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Food Critics: Best Kansas City dining experiences that survived the pandemic

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miniBar started as a pop-up in Summer 2021 when Ryan Miller began serving highballs made with his creative housemade sodas for a one-month experiment. He’s since turned it into a full-time residency.

The pandemic forced some Kansas City restaurants to close, but many are still open, serving the dishes that keep diners coming back. Here are a few of our favorites.

While the pandemic forced plenty of painful disruptions in the restaurant industry, it also inspired a lot of chefs and bartenders to try out new concepts. Some good news is that fans have turned some of those pop-ups into permanent fixtures.

Chef Jacob Kruger opened CosmoBurger as a pop-up burger stand inside Waldo’s Dodson’s Commons and is now preparing to open a second location in Lenexa Public Market.

“You’ll think, ‘I can get a good burger anywhere,’” says food critic Liz Cook. “You can get a better one here.”

Cook also gives a shout-out to miniBar, which popped up last summer when Ryan Miller started serving highballs made with his creative housemade sodas for a one-month experiment. He’s since turned it into a full-time residency. Cook recommends stopping in early evening to wash down Midtown’s best hot dog with a creative cocktail.

And Cauldron Collective, in the West Bottoms, is a worker-owned kitchen serving vegan po-boys, burgers and buffalo-mac every Monday at The Ship.

“I’m not back in restaurants like I was before the pandemic just yet,” food critic Jenny Vergara told Up to Date guest host Dia Wall. “But I am finding places that I can go and make a meal with.”

“I’m most excited about a restaurant that opened during the pandemic which is not easy to do,” food critic Mary Bloch said of Chewology.

Cook, Vergara and Bloch, offered new finds and old favorites in and around Kansas City.

Jenny Vergara:

Clay & Fire — Grandma Pizza. Chef Brent Gunnels added two pizzas to the menu at this spot on Kansas City’s Westside. His chewy, bubbly, thin-crust pizza with a white cheese base topped with a garlic tomato sauce, basil and olive oil has become our Friday night go-to meal.

Westport Café — Mussels & Pomme Frites. Westport Café is the city’s destination for anyone needing mussels and pomme frites. A traditional order made with shallots, butter and white wine gets a side of pomme frites that comes with mayo and ketchup for a heavenly fry-sauce combo.

The Peanut Original Location on Main Street — BLT. Peanut owner Melinda Kenny learned how to make BLTs from her father, and her son Aaron and his team still make them this way: to be eaten at the bar with a beer. Often imitated, never duplicated, the original Peanut’s BLT is a classic for a reason.

Tacos El Gallo — Quesabirria Tacos. Sometime during the pandemic, quesabirria tacos hit the radar in Kansas City in a big way. Originating in Tijuana, “birria” made its way to Los Angeles first and to us soon after. Cindy Brito Romo has owned Tacos El Gallo on Southwest Boulevard since 2018, and her version of this beef dish comes in the traditional street taco size tortilla with a brothy consommé for dipping.

High Hopes Ice Cream — Saturn Sammie. Chef Jamie Howard does a sweet business with High Hopes’ walk-up window across the street from her friend and neighbor, Blackhole Bakery. The ice cream sammie comes hot and crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside; it’s like eating a warm donut filled with ice cream.

Seven Swans Crêperie is Kate Bryan’s storybook-style crêperie on Kansas City’s Westside. Crêpes are a perfect bridge for the gap between breakfast and lunch, and Seven Swans is a warm, welcoming place where you can get your crêpe with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

Kind Food — Buffalo Chick’n Nachos. Phillip and Jonelle Jones’ vegan nachos are made with corn tortilla chips topped with housemade cashew queso, soy curl buffalo “chicken,” black beans, fresh pico de gallo and a drizzle of vegan ranch dressing. The dish is also gluten and dairy-free.

Liz Cook:

Taco Naco — Six-salsa sampler and margarita. There are few bad choices at chef Fernanda Reyes and Brian Goldman’s Overland Park taqueria. But one of the best choices is sitting on the sun-soaked patio on a warm spring day with a sheet pan of tortilla chips, a sampler of the restaurant’s six salsas and a fresh lime margarita served in a plastic pint cup with a lipstick red Tajin and chamoy rim.

Town Company’s chefs Johnny and Helen Jo Leach preside over the chefs counter, and if you’re seated there you’ll want to leave your jacket in the car -– you’ll be bathed in warmth from the wood-burning hearth where chefs sear an unending line of succulent lamb skewers and chile-smoked pork chops each night.

The Restaurant at 1900 has always been about much more than “just” the food, and this establishment has made hospitality a core focus. General manager Keith Goldman and his staff are always finding new ways to make diners feel welcome and comfortable with impeccable service.

Hey! Hey! Club is the stylish, jewel-toned cocktail bar in the basement of the J. Rieger Co. Distillery. You want a weekend seat at the bar, where you can chat up the knowledgeable goofballs on staff and discover a favorite new drink. Special shoutout to bartender Amanda DeJarnett for treating every guest like a friend at summer camp.

Mary Bloch:

Tailleur — The Bistro Burger is freshly ground on a brioche bun with arugula, truffle aioli, honey cider onions and brie cheese. There are a lot of worthy smash burgers around town, but if you want a thick juicy burger cooked to perfection, this is it.

Poi-Ō is a favorite for carryout. The food travels well and the choices are delicious. Whether it’s top-notch wood-fired chicken and grilled broccoli or tortas and burrito bowls, your entire family will be delighted with the spread you bring home.

Brewer’s Kitchen offers crispy french fries to complement incredibly compelling burgers. Order a local craft beer and you’ve got the complete trifecta.

Torn Label Brewery is perfect for any French fry fan. The Belgian frites come in a seemingly endless vessel, with a choice of more than a dozen dipping sauces including curry aioli, beet mustard, and sriracha.

Chewology is one of the restaurants where it’s hard not to order everything on the menu. Standouts, though, are the Dan Dan noodles with a spicy thick broth and, for mushroom lovers, the Three Cup Mushroom ramen with mind-blowing basil and green onion sauce.

Stay Connected
Jacob Martin is a news intern at KCUR. Follow him on Twitter @jacob_noah or email him at Jacobmartin@kcur.org.
As senior producer of Up To Date, I want our listeners to hear familiar and new voices that shine light on the issues and challenges facing the myriad communities KCUR serves, and to expose our audiences to the wonderful and the creative in the Kansas City area. Just as important to me is an obligation to mentor the next generation of producers to ensure that the important conversations continue. Reach me at alexanderdk@kcur.org.