A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to attend a conference in Kansas City. I always like to make the most of my time whenever I get to travel, so you can bet that I was out exploring and eating as much as I could. I can’t say Kansas City was ever on my must-visit list, but I was pleasantly surprised by my few days there. If you ever find yourself heading west, you just might want to make a stop.
Although St. Louis may be Missouri’s more commonly known city, Kansas City is the larger of the two, and is actually the largest in the state. Kansas City is so large that it is split between Missouri and Kansas. And it may be landlocked, but Kansas City was originally established as a port city, with both the Kansas and Missouri rivers converging near the center of its contemporary downtown.
The downtown area, on the Missouri side, is where I spent most of my time. This portion of the city has seen more than $6 billion in redevelopment in recent years, including the creation of a retail and entertainment area, called the Power and Light District. With an effort to convert old office buildings to residential and hotel space, the population in their downtown has shot from about 4,000 residents in the early 2000s to more than 30,000 residents today. As I walked along the streets and hopped off and on the convenient downtown streetcar, I noticed plenty of young people and office buildings housing some of our major national companies, such as H&R Block and Hallmark Cards.
Along with jazz and fountains, Kansas City is known for its barbecue. The thing I always find interesting about barbecue is how different it is depending on where you go. Each city insists their version is the only correct way to do it. In Kansas City, barbecue took off in the early 1900s, and as they’ll also tell you, it’s an institution that’s part of the city’s culture and history. It’s not just an item on a menu, although you will most definitely find it in menus at more than 100 Kansas City restaurants.
I was lucky to meet up with some fellow Vermonters, one of whom previously lived in KC. Before he left, he went around trying as many barbecue spots as he could. One of his top picks was LC’s Bar-B-Q, a no-frills, award-winning joint a short drive outside of the downtown. It’s hard to tell what it is from the outside, but you can’t miss the sweet smoky aroma that hits you the moment you drive in.
At LC’s, you order at the counter and try not to drool when the doors of the smoker open just a couple feet away and engulf you. You can take your order to go or sit at one of the few tables. It’s not a big place, and you may find LC himself sitting at a table with a mound of paperwork in front of him.
LC’s offers ribs, of course, as well as burnt ends, chicken, turkey, ham, coleslaw, baked beans and fried vegetables such as mushrooms and green beans. I don’t claim to be any kind of barbecue expert, but the burnt ends were unbelievable. Burnt ends were once thought to be just tough end pieces of the beef brisket that no one cared for. They’d often be reserved for stews or even given away. But it turns out that burnt ends can be delicious, both fatty and crispy and tender all at once. They’re double cooked and covered in plenty of LC’s sweet tomato barbecue sauce. Since this realization, burnt ends are now a staple in Kansas City barbecue. If you go, you’ll find LC’s at 5800 Blue Pkwy. and yes, an Uber will take you there.
While LC’s was the highlight of my Kansas City dining experiences, there is no shortage of options to satiate all appetites. I stopped by the Scratch Bakery at 310 West 8th Street nearly every morning, as it was right nearby my Airbnb. They had me at homemade pop-tarts and I never looked back. I probably could have eaten half a dozen of the key lime, with their crisp pastry and gooey filling bursting with refreshing lime flavor. The breakfast burritos also seemed to be a popular option for locals.
Another good caffeine stop is Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Co. at 1201 Main Street. Kaldi’s hand roasts and brews all of its coffees, and is committed to sustainable practices and giving back to the community at all of its nearly 20 locations throughout Missouri and Georgia. The Turkish latte, made with a house-made cinnamon cardamom syrup, was my favorite afternoon pick-me-up between conference sessions.
If you find yourself in the Power and Light District, you sure won’t go hungry. For lunch, a couple good options include The Mixx (1347 Main Street), where you can find an impressive and innovative range of specialty salads and sandwiches as well as the ability to build your own with their extensive selection of fresh ingredients. Or, right next door is the Protein House, a good stop for anyone in need of consuming a rather large intake of protein via coffee, lunch bowls, smoothies or salads. It may be geared towards gym enthusiasts — in other words, not me — but I did enjoy the bowl of turkey, sausage, vegetables and rice, even though it was way more than I could eat in one sitting.
Also in the Power and Light District is Yard House (1300 Main Street), a large sports bar with more than 140 beers on tap. The food is of good quality, upscale pub style, and if you can’t decide on which beer to choose, try a flight or just go with a local option from Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing, one of the largest craft breweries in the Midwest. For a quieter atmosphere, try The Chesterfield (1400 Main Street), which was named after a famous nightclub and restaurant from the jazz era. With red curtains and a spacious lounge that’s also attached to a movie theatre, it’s a great place to sip a classic cocktail and relax from the bustle of the city.
You can visit for the history, the impressive amount of public art, the beautiful fountains, the museums, or a sports game, but Kansas City is no doubt a city for eaters. I barely skimmed the surface here — I didn’t even get to mention the amazing tacos or pho in the river market area — so if you go or have been before, let me know your favorite stops. I may just have to go back one day.