Food Critics: Kansas City's Best Restaurant Pop-Ups In 2021
Kansas City chefs opt for pop-ups and ghost kitchens when they want to try something new. Here are the best in the city right now, according to KCUR's food critics.
When the restaurant scene slowed down during the pandemic, many Kansas City chefs and restauranteurs launched what are known as "ghost kitchens" — new concepts being cooked out of their existing commercial kitchens.
Here, the food is very real, but it's only available for delivery or pick-up. There's no restaurant to dine in at, even if you wanted to. In addition to helping established restaurants survive the golden age of take-out, it's also a way to explore different menu ideas, without the pricey overhead of opening a separate restaurant.
"It's a pretty low-risk way to put something new out there or to experiment or collaborate," Danielle Lehman said on KCUR's Up To Date.
Picture an Italian restaurant launching a small taco menu. Or a Thai restaurant frying up spicy chicken sandwiches.
Ghost kitchens aren't to be confused with restaurant pop-ups, which range from a regular booth at a farmer's market to a mobile coffee cart that travels wherever the wind takes it.
"Pop-ups are here and then they're gone," says Jenny Vergara. "It's not usually a permanent thing unless a pop-up person gets a restaurant."
Whether you're on the hunt for ghost kitchens or pop-ups, the most important thing is to follow the businesses online so you know where and when to catch them. Here are the most delicious ones in Kansas City right now, according to KCUR's food critics.
Jenny Vergara, Feast Magazine:
- Italian Gardens Pizza — Sicilian-style pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, Italian beef sandwiches, meatball grinders, DiCapo's Italian cookies. Witness the rebirth of a Kansas City legend! This historic Italian restaurant closed its doors in 2003 after being open for nearly 80 years. Now, the DiCapo family has opened a ghost kitchen in the same building where they make their delicious Italian cookies. You can get their thick-crust pizza by the slice or sheet pan.
- Smash-N-Nash — smash burgers, Nashville hot chicken sandwiches, chicken tenders, fries, tater tots, freshly baked cookies. This new ghost kitchen from the team behind the Summit Restaurant Group offers a wide selection of favorites delivered right to your door.
- Epic Burgers — sandwiches, burgers, breakfast. This ghost kitchen operating out of the downtown Kansas City Marriott Hotel launched last November, but the team recently expanded their menu to include four new sweet and savory all-day breakfast items.
- Johnny Wings — six-piece boneless Korean wings on a waffle. Attempting to fill the void of bar-style wings in the neighborhood, this ghost kitchen was launched by District Pour House owner Dan McCall.
- Night Goat Barbecue — brisket, tasso pork steak, sausage. This Sunday BBQ special at Fox & Pearl got so popular that owners Vaughn Good and Kristine Hull recently decided to make it a regular thing. The menu changes weekly, but Good’s love of smoked meat and live-fire cooking means it's always delicious.
- ThaiNow — pad thai, drunken noodles, crispy garlic chicken wings, yellow curry chicken, spicy fried chicken sandwich. This ghost kitchen offers some of Waldo Thai Place's more popular and well-known Thai dishes for delivery. And trust me when I say they have one of the best spicy fried chicken sandwiches in the city.
- Kravin' It KC — sandwiches, burgers, tacos, barbecue. This virtual food hall isn't open just yet, but will soon feature a concept to feed every need. Diners will be able to order online for delivery or pick-up.
- Cosmo Burger — double cheeseburger, Beyond Meat burger, tater tots. Word spread quickly about these delicious burgers on buttered buns being served out of Dodson's Bar in Waldo. This kitchen has housed some terrific pop-ups over the past several years, but this particular burger stand seems like it might be here to stay.
- Isfahan — Persian crispy rice, whole roasted trout, lamb kebabs, roasted vegetables. When live music was on hiatus during the pandemic, musician Liam Kazar simply pivoted to his second love: cooking. His delivery-only pop-up serves a fantastic menu of family dishes from Armenia, Syria and Lebanon fit to serve 2-10 people. Don’t miss this, because as soon as Kazr goes back on the road, it'll be gone.
- Condor’s Cove — cocktails. This pop-up tiki bar comes from Diana Condori, who spent four years honing her knowledge of tiki culture and cocktails behind the bar at TikiCat. In essence, Condori transforms local bars into a tiki bar for the night, complete with lights, art, glassware and plants. Previous pop-ups have come to Pressed Penny Tavern, Westport Cafe and Goat & Rabbit.
- Devoured Pop-Up Pizza Series — pepperoni pizza, Herbie Birdie. All of the hand-tossed pies are delicious here, but the Herbie Birdie is particularly interesting, with herb roasted chicken, feta, butternut squash, spinach and crème fraîche. Jhy Coulter and her partner plan to grow this pop-up organically and introduce a cute vintage truck to make it mobile.
- Fancies Soda & Cocktails — handcrafted sodas, cocktails, Fritz’s hot dogs, bourbon butter popcorn, pimento grilled cheese. Ryan Miller is the bartender behind this new pop-up at MiniBar on Broadway starting June 18. Known for creating drink menus for places like Voltaire and Corvino Supper Club & Tasting Room, Miller is now using his own line of handcrafted sodas to serve cocktails. It's like if an old-fashioned soda shop merged with a friendly neighborhood bar.
- Buck Tui BBQ — barbecue platter, sticky rice, green papaya salad, cheesy corn. You can catch this Waldo Thai Place pop-up at the Overland Park Farmers Market on Saturdays, where you'll find the team cooking up flame-smoked meats. Choose from barbecue chicken, pork, brisket or ribs.
Danielle Lehman, Open Belly Podcast and CurbsideKC:
- Sura Noodle Bar — noodles. This relatively new concept launched earlier this year from chef Keeyoung Kim of Sura Eats. Located inside Parlor in the Crossroads, it started as an occasional pop-up, but is now open six days a week. To keep the original concept alive, Kim partners with other Asian American chefs around Kansas City to offer rotating noodle dishes.
- Cafe Cà Phê — Hella Good Latte. As you can expect from the name, this ube oat milk latte topped with a drizzle of condensed milk is utterly delicious. Get it at Kansas City's first mobile Vietnamese coffee shop, which will pop all over Kansas City this summer at local businesses like the Black Pantry, Paradise Garden and the Strawberry Swing.
- Beloved On The Go — meal delivery service. The menu changes each week, but all of the meals are healthy, easy to reheat, and restaurant quality with no cooking required. This week's offerings include a chicken BLT, mushroom and butternut squash manicotti, and herb-crusted salmon, just to name a few. It was launched earlier this year by chef Bryan Sparks, formerly of True Food Kitchen, Jax Fish House and Broadway Bistro.
- Baked: Together We Rise — bacon & blue cheese bread, Havarti & dill bread, hot Hatch chile & goat cheese bread. You can find this ghost kitchen bakery near the Plaza, where owner Karen Rundle offers fresh sourdough loaves "made with liberal amounts of love and fun." A portion of the proceeds go to supporting folks experiencing food insecurity in Kansas City.
- Hello Pie — bourbon peach pecan crumble, mixed summer berry basil. This women-owned business offers delicious whole pies, pie by the slice and hand pies. In addition to delivery, co-owners Leslie Janis and Kiley Salmons offer pick-up at their partner stores like the Local Pig and coffee shops and boutiques around town.
- Tin Pan Cinnamon Rolls — cinnamon rolls. This delivery service offers warm, gooey cinnamon rolls delivered to your door just in time for breakfast. Dan Edwards, the founder and baker, developed his recipe for the perfect cinnamon roll during his free time as a stay-at-home-dad. But be warned, they sell out quickly!
- Fiesta Filipina Pop-Up — pork BBQ skewers, lumpia, chicken adobo, pancit. This pop-up is being hosted by the Filipino Cultural Center next Saturday, June 19. It's a great opportunity to try a variety of popular Filipino foods. Just make sure you order by Saturday, June 12.