Category Archives: Feature Stories

Chef Celina Tio Represents Kansas City on ‘The Next Iron Chef’

The tough and talented owner of Julian competes against some of the best chefs in America on the Food Network program starting this Sunday

Some months ago at 6:30 on a Friday evening, Chef Celina Tio of Brookside eatery Julian, received a very important phone call. As this was nearly the height of the dinner rush, she was slightly taken aback. “They were obviously working in a different time zone,” she said, referring to the California-based casting company on the other end of the line. Much to her surprise they asked Tio if she would be interested in auditioning for the next season of the popular Food Network program, The Next Iron Chef. ”It kind of came out of the blue,” said Tio, “I was wondering if it was a joke.”

Celina Tio

Chef Celina Tio

She accepted the offer and wound up interviewing with two people over the telephone before she was invited to Los Angeles to perform on-camera. This interview involved a series of questions, partially to ascertain how Tio came across onscreen but also to evaluate her personality. “They asked me if I had a tattoo,” she said, “I’m not really sure what that had to do with anything. I guess that’s the new hot thing I guess if you’re chef you have to have a tattoo.”

Soon after the interview she was informed that they liked her and wanted her for the show. “That kind of worried me because I wondered what personality they cast me as…am I the bitch? I don’t know.” Recently the Food Network magazine came out with a spread of the contestants, listing Tio’s “competitive edge” as her “likability,” which probably means she comes across pretty positively on the show.

They did all the filming in one stretch but she won’t say how long it took so no one can draw any conclusions about her success on the show. The better you perform, the longer you stay after all.

Taping took place primarily in the West which meant that Tio was far away from her family for a time. “That’s certainly part of the mental game, for sure,” she said. “If you are pining for home I think you are not going to do as well.” For that reason she elected not to call home on battle days to keep herself sharp and determined. “Not that I didn’t miss my family but you just have to focus. It’s a short amount of time in the grand scheme of things and potentially what it could lead to is far going to outweigh that small amount of time.”

In the vein of other reality competition programs, The Next Iron Chef asks its contestants to perform under extreme pressure. The nature of the challenges, the ingredients available and the time of execution are typically a mystery. Fans of the show know that the ability to think on one’s feet is just as important as technique or training. “Being an iron chef is being adaptable, being innovative, having all these different qualities so cooking is just kind of a background.” Because of the wacky challenges and high-pressure atmosphere, being on the show allowed her to try out some new techniques. “You need to be able to take risks,” said Tio.

Celina Tio attended college at Drexel University in Philadelphia where she majored in Hotel and restaurant management. “I always wanted to be a chef but at the time it wasn’t really acceptable to go to culinary school right after graduating high school, at least not widely popular.” After school she went to the Ritz Carlton where she worked her way up from breakfast cook to chef of one of the dining rooms in less than two years.

Before coming to Kansas City, chef Tio worked at Walt Disney World for five years, opening three of their eleven specialty restaurants which were among the country’s best-regarded including one aboard a transatlantic cruise ship. This took her to Italy for a two month stretch. “It sounds far more romantic than it actually was,” she said, “I was living in a ferry boat in a shipyard.”

She was was not looking to relocate from Disney but still tried to keep abreast of culinary scenes around the country. An Internet job posting for the American Restaurant led her to Kansas City where she served as executive chef. While there she won Best-Chef Midwest from the James Beard Foundation in 2007. “That family was great to work with and it was the venue that I thought it would be.” Missing the friendly personal interaction with guests that is nearly her trademark these days, Tio left The American to open Julian in 2009.

More than her experience however, Tio feels that her personality is what gave her an edge on the show. For example, she wanted to familiarize herself with television production enough to make her comfortable on the show. “Out of probably sixty people on the production crew, I probably knew forty of their names and said hello to them every day. My first battle I introduced myself to the camera guy and then it was really easy for me to deal with the cameras which hinder some people I think.” Tio even felt comfortable giving camera and sound operators mild instructions so that they didn’t interfere with her performance.

Still, the atmosphere during taping was high-pressure and tense. “I’ll be curious to see if the camera shows me as anxiety-ridden as I was,” she said. As for the notoriously harsh judging, it did not bother her to be evaluated. “I didn’t take anything personally because it’s their job to do that, she said, adding “the level of cooking was so high, it really does come down to ‘this was not salted or this was too spicy sweet or whatever.’”

Tio had met nearly half of the other contestants including Ming Tsai, generally considered the favorite (if there is such a thing in reality television). While competing with other luminaries in the business she did pick up a few ideas and techniques, but mostly stayed focused on her own performance. “Most of the things you learn,” she said, “you learn about yourself in that environment.”

Beginning with the premiere this Sunday at 8 p.m., Julian is hosting a series of watch parties for all eight weeks of this season of The Next Iron Chef. For each episode in which Tio appears, guests can order a meal comprised of the dishes she created on the show for $35. The word has spread and most of the spots are accounted for, but interested folks should still call the restaurant.

Julian is located at 6227 Brookside Plaza, Kansas City, Mo

originally published on KCFreePress.com, 2010

How Do You Like Them Apples?

A brief guide to celebrating the quintessential American fruit

For the next six weeks or so, we get to reap the many benefits of apple season. Even large grocery stores, which were long the bastion of red delicious and granny smiths routinely offer multiple other varieties. Galas, Fujis, Honeycrisps, Jonathans and Braeburns, long available imported from other parts of the country, are showing up in farmer’s markets and CSA boxes as the harvest progresses on regional farms.

As we enter Fall, how best to celebrate the simplicity and beauty of the apple? For starters you can go pick some at one of our local orchards. Most orchards double as family-friendly entertainment spots offering activities like hayrides and corn mazes along with the opportunity to go out and pick. Many apple orchards also grow pumpkins, making them ideal spots for picking a few up in time for Halloween. Louisburg Cider Mill is probably the best known place near Kansas City. They offer guided tours for groups of fifteen or more, where you can see how the entire cider-making process at work. If you show up early enough you can see the doughnuts being made. Louisburg and Alldredge Orchards are apple-picking options on the Missouri side.

If this kind of kiddie-stuff isn’t your cup of tea, how about a good, stiff drink? More than beer, hard cider was the drink of choice for working class Americans into the mid-19th century, and it is still found on tap at any respectable English pub. Most local bars have some variety in bottles—usually Woodchuck, but it has become far more prevalent than it was a decade ago.

Fermenting your own hard cider is also a great way have a little fun while acknowledging the greatness of the apple. Homebrewers tell me that cider is among the easier products to make, assuming you have the proper equipment. The fine folks at supply store Bacchus & Barleycorn in Shawnee should be able to set you up with anything you need, not to mention some expert advice. If you lack the attention to detail that homebrewing requires, head over to Charley Hooper’s who offer Woodchuck on tap.

Anyone interested in Kansas City food needs to try the apple fritter from John’s Space Age Donuts near downtown Overland Park. Established in 1967 next door to the even-more-venerable Tony’s Villa Capri Italian restaurant, John and family have been serving up freshly-made, delicious donuts that are among the best I have ever eaten. The space is no-frills but I think the apple fritter tastes better when you sit at the counter sipping a surprisingly decent cup of coffee from a styrofoam cup. As you might expect, John’s attracts its fair share of older Overland Parkers, but also a lot of younger folks on their way to the office, picking up a dozen to share. Get there early, because the pickings get slim come mid-morning and it is not worth missing that delicious apple fritter.

When is the last time you made apple pie? Classic as it is, I think apple tends to get overlooked in favor of berry and pumpkin pies. Don’t let the crust intimidate you; it is perfectly okay to use a store-bought crust and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Sure, making pie crust from scratch is not that hard, but something about it scares people. Overachievers should feel free to proceed with homemade dough, knowing that lard and/or shortening are the keys to flakiness. Making pie filling takes mere moments. Peel, core and slice 5-6 apples and mix them with about a tablespoon of flour, a cup of sugar, a little lemon juice, cinnamon and a pinch of salt. Mix it up and you have pie filling. Avoid red delicious and Macintosh apples as they tend to become mushy when cooked.

This only scratches the surface of what the mighty apple can accomplish. I didn’t even mention applesauce, which really shines when made from scratch. Apples also accompany pork particularly well. A grilled tenderloin or chop pairs very nicely with stewed apples. Certainly the best way to enjoy an apple, however, is the way nature intended: freshly picked and whole. Be sure to eat a few this Fall.

originally published on KCFreePress.com, 2010

Don’t Make me Barf: A conversation with Food Safety Professor Doug Powell

Last month, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms initiated a recall of more than 500 million eggs due to the presence of salmonella bacteria. The subsequent media environment was rife with information of varying degrees of usefulness and veracity. I had been wanting to talk with Dr. Douglas Powell, author of food safety website Barfblog for a while, so we spoke a couple of weeks ago about the egg recall and other issues related to foodborne illness.

Dr. Powell is an associate professor of Food Safety at Kansas State University where he has spearheaded the Barfblog for more than five years. He brings a uniquely scientific and rational voice to the act of purchasing, eating and preparing food. His views on food safety have little place for politics, rather they are framed by biological training, which has little room for the feel-good assertions of the organic and local food movements.

***

Dave LaCrone: What do you think the point of the egg recall issue is? I’ve heard people decrying factory farming and mass distribution, some people say “I’m glad I eat organic eggs.” What is your perspective?

Douglas Powell: That has nothing to do with food safety and things that make people barf. Your backyard eggs are going to have salmonella just as much as your factory farm does. All I’ve seen is political and legal opportunism at this point. People take whatever they see and use it to fit their political lens, whether it’s “I want federal legislation passed,” or “I want organic food,” and there’s really not a whole lot of discussion of biology.

DL: In other words these kinds of risks are inherent pretty much in any kind of egg all the time.

DP: Yeah, and they always have been. Since the recall you have all these consumer warnings that say you should always eat fully cooked eggs. But you look at the egg people’s literature and they have loving pictures of hollandaise sauce and poached eggs that are barely cooked. They come out now and say “no we’ve always said that” and I’m like “bullshit, you did!”

DL: Is there anything we or the government can do?

DP: I have low expectations of government. I find it amusing that people want to give government more authority, the same people who screwed up Katrina, screwed up the oil well. Why is that a solution? I don’t get it.

DL: Well then do you think corporate self-regulation is a solution?

DP: No, it’s not an either/or. My solution would be the buying power of individual consumers. What I would like to see is these egg companies or spinach producers, whoever…advertise their microbial food safety record right there on the package. I don’t care if it’s natural, if there’s a picture of a farm or if it was lovingly raised. I want to know if it’s gonna make me barf.

There have been so many outbreaks over the last few years that I think a lot of soccer moms and other parents who go to the grocery store might be interested in eggs that have lower levels of salmonella, or spinach that is e-coli free.

There are billions of meals served every year where people don’t get sick, so obviously they are doing something right. Why not market it? But they won’t because that would imply that other food is unsafe. Well guess what? Other food is unsafe! The best way the consumers can act is through their buying power. Right now they are doing it through the B.S. organic stuff. They are being held hostage by people who don’t make direct claims about food safety but hint at it. Why else do you think they buy natural or local?

DL:  Well I think there are a lot of reasons but I do think it’s a burgeoning thing with parents of young children, especially upper middle-class parents that think that it’s more healthy and safer to eat organic.

DP: Yeah, I have a 20 month old, does that mean I’m a bad parent for shopping at a grocery store?

DL: Yes, well I think that is a supposition for many people, but you’re a biologist and they are not, so you have a different perspective

DP: [Organic producers] don’t’ say “we have lower levels” but they hint at it and the language you used is exactly the language they use in all of these advertisements like “if you care about the environment” or “if you care about the health of your children.” It’s a guilt factor and it’s crazy, there’s nothing to back it up. And they charge more for it!

DL: I have to ask if your knowledge bleeds over into your choice of where you eat and what to  eat? Are there foods you won’t buy or you won’t eat when you go out?

DP: Not much. I have five kids so I have been doing this for a while. I go to the biggest supermarket I can find because they usually have the quality assurance programs that are demanding of their suppliers: “If you’re gonna sell food in my Wal-Mart you have to meet these microbial standards.” But I have a PhD in food science so most other shoppers don’t know about that, and I think that’s a shame. I know the head of food safety at Wal-Mart, they have a very good program. Does anyone who goes to Wal-Mart know that? No.

Lesser-known Barbecue

The Travel Channel recently filmed an episode of their program “Food Wars” that featured a head to head battle between Gates and Arthur Bryant’s. Frankly, that is a yawner for Kansas City barbecue enthusiasts, because this town has so many restaurants to choose from. Everyone has a favorite, but it is safe to say that the local pantheon is comprised of Bryant’s, Gates, Oklahoma Joe’s, Jack Stack and probably LC’s as well. However, it pays to look further as many of the lesser-known joints have some really good food to offer.

While southern Overland Park may not come to mind when one thinks about good KC barbecue Brobeck’s at Roe and Indian Creek Parkway has been serving a packed house with their affordable specials and quality smoked meats since 2007. In a veritable stroke of genius, Brobeck’s offers a number of local bottled sauces from other area restaurants alongside their house-made varieties. If you want Gates or Bryant’s sauce, they have it. Still their house sauce is very good and they even make a great version of a Carolina mustard sauce, certainly a rarity in these parts. Apart from the sauce experience, come to Brobeck’s for the ribs; they are as good as anyplace in town. Juicy and meaty with a huge pink smoke ring, the ribs separate easily from the bone without being overcooked. They even sell individual ribs for $1.75 if you just want to sample.

Speaking of good ribs, Quick’s Bar-B-Q has served the smokiest bones around since 1964. Decidedly more toothsome than Brobeck’s, they bear all the hallmarks of spending a good long time in the smoker with some hickory wood. That’s fine with me, as Ron Quick has been running the show for better than 20 years after taking over the business from his father. His wife Janet works the front of the house, making this a true family endeavor. Quick’s house sauce is nice and spicy and everything comes with white bread, the way God intended. These folks like their fryer too. I had a delicious and affordable ($4.99) half smoked chicken that was almost certainly crisped in hot oil prior to serving. In addition to barbecue Quick’s offers several interesting delicacies such as a spiral-cut, deep fried hot dog, a deep fried bologna sandwich and corn dogs, which at least a couple folks ordered during my last visit. This is the perfect spot to grab some takeout before spending an evening at the Boulevard Drive-In, which is mere steps away.

Down Merriam Lane lies Woodyard Bar-B-Que, one of the most interesting and original dining spots in all of Kansas City. For the unfamiliar, Woodyard is run out of an old house where diners place their orders. The dining area is a shady deck, anchored by the great smoker itself. That’s right, they cook the meat right out in the open. After a meal at Woodyard, you will smell like a campfire for days. I enjoy the burnt ends here, but others swear by the pecan smoked salmon which is served as a sandwich with a lemon dill cream sauce. Their chili is excellent, studded with meaty burnt ends. The beans are full of spicy black pepper and are among the best in town. In general, I love this place; the whole experience feels like a backyard barbecue with friends. It is a great place to take visitors, especially on a nice summer afternoon. Yes, they serve beer.

Nestled in a half-empty strip mall just south of Shawnee Mission Parkway, Shawnee’s Bates City BBQ probably has the best slab price in town: $10.99 every day of the week. But the baskets of little crunchy fries are what keep me coming back. The thin, stubby potatoes are a little difficult to eat, lending themselves neither to fingers or forks, but these fries are worth the effort. Bates City also has one of the truly eccentric, original owners in the business. The walls and counter are littered with pieces of paper scrawled with various quotes, wise words and jokes courtesy of the owner, Tom. “It takes 10 years to make an overnight success!” reads one sign. He also fashioned a comment box that has no opening in it. This character works the counter most days and always has a good word for regulars and newbies alike. Last I heard, Bates City was planning a move to a new building in downtown Shawnee. Let’s hope more exposure gives them the kudos they deserve.

A Mission, Kansas staple since 2003, RJ’s Bob-Be-Cue is another gem of a place that serves some notable menu items, including a number of salads topping with smoked meat. Yes, you can get a burnt end salad at RJ’s, not to mention fried catfish, strip steak and salmon. Lest you accuse them of blasphemy, know that the traditional barbecue is first rate, particularly the burnt ends and pulled pork. To cap it off, RJ’s serves traditional, down-home breakfast favorites like biscuits and gravy on weekends until 1 p.m. This place has a full bar, a cool roadhouse atmosphere and a decent outdoor patio.

Maybe these barbecue spots are not as popular, consistent, well-located or storied as some of the others, but you are missing out if you only hit the Big Five. Dig deep into these menus and you will find that there is plenty to celebrate.

Salad Season: Eight salads that are summer classics, or should be.

Salad is a gloriously malleable concept. A salad can have vegetables, meat, cheese, beans or grains. They can be appetizers, side dishes or entrees and they can be healthy or deliriously fattening. During the summer when gardens start to overflow and heirloom tomatoes ripen, they really start to shine. Here are eight of the best salads you can eat and where to find them around town.

Cobb salad. I think this is just about the perfect entree salad, and one that always delivers the goods at lunchtime. This glorious assemblage of greens, chicken, blue cheese, scallion, tomato, avocado, bacon and hard-boiled egg was supposedly invented at the Hollywood Brown Derby in 1930s and remains a staple of restaurants all over town. You can get a great version out at 75 Cafe in Lenexa. It is made to order and delivered to your table for eight bucks.

Cole Slaw. Yes, we are a town that loves our barbecue, but we also love our side dishes. The closest thing you can get to a salad at most barbecue joints (barring RJ’s burnt end salad) is cole slaw. Cabbage is the canvass but you can take cole slaw in so many directions. I prefer a sweet, tangy version rather than an overly creamy one but I do love both the regular and spicy cole slaw at Oklahoma Joe’s.

Green Papaya Salad. Long a staple of southeast Asian cuisine, green papaya can be shredded into strands, reminiscent of noodles or slaw. Mixed with fresh herbs, minced chiles and a sweet and sour fish sauce dressing it makes a wonderful appetizer or side dish. The salad is not on the menu at Kansas City’s best Vietnamese restaurant, Vietnam Cafe, but Pho 97 on Independence Avenue serves a top-notch variation.

Nicoise Salad. I’m quivering with desire just thinking about Nicoise salad. This Frenchie, tarted up Cobb raises the bar with the inclusion of tuna, potatoes, green beans and Nicoise olives. It is a strangely hearty salad due to the potatoes and the protein present in tuna and the hard-boiled egg. The best part may be the dijon vinaigrette. Sadly it is hard to find a place in town that prepares a classic Nicoise, but Starker’s has a nice version with salmon instead of tuna. I also had one at Aixois several years ago but it has not appeared on recent editions of the menu.

Wedge Salad. These old school steakhouse starters almost single-handedly brought iceberg lettuce back from the brink of utter uncoolness. Featuring a quarter-head of iceberg lettuce, bacon, blue cheese dressing and maybe some croutons or diced tomato, the wedge has similar flavors as the Cobb and is about the most unhealthful salad you can order. I used to love the version at City Tavern before it closed but you still can get it all over town, including Garozzo’s.

Caprese Salad. In my opinion, this is the best summer salad on earth. The ingredients speak for themselves: tomato, basil, fresh mozzarella. Yes you can wake up the salad with a sprinkle of sea salt and cracked black pepper, or even drizzle a balsamic reduction judiciously over the top. But these enhancements are not mandatory, as long as the salad is made with great tomatoes. The Farmhouse has a somewhat unorthodox version made with cubes of tomato rather than slices, which I really enjoyed.

Tabouleh. This is a reason to keep bulgar in your cupboard. When combined with minced parsley and mint, and mixed with chopped tomatoes, bulgar takes on a whole new life. The dressing is typically a lemony affair with a hearty dose of good olive oil. Eat tabouleh on its own, or as a kind of condiment on a falafel sandwich. Olive Cafe on the southeast side makes some of the best tabouleh around.

Caesar Salad. Hail Caesar! This is another one that will give you coronary disease if you don’t watch it, but damn are Caesar salads ever good. They have unfortunately been bastardized into something you can pick out of a refrigerated case, but the key is to make it from scratch and eat it right away. Avoid bottled caesar dressings, store-bought croutons and powdered parmesan cheese. Or better yet, just stop by Lidia’s and have their version– it’s much better than anything I have ever made.

A Trip Down Kansas City’s Margarita Mile

Cinco de Mayo does not elicit the same drunken, celebratory frenzy among the populace that its Irish counterpart, St. Patrick’s Day, does. This strikes me as odd since it is the day of the margarita, a cocktail responsible for more bad decisions than perhaps any other. Moreover, local restaurants offer this drink in any number of different preparations, which creates the possibility for some very fruitful May 5 bar-hopping. As we approach this illustrious acknowledgment of Mexican-American culture, I feel it is only appropriate to relay my recent experiences sipping margaritas at a few Mexican joints on and around Southwest Boulevard.

I was a little worried when I saw the huge bubbling dispenser of pre-mixed margaritas behind the bar at Tacqueria Mexico #4 (Southwest Boulevard and Rainbow). They taste fine, although a little too sweet, and like most, are vastly improved by squeezing the lime into the glass. Taqueria Mexico offers three sizes ranging from a gimmicky cactus-stemmed glass ($3.95) to a preposterous goblet worthy of Henry VIII ($5.95). While the frozen margaritas come out of a machine worthy of a state fair, I have little doubt that it relies on the same recipe as the other dispenser. These are solid, crowd-pleasing margaritas.

The margaritas at Ponak’s ($5.95) are insane. I am pretty certain that there is no fresh lime juice to be found in them. Hell, there might not even be tequila. The bartender serves them from a bar tap into an iced beer glass, where the appearance is more than a little reminiscent of flat Mountain Dew. But holy hell are these things boozy. A strong alcoholic component always sits well with me, but a decidedly pungent sweetness had me wondering if Rose’s Lime Juice or corn syrup was in the mix. Regardless, I enjoyed the drink well enough and by the time I finished it, I was seeing rainbows. Seriously, a full double rainbow materialized across the Boulevard for a good fifteen minutes. I would have stayed and enjoyed the view, but the 90s alternative rock that invariably plays on Ponak’s had me moving on.

Across the street, El Patron serves a more modern version of the margarita, one that I appreciate a great deal. It is thinner and less cloying, with more emphasis on refreshment. Each margarita is made to order. The bartender does use a couple splashes of two mysterious, pre-made mixes, but the primary ingredient by far is tequila. I counted nearly to five as she poured the liquor into a shaker. Served in a nice big pint glass, these are probably my favorite margaritas of this group, eminently drinkable and smooth with an excellent tequila flavor. And don’t forget “Margarita Mondays when they are half price ($3). As long as you are there enjoying a drink, you may as well eat, since El Patron may have the best food on this route.

Any trip down the Boulevard in search of margaritas needs to involve the drink’s namesake restaurant situated just northeast of El Patron. Margarita’s, frankly, does not excite me much as a restaurant. The decor is uninspired and the food is not great, but I was pleasantly surprised by their signature beverage. Their margaritas ($5.95) are similar to El Patron in that they arrive heavily iced in a pint glass, but they are not quite as boozy, with a distinctly bigger orange-flavored kick. If you find yourself having chips and salsa here, be sure to ask for the hot salsa which is far superior to the cumin-inflected mild one.

Los Tules does not sit on the Boulevard but is easy enough to add to the route due to its  location at Broadway and 17th street. This place has pretty good food, but the margaritas ($5.50) were not tops on my list. Whoever made mine on a recent visit put far too much Triple Sec in it, a flavor both sweet and pervasive that is very hard to offset. Indeed the margarita was veritably orange in color. It also came served in a plastic rocks glass which would have been somewhat charming if I didn’t nearly spill it on myself, forgetting that it wasn’t made of glass.

If I had to choose my favorite among the above five, the margarita at El Patron would probably come out on top but I wouldn’t rule out good old Margarita’s in a head to head taste test. By no means does this exhaust the margarita-drinking possibilities on and near the Boulevard of course. Taqueria Mexico #1 sits down close to Summit street, as does El Pueblito and La Fonda El Taquito, the latter of which I attempted to visit only to find a Carlos Santana-esque jam session going in in the empty dining room. Manny’s isn’t too far afield either. When Wednesday rolls around, think about taking a pass on the local watering hole and give one of these places a shot.

Mike’s Tavern Re-opens

After nearly a year hiatus, the forty-six year old Mike’s Tavern, long a staple of the Rockhurst/UMKC neighborhood, is back open for business. A partnership that owns The Gaf and Cantina del Ray in Waldo took control of the space at 5424 Troost Avenue last year and spent months rehabbing the interior and exterior. The decision to buy Mike’s was not a purely economic one. “It’s been an institution in Kansas City since ’64” said part-owner Tyler Brook, “it needed to be done. That’s also why we didn’t change the name.”

Those familiar with the old Mike’s are in for a surprise. What was a verifiable dive is now an exceedingly tasteful joint, equal parts neighborhood tavern and casual eatery. The stage that hosted hundreds of bands over the years has been removed, as have the pool tables, electronic dartboards and pinball machines. During my visit, as wide-eyed diners entered the tavern, Brook greeted them warmly and casually.

“Be sure you check out the ladies room,” he urged, “you don’t have to be afraid anymore.” Indeed the previous incarnation of Mike’s featured one of the more unappealing bathroom situations in the city. Now, the lavatories have been built out with slate tile, new hardware and a jaunty blue paint-job.

The menu is admittedly a work in progress, offering quality versions of standard bar fare like burgers, chicken sandwiches, wings, mozzarella sticks and fish & chips. “The menu is a on a chalkboard for a reason,” said Brook, “we are always up for changing it around. We’re going to see what works and what doesn’t.” To appeal to a variety of people he also plans to offer daily drink specials, happy hours and late night deals for college student customers.

A number of regulars from the previous Mike’s Tavern have stopped by to investigate their old digs, and I certainly heard a couple of them express mild disappointment that the vibe had been considerably altered. Nonetheless, the new ownership and staff are treating the transition very tactfully. The employees are among the friendliest I have encountered in Kansas City. One night, the bartender introduced himself to his customers and shook their hands. The waitresses know the names of the old and new patrons alike, emphasizing the neighborhood orientation that Brook wants to perpetuate from previous years. This is currently a bar and grill in its infancy, looking to build ties with the neighborhood, develop a personality, and build bridges between new and old patrons alike.

Mike’s Tavern’s Grand Opening occurs on May 23-24. It is currently open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. (last call).

5424 Troost Avenue, Kansas City, MO 64110
Phone: (816) 437-9400

They plan to get a website up and running soon, but do have a Facebook page.

Old School Foods: Dishes in Need of a Revival

Like music, literature and other disciplines, the  culinary arts occasionally look backward for inspiration. Thanks to a relatively recent revival, comfort food has firmly entrenched itself in the hearts and menus of American chefs. Whether it is the biscuits and gravy at Happy Gillis, the macaroni and cheese at McCoy’s or the great meatloaf sandwich at the Brick, hearty mid-century dinner staples are everywhere to be found. Higher-end dishes like steak tartare and crabcakes that were popular in the 1950s similarly came back from the depths of obscurity. However, some of old-school recipes have been somewhat overlooked by food trends. Here are a few foods that would do well for a proper comeback.

The monte cristo gets acclaim for combining the idea of french toast with a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. How it has escaped the popular obsession with preposterous fried foods is beyond me. It is either constructed out of two individual pieces of french toast or entirely dipped in egg batter and deep fried. Often served with jam and dusted with powdered sugar, one could be forgiven for interpreting this as a breakfast item. Indeed the sandwich was long a reliable offering of all-night diners, where such lines are often blurred. The Monte Cristo is a classic American bastardization of the croque monsieur, which is itself simply a glorified French ham and cheese sandwich. You can order a Monte Cristo at a few places around town. Corpulent local blogger Chimpotle sampled a gut-busting version at Cheddar’s in Overland Park not long ago. I prefer the humbler version at Succotash.

French Onion Soup is not as polarizing as I expected it would be when I developed a taste for it in my late 20s. I suspect most people either love it or don’t think about it at all. Trust the French elevate the humble onion in such a manner. While available at French restaurants including Le Fou Frog locally, I always associate French onion soup with diners, steakhouses, chain-smoking grandmothers and playing jarts in the front yard as a child. A rich beef broth forms the base, which is combined with pungent caramelized onions, covered with Swiss cheese and topped with a giant crouton. Prior to delivery, the soup is broiled to golden brown in a dark ceramic ramekin. While the traditional preparation is divine, I could see chefs creating some stunning modern interpretations.

Our culture’s tiresome obsession with bacon managed to overlook one of the classic 1950s, faux-fancy appetizers: rumaki. Simply put, rumaki is (are?) chicken livers and water chestnuts wrapped in bacon and glazed with a sweet sauce. They are typically skewered with toothpicks and broiled until crunchy. Back when Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny were tearing up suburban hi-fi sets with their Polynesian-inspired tunes, housewives were busy serving up rumaki to houseguests, just as Betty Draper did in season 2 of Mad Men. A nice balance of sweet, crunchy, chewy and uh, livery, rumaki deserve another go-around on restaurant menus. I cannot think of a single place in town with rumaki on the menu, although a few caterers offer them sans-liver.

Pot roast is the dish on this list most likely to actually pop up on more menus. No, the gloriously textured Chinese pot roast from Blue Koi doesn’t count, I’m talking classic American pot roast: soft, stringy and accompanied by roasted vegetables and potatoes with a rich jus. The version at McCoy’s probably does the dish the best service locally. I have not tried the Friday pot roast special at the Corner Cafe in the northland but I’ll warrant it is worth checking out. One could argue that meat cuts like short ribs and cheek have picked up where pot roast left off. But genuine pot roast is pretty hard to find at good, local restaurants. I’ll bet Julian would knock this out of the park.

Have you seen the stuff people made out of Jell-o in the old Better Homes & Gardens cookbooks? Good Lord, those creations put the present-day fiddlings of molecular gastronomists to shame. Sure most of those dishes seem pretty gross, as they incorporate everything from olives to tuna fish to hard-boiled eggs, but Jell-o actually tastes pretty good when handled with care. While I enjoy straight up jello cubes with a dollop of cool whip, I would love to see what a truly talented chef could do with the stuff.

My honorable mention? Spam. Quite popular in Hawaii and parts of southeast Asia, the canned meat is actually made entirely from chopped ham and pork shoulder, not the assemblage of snouts and anuses people assume. And it actually costs upwards of $4 per can, more than a comparable amount of ground beef.

Thankfully I am not a chef and do not have responsibility for updating and preparing dishes like these for a fickle dining public. But these foods and many more from decades past have the potential to become legitimate food trends.

Eating gluten-free in Kansas City

Most restaurants offer plenty of items on their menus that are gluten-free, whether they know it or not. But for people with celiac disease, allergies or just a mild intolerance to gluten, eating out can be a constant, annoying struggle.

Gluten is a combination of proteins found in products made with wheat and other grains, and is almost diabolically pervasive. It not only appears in obvious foodstuffs like bread, pasta and cereal but can pop up in store-bought sauces and other items where gluten based derivatives are used as stabilizers. As a result people who eat a gluten-free diet tend to inspect labels very carefully.

When eating at a restaurant, the diner is removed from the process of purchasing and preparing food. He must rely on the clarity of the menu and the knowledge of the owners, cooks and waitstaff. When information is lacking on a restaurant menu, celiacs typically engage in a lot of dialog with the waitstaff to determine what is safe to eat. More and more, however, restaurants are catering to the dietary requirements of this crowd.

Jack Gage American Tavern on Main street just south of The Plaza offers sixteen items on its menu that are entirely gluten free, and many more that can be made gluten-free with minor adjustments. “The only reason our egg dishes aren’t gluten free is because we serve an English muffin on the plate,” said Chef Richard McPeake. One of McPeake’s cooks teaches classes on gluten-free cooking and serves as a sort of resident expert on the subject. Together they compile a listing of menu items that fit the gluten-free bill.

While gluten-free items do not have their own section of the menu, the servers at Jack Gage will be able to help identify appropriate dishes. “I keep a menu posted each time it changes, with highlighted items that are gluten free or can be made gluten free,” said McPeake, “this way the servers know.” Many of their best-sellers, including the Wood-fired rotisserie chicken and the pan-seared scallops with portabella mushrooms are gluten free right out of the box.

McCoy’s also has a gluten-free menu that is quite sizable. The offerings include side dishes, soups, salads and even a few beer and cider options. For a $1 upcharge you can also order one of the burgers on a gluten-free bun or a pizza with a gluten-free crust.

Speaking of which, Waldo Pizza is the go-to spot for gluten-free crusts, which are provided by local bakery Olivia’s Oven. Waldo’s sizable gluten-free menu (PDF) also includes sandwiches, wings, garlic cheese bread and a half-dozen desserts. Five kinds of gluten-free beer are available for carry-out.

Other restaurants advertise gluten-free dishes even more prominently. These dishes have gained a lot of traction in vegetarian and vegan restaurants, probably because these places are accustomed to bringing peace of mind to people with dietary restrictions. A small group of health-conscious people–many of whom may already be vegetarian–also subscribe to low/no-gluten diets out of choice, not medical necessity which makes it a natural fit.

Naturally our local places are no exception. FÜD not only tells you whether or not a dish is gluten free, but why it is or isn’t gluten free. This way you can identify what ingredients need to be omitted from a dish if you decide to order it. Those who want to avoid sugar, nuts, salt or soy can do so easily at the new-ish little westside spot, as can those who want to eat entirely raw, local or organic. FÜD’s menu is the ultimate exercise in transparency; you will know exactly what you are eating. Similarly, Eden Alley on the Plaza reveals the components of almost every prepared ingredient, such as their poppy seed dressing, falafel patties or the tomato basil coulee.

Eating a gluten-free diet out on the town is not difficult if you have complete information and a little bit of cooperation from restaurants. Providing assurance to these customers is a smart business move and saves them the tiring ordeal of interrogating servers and chefs.

Other places for gluten-free food:
BRGR Kitchen + Bar has gluten free buns available. Lawrence’s Local Burger offers a ton of gluten-free dishes, apart from burgers. With four locations in our area, Ingredient is also very sensitive to gluten-free diets and has a specific menu (PDF) available. If it’s just a muffin or pastry you crave, stop by One More Cup in Waldo who serve products from Olivia’s Oven. Or sample a homemade gluten free cupcake from Le Petit Rouge inside Reading Reptile in Brookside – call ahead to make sure they are available.

originally published on KCFreePress.com, 2010

Dining al Fresco in Kansas City

The weather warmed up considerably this last week, which immediately had me dropping by places where I could eat and drink in the open air. If Kansas City’s smoking ban has done anything, it has seriously expanded our options in this area. After all, even Dave’s Stagecoach boasts a patio these days. Options being widely varied and ever expanding, I decided to pay a visit to few local establishments to see how the season is shaping up thus far.

One of the best aspects of Cafe Trio’s relatively new location is the nice view of the Plaza  accommodating outdoor diners. The deck is semi-exposed, bleeding fairly seamlessly into the indoor dining room. The area is served by its own bar and is typically populated by Trio’s notoriously well-heeled yet boisterous patrons. A smaller, completely open patio serves patrons looking for more intimacy with the elements. Or a cigarette. This is a nice ambiance in which to savor one of their many wines (half price on Tuesdays) or nosh on their excellent pork short rib appetizer. Just be prepared for the inevitable fleet of frat boys on crotch rocket motorcycles flatulating down Main street.

Westside Local’s patio has garnered all sorts of rave reviews since it opened last year which all seem well-deserved. Covered by a sturdy wooden trellis that crawls with ivy in the summer, this veritable beer garden is a casual and fun environs in which to imbibe one of their well-prepared cocktails. The long picnic tables encourage table-sharing, one of the best ideas I have seen in a local place. While the crowd gets lively later in the night, Westside Local patrons are a pretty respectable bunch.

McCoy’s probably has the most well-known deck in town, a distinction that makes perfect sense considering that it sits in the heart of Westport. The corner location gets a lot of foot traffic, and it is not unusual to see people talking over the railing to friends on the street. Punctuated nicely by shady trees, McCoy’s deck is just about the perfect spot for after work drinks. If you stay too long into the dinner hour, you may find yourself tempted by the fish and chips or one of their excellent specialty burgers.

Across the intersection lies a patio near and dear to my heart at Harry’s Bar & Tables. The  multi-leveled outdoor seating area is both an eminently social and intimate space, depending on where you sit. People watching, if that’s your bag, is a big deal here since you can see every Harpo’s-bound fratboy and suburban punk rocker that saunters by (Harpo’s does have a nice patio by the way). Harry’s caters to a slightly older crowd than most Westport establishments and also seems to be popular with service industry types.

On to another Harry’s. Not too long ago, the outdoor seating area at Harry’s Country Club in the River Market received a minor but much needed makeover. What previously reminded me of a monkey cage is now a more colorful outdoor patio with an enclosure alongside the building that can be opened or closed according to the whims of Mother Nature. The patio features one of the best views of Kansas City’s skyline, a southward orientation that is uncommon among local establishments. Harry’s has one of the best Happy Hours around too, with multiple beers, cocktails and foodstuffs on special. Despite the inevitable onslaught of cigar smoke, the crowd is easy-going, fun-loving and diverse.

I wish I could say the same for John’s Big Deck on Wyandotte street downtown. A recent post-work visit had me waiting on the sidewalk for the doorway to open well after 4:30 p.m. That, coupled with the small horde of 20-something Power & Light rejects and semi-professional drunks in my midst forced me to make a preliminary departure. The Big Deck is still a great spot with a fantastic view, and is a perfectly acceptable after-work place to throw back a few Bud Lites al fresco in a scenic setting.

When The Well opened near 75th and Wornall last year, it promised to be the hottest outdoor spot in town. Given the crowd I saw there on a recent weeknight, I think this promise is coming to fruition. The tented rooftop houses quite a few tables, all of which were filled with young men and women in the throes of early evening buzzes. This place fills up quickly and gets extremely loud, assisted by earnest “modern rock” blaring overhead. This is the man-sandal, Ed Hardy, backwards baseball cap crowd, so consider yourself warned. I like the food at The Well quite a bit, but the service is extremely spotty (I’m being diplomatic) on the roof so I would consider this a drinking spot, brah.

The Velvet Dog in Martini Corner won’t win any enlightened patron awards either but the patio is extremely pleasant. It feels like hanging out in a friend’s back yard, with brick flooring and an abundance of shade. There is a dedicated bar under a covered tent that also shields an outdoor pool table from the elements. More excitingly, you can play Bocce Ball in the court toward the back. Happy Hour drinks are affordable and varied, though the food is typical bar fare. While nearby Sol Cantina has a larger and perhaps more popular outdoor seating area, the Velvet Dog is my choice in Union Hill.

While it may not look like much, Brookside’s Aixois French Restaurant contains one of the best patios is the city. If you can handle the preponderance of little old Mission Hills ladies, small children and dogs, it offers a great view of the Trolley Track Trail and the residential area beyond. The tables are a little close together and the service can be a tad stuffy, but the menu is one of the most consistent I’ve encountered. The patio is just an absolute joy in the warm months, the perfect excuse for an evening glass of rose and one of the best shrimp cocktails you will ever have. It’s not a rocking good time but an extremely calm and delightful one.