Welcome to EAT THIS CITY, your weekly tour of the best restaurants in one of our favorite cities, as chosen by top chefs. This week, we visit the Heart of America, Kansas City! Known as the “City of Fountains,” KC is also bubbling with culinary treasures, from barbecue to craft breweries.
Helping us navigate Kansas City this week is Pastry Chef Nick Wesemann of The American, a KC institution since 1974. When speaking about the restaurant, Wesemann is effusive. “We’ve been open for 42 years,” he explains. “We were designed by Warren Platner, who also designed Windows on the World. James Beard was one of the consulting chefs on the first menu. We’re owned by the Halls, who own Hallmark. They make sure we have the best ingredients, the best equipment, the best service, the best everything. They want us to be that gem for Kansas City, where if you want the highest quality meal in the city, we’re the place to go.”
The American is no doubt equally proud of Chef Wesemann, who was a James Beard Award Outstanding Pastry Chef Semifinalist in 2015. This is no small feat, given that the Outstanding Pastry Chef category isn’t divided up regionally, but ranked on a national level. In other words, if you go to The American, save room for dessert. Speaking of which…
Alright, so we ate dessert (with our eyes) first. We’re all adults here. Now let’s check out Chef Wesemann’s favorite fifteen food experiences in Kansas City:
They do Neapolitan style pizza, so really thin, flexible, kind of charred on the bottom. They’re open late, which is nice. One of their pizzas has got salami, mozzarella, basil, and they crack a fried egg over it. It’s really good.
I like to get their oyster tacos, when oysters are good. They’re fried, which is really the only way I like oysters. They’re really big, huge oysters, really rich and creamy. The taco has veggies, their house-made salsa, and radishes in it. Also, one of the desserts they have there I really like, and I kind of think in desserts a lot of the time, being a pastry chef and all. They have these ricotta donuts; it’s a really simple fried donut with ricotta cheese in it. It’s got this really crunchy, cinnamon sugar coating. The donuts are really soft and milky, and they serve them with a dulce de leche that they put mescal in, so it almost becomes a tres leches donut. You get the ricotta in the donut, and then this really boozy, sweet, caramelly tres leeches syrup.
We’re in Kansas City, Missouri, in the middle of the country, where you wouldn’t get great sushi, but the sushi I’ve had here is always super fresh, super clean, some of the best sushi I’ve ever had. Their hand rolls and their maki rolls are amazing, but what I really like to get is the poke bowl. It’s chunks of different sashimi — cold sashimi — chunks of onion, sesame seeds, and that’s all tossed in a vinaigrette with warm sushi rice. Cold fish, tangy vinaigrette, warm rice; it’s super simple, but really delicious.
They’re working on a getting a store front, but right now it’s a stand. They do all different kinds of their own sausages. The one I like — I’m a big breakfast fan — is called bacon sausage, flavored with brown sugar, smoke, pepper, and all of that, so it tastes kind of like bacon. It’s like bacon in a sausage. And then it’s served with country gravy that’s got chunks of their sage breakfast sausage in it. They put a fried egg on the top of the bun, then cover it in gravy and hot sauce, so it’s like “biscuits and gravy” and sausage all in one.
It’s a casual dining restaurant. They do really nice variations of southern comfort food — fried chicken, steaks, shrimp and grits, things like that. The main dessert menu is pies. They usually do four or five pies by the slice. My favorite to get is their coconut cream. It’s got a nice layer of coconut custard, and then it’s got a macaroon filling on the bottom, so it’s got this sweet, sticky coconut in between the pie crust and the coconut filling. You get your crust, your sticky, chewy coconut, and then creamy filling, and coconut cream on top. The pastry chef also does this sugar cream pie there; it’s absolutely delicious. It’s kind of like a custard — a little bit caramelly, sweet, and milky, and served with a fruit compote. And they also have a soda that changes, based on the season, a big, tall, ice cream soda in a glass. It’ll have ice cream, chunks of cake, house made fruit sodas, meringue, tall spoon, big colorful straw. I usually like to get a soda and a piece of pie when I go, because that’s how I roll.
[NOTE: Chef Nick Wesemann must literally have the best metabolism on the planet.]
It’s actually the same chefs that own Rye. It’s kind of a tasting menu format, so you do anywhere between three courses and ten courses. It’s all super seasonal, so whatever is available, that’s what they do. The food is always really light, so if you’re doing ten courses, you’re not getting overwhelmed. And the desserts that she does there are spectacular, as well. They have a lounge, so you can sit at the counter, at the pastry station, and watch them make the desserts and talk to them.
On the dining room side, if you’re doing the tasting menu, they have really nice petit four trays that come out with marshmallows, cookies, candies, that you can pick from for your after dinner treat. Always really nice food.
The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange
Seasonal menu, really hearty food, regional-driven, local vegetables, local cheeses. Really big on being sustainable. The food is really comforting, the service and the staff are always friendly and welcoming. The dish they always have on the menu — it’s really good — is their pork soup. It’s a really rich pork broth, tender braised pork, roasted garlic, melted gruyere, so kind of like french onion soup, but a lot richer and a lot meatier. It’s especially good in the cold months. Just get a bowl of that and it warms you up.
They also have a bar in the basement, a speakeasy called Manifesto, that does craft cocktails. If you’re into drinking, then you can go down there and get some really amazing cocktails. Really cool, dimly lit, it’s kind of sexy and intimate. Definitely some of the best cocktails in the city, and it’s a cool location. Go down this narrow stairwell — well, it’s narrow for me, because I’m like seven feet tall — but you’ve gotta kind of crouch down, you go into this stairwell, and you’re in this speakeasy.
It’s actually a vegan restaurant. I don’t usually seek out vegan or vegetarian food, but they have a nacho dish there…they are like the best nachos I’ve ever had. They do fried organic corn chips, and they make a cashew nacho cheese, so it looks like the orange nacho cheese that you get everywhere, but it’s vegan, it’s spicy. They do jack fruit on it instead of meat, and then salsa, guacamole, vegan crema, and then all the other nacho-y stuff. If I want nachos, I say “let’s go to the vegan restaurant!”
It’s this little restaurant in my neighborhood. Really tiny, locally owned. It’s a sandwich shop, and they also do breakfast food and brunch on the weekends. They do pies, muffins, cakes, things like that. They have a breakfast flatbread, which is kind of like a breakfast pizza — a crispy crust with really peppery gravy on it, scrambled eggs, white cheddar, green onions, crispy bacon. They also do a breakfast casserole, which I like because it reminds me of a breakfast casserole my mom used to make, growing up. It’s like an egg strata; eggs, sausage, gravy, baked like a custard, really tall.
ICONIC FOOD OF THE CITY
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Show us how you're celebrating #nationalbbqmonth!! #Q39Giveaway #Repost @w39thkc ・・・ The Judges Plate at Q39 – you choose your favorite! Since we can rarely decide, it's a safe bet for best of all BBQ. #mrburns #BBQ #bestbbq #kcfavorite #bbqkc #W39thKC #dinner #lunch #ordercarryout #W39thKC #foodies #smokedmeats
This is probably the hardest one because obviously, KC, we’re really known for barbecue. It’s kind of our thing, and everyone’s got an opinion. It’s hard to pick. Some places you like because they do pork really well, or they have really good french fries, or they have really good baked beans, and everyone has their list of barbecue places where, if they ever had their ideal meal, they would get each component. There’s so many good barbecue places here in town.
Lately I’ve been going to Q39 a lot. It was started by a guy who was a barbecue competition champion. I like to get their brisket and their sausage. Their sauce has just the right amount of sweetness to it. That’s kind of the big divider between everyone’s barbecue: some people don’t like sweet barbecue. I like sweet barbecue. I think they do a good balance between sweet and spicy. I also love their potato salad. It’s not too mustardy or vinegary. It’s creamy and herby and really delicious.
ODD CULINARY EXPERIENCE
It’s traditional Chinese food, so not like General Tso’s chicken. It’s really authentic Chinese food. So the reason I’d pick it is, it’s a kind of unique place you can go with a lot of people. You sit at a big table with a big lazy susan in the middle, so you can order some dim sum dishes or some big family style dishes, share it, spin the wheel around and take what you want. The restaurant is open really late. Really small kitchen, really friendly people.
My favorite dish is their XO turnip cakes. Little cubes of turnip cake, so molten, creamy turnip filling, and they’re deep-fried so they’re crispy on the outside. And then they’re topped with this dry XO sauce that gives it a lot of umami. They’ve got some other unique dishes. They’ve got some intestine dishes on there if you’re feeling really adventurous.
I didn’t know about this place forever, and then one of my line cooks told me about it, and then word spread. It has my favorite sandwich to get, anywhere. It’s a pork tenderloin sandwich; it’s amazing. They take, like, three pieces of pork tenderloin. It gets pounded really thin, and then each piece is tempura breaded in this light, crispy, crunchy tempura batter. Then that goes on a bun with diced onion, tomato, lettuce, pickles, and hot sauce. I don’t even understand it — it’s seriously the best sandwich ever. I like to get it with tater tots and orange soda, just to round out the entire experience.
I hardly ever drink, so I don’t get hungover too often, and actually, usually when I go to this place, I’m going there just because I want the food and I don’t really have the excuse of being hungover. Old school, “greasy” diner, open twenty-four hours. The thing they’re known for is their hamburger sliders. You can get anything from a hamburger that’s a single to a quadruple. They take the meat and smash it out really flat on the griddle, they cook onions right next to it, and the bun is toasted in the burger drippings. It’s so good. Skinny french fries. They do shakes, and they also do extremely good pies. Their lemon meringue and their coconut cream pie are really good. If you go after midnight, after bars closing it’s crowded, because clearly everyone else likes going there for pre-hangovers anyway.
It’s a cozy, intimate restaurant. It’s beautiful on the inside, lots of wood, you can see the kitchen from the dining room. They have really unique food and flavor combinations. They utilize a lot of Asian flavors, and their menu changes with the seasons. One kind of dish he always has is the hamachi crudo, so kind of like a hamachi sashimi, really light and delicate, as an appetizer. He usually changes up the components on it, based on what’s in season. I think right now it’s got pickled strawberries and avocado and black truffle.
RESTAURANT RUN BY A FRIEND
This is run by one of my old sous chefs, Josh, and his wife Abbey-Jo. They recently did a kickstarter to raise money to turn the garage next to their restaurant, Happy Gillis, into a ramen shop. So they opened that up and it’s called Columbus Park Ramen. It’s family-owned; you can go and see the kids helping clear dishes and stuff; it’s so adorable. They’ve got three or four different bowls of ramen, and what I like to get is their tonkatsu ramen. Really rich pork broth, thin-shaved slices of pork jowl , really flavorful. I like to get it with a soft-boiled egg. It’s got just the right amount of heat in the broth, just spicy enough to help with the richness. Josh is also super-into beer so he’s got lots of local and craft beers, and some beers that he’s helped and collaborated on. He’s got a good selection of sakes there also. I had a jellied sake there, that was a peach sake that was jellified in the can and then it gets poured out, so it’s like you’re drinking a sake jelly. It’s really good.
Josh and Abbey are super sweet, some of the nicest people I know in the industry.
Thank you, Chef Wesemann, for taking us on a culinary tour of KC!
Stay tuned for more EAT THIS CITY — where each week we’ll feature a premier chef in a different city sharing their insider eating tips! Missed a week? Check out NYC, Washington DC, New Orleans, Cleveland, Miami, Seattle, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Sydney, Portland, Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Providence, Memphis, Orange County, Boston, and Detroit.
See you next week!