hey, why are you stealing our stuff?’ And I tell them, ‘I’ve been eating grits just as long as y’all have.’ We called them mush. As a child I thought they were disgusting. Now I add cream and butter and cheese and I think they’re delicious."

The burnt end sandwich, with a side of Louisiana-style dirty rice, at Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Cue

He mentioned the town’s crossroad culture, influenced by the cattle drives from Texas bound for the Kansas City stockyards. The lower section of Missouri, which borders Arkansas and includes a swath of the Ozarks, has often been considered a northern edge of the South. I asked Garrelts why Kansas City’s cooking didn’t have more of a distinct reputation for its mingled Midwestern and Southern influences. "Well, we really are part of the heartland," he said. "I think the South expresses its culture more boisterously. In the Midwest, we’re taught to not raise our voice and to keep our heads down and work."

And to be clear, not every meal I had in Kansas City struck up "Dixieland Delight" in my head. Bluestem, the Garrelts' first restaurant, serves customizable, modern American tasting menus (in three, five, or ten courses) that would resonate in any city in the country. A silky spring pea soup accented with crème fraiche and lemon shook off the last of winter like a tonic. A bay scallop waded at the edge of a pool of watercress nage with a bracing, peppery edge. Gnudi golden from egg yolk sidled up to rosy slab of herb roasted strip loin. Pivoting between subtle and luxurious, the meal was one of the most memorable I’ve had yet this year. The night before, I tackled a chimichanga at Port Fonda, a buzzy Mexican draw in the city’s restaurant-packed Westport neighborhood. The deep-fried burrito was filled with shredded chicken, rice, and melty cheese. It tasted, in the best possible way, like a Midwest casserole crammed into a wrap.

But the Southern allusions kept popping up at mealtime. I didn’t come to Kansas City specifically to survey its barbecue joints; blogger and photographer Bonjwing Lee, who grew up in the city, made the rounds for Eater last year. I did smear my face and hands with the thick, tangy, tomato-based sauce the locals prefer at two of Lee’s favorite barbecue haunts. At Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Cue, just over into the metro area’s Kansas state side, the burnt ends (KC’s iconic dish of blackened, nubby chunks from the fatty end of brisket) are cut in tidy squares and have a satisfying crackle. The pork ribs, ruddy from seasoning rub, swayed more than the wan pulled pork. Dirty rice, a New Orleans staple, and smoked chicken gumbo lurked as spot-on options among the cole slaw and onion rings. Might these regionally specific dishes hearken to Kansas’s history as part of the Louisiana Purchase? I may have started taking the Southern theory a tad too far …

Above: Staffer at the pit at LC's; Below Sliced pork, ribs, and burnt ends at LC's and Ribs and fried chicken at Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que

The ’cue at Lee’s other go-to, LC’s back on over the Missouri state line, reminded me of Memphis style: The meats smoked to drooping tenderness and were slathered in sauce. While the burnt ends at Joe’s were a polite pile, the scrappy shards at LC’s were gristly, nasty, and glorious. Next time I’d brave the side-eye from the staff and ask for the sweet sauce to be served separately. Arrive at either place early for lunch: Lines snake out the door at high noon.

Similar throngs still gather at the country-grand Oak Ridge Manor outpost of Stroud’s, a Kansas City institution. I stood in the log-cabin foyer until ushered into a back room full of large families serving themselves family style. Fried chicken, in its own way, has as firm a hold in the local foodways as barbecue — fueled by the legend of "Chicken Betty" Lucas, a peripatetic who reportedly wielded pans of fried chicken in over a dozen restaurants last century, including rowdy roadhouses and coffee shops. Calvin Trillin, Mimi Sheraton, and John T. Edge have all immortalized her. Lucas's prowess inspired dueling poultry palaces in Pittsburg, Kansas, named Chicken Annie's and Chicken Mary’s. I can trace more independent restaurants hawking chicken around Kansas City than I can in Atlanta, where I live.

I can trace more independent restaurants hawking chicken around Kansas City than I can in Atlanta, where I live.

Stroud’s has the strongest word of mouth of any of them by far. When Guy and Helen Stroud transitioned from barbecue, their original focus, to pan-fried chicken in the 1940s, the birds were likely robustly flavored creatures. My spread at Stroud’s made a comely tableau: a platter of chicken surrounded by mashed potatoes, green beans, and thick gravy speckled with gravy, laid out by my kind server on a blue and white checked oilcloth. Alas, though cooked with care, the fowl itself tasted pale and indifferent. Take it from this Southerner: If you want stellar fried chicken in Kansas City, better to spend an afternoon or evening at Rye.

ESSENTIALS

Happy Gillis: 549 Gillis Street, Kansas City, (816) 471-3663, happygillis.com

Rye: 10551 Mission Road, Leawood, KS, (913) 642-5800, ryekc.com

Bluestem: 900 Westport Road, Kansas City, (816) 561-1101, bluestemkc.com

Port Fonda: 4141 Pennsylvania Avenue, Kansas City, (816) 216-6462, portfonda.com

Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Cue: 3002 West 47th Avenue, Kansas City, (913) 722-3366, joeskc.com

LC's Bar-B-Q: 5800 Blue Parkway, Kansas City (816) 923-4484

Stroud's Oak Ridge Manor: 5410 NE Oak Ridge Drive, Kansas City, (816) 454-9600

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