Some restaurants just have a corner on the market for a particular dish.
In this case, that would be Kitty’s Café and its pork tenderloin sandwich. The longtime Kansas City establishment is on 31st Street, just east of Martini Corner and just west of the longtime non-profit Operation Breakthrough on Troost Ave.
It's more diner than restaurant, with six stools tightly together at the counter tops. Outside, there's some patio seating, but Kitty’s is not a destination-stop kind of place. Most of the orders are take-out and you can only pay with cash.
It's the kind of place with a following, long lines out the door, and home to one of Kansas City's unique food traditions. The pork tenderloin has been reviewed extensively by food critics locally for several years.
Charles Ferruzza, a long-time food critic, is a fan.
“It’s hard to find the perfect pork tenderloin that is soft and not too chewy and perfectly seasoned and a little bit crunchy and this has all those things,” Ferruzza says.
Paul Kawakami and his wife Kitty, who the place was named after, opened Kitty’s Café in 1951. They were Japanese-Americans who moved to Kansas City from California after having spent time in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. The business has been in continuous operation since then, but has changed hands several times, with some of the history lost over the years.
Charley Soulivong has worked in restaurants much of his life and is the latest in the line of owners since the Kawakamis. Twenty years ago, Soulivong bought the business and the recipes along with it. The restaurant has always been Asian-American-owned, and you can taste the Japanese influence of the original owner in the most popular pork tenderloin, which is deep fried in tempura batter.
The sandwich at Kitty’s Café features three thin pieces of tenderloin cooked in a light batter, with lettuce, pickles and a delicate kick of the house-made hot sauce.
“It’s homemade, that’s what it is you know. You have to cut it pretty thin, flour it so it’s real crispy. so when you eat it, it tastes different from the one you bought at Costco or whatever,” Soulivong says.
“I would say it’s nostalgic and it has a flavor all its own and the environment is pretty friendly,” Lovan said.
Karen Patrick has a particular warm spot in her heart for their pork tenderloin sandwich. It was a favorite of her brother’s and his last request to his sister before he passed away from cancer several years ago.
“I said, 'Ducky, you can’t eat it.' He said, 'I just want to taste the juice.' And I came up here, this happened January 31, 1999,” Patrick says. “I came up here, got my brother a tenderloin and at 7 o’clock that evening, he passed. But he got to get him a Miss Kitty’s tenderloin.”
Charles Ferruzza finds Kitty’s simplicity and family origins part of its appeal.
“There’s something very comforting about being here,” Ferruza says. "You know what you’re going to get. I love how you order off the menu in lights off the wall and it’s a very uncomplicated menu. You know, you have to like fried food if you want to come here.”
Michelle Tyrene Johnson is a reporter at KCUR 89.3 and part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Kansas City, St. Louis, Hartford, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon.