Fox and Pearl Brings Its Hearth to Kansas City’s Westside

Fox and Pearl Brings Its Hearth to Kansas City’s Westside

Flames and glowing coals in Fox and Pearl’s hearth are visible through the restaurant’s west-facing windows. The well-tended wood fire in the kitchen is an invitation, a flickering signal for diners and travelers to gather in the Westside’s newest addition. Chef Vaughn Good and his partner and co-owner Kristine Hull opened Fox and Pearl near the bottom of a steep hill on Summit Street. In a way, the restaurant is a summit in the couple’s journey as restaurateurs.

From Lawrence to the Westside
Good, who grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, moved to New York and studied at The International Culinary Center. “I was into molecular cooking and super modern food,” Good says. Then he met a chef at the school who inspired a shift in focus. “Charcuterie was his thing. It was a turning point for me. I started working with him and became fascinated with [butchering] and rootsy cooking.”

Good returned to Lawrence and worked as a sous chef at Pachamamas, where he had previously interned. Next, Good and Hull opened Hank Charcuterie in 2014. The shop concept quickly expanded into a full-service restaurant that appeased demand for his dishes but outgrew Good’s original intent. 

“When it initially opened, I wanted it to just be a butcher shop and charcuterie,” Good says. “We couldn’t change the business name because it was already established. I felt stuck at Hank.”

Lawrence’s food scene is mostly geared to college-age diners. Good couldn’t find an audience for specialty offerings like foie gras sausage, for example. He says, “I was dictated to about what would work. We sold lots of burgers. The specials were our passion but we couldn’t sell it.”

After a four-year run, Good and Hull considered moving the business to another location in Lawrence. They decided to migrate to Kansas City. The relocation made sense to them. Good says, “Sixty or seventy percent of our customers were coming from Kansas City.”

 

Their new concept Fox and Pearl refers to the middle names of their daughters. Temporarily based in Novel’s former restaurant space (815 W. 17th St., Westside, Kansas City), Good began expanding his menu for a fresh audience. “The foie gras sausage at 815 was one of our biggest sellers,” Good says. “I only made burgers one day a week.” 

Good’s confidence grew, knowing he had creative freedom to explore ideas and develop dishes. Meanwhile, Hull and Good also searched for a more permanent location. 

They were drawn to an empty space with spacious windows and maple flooring on the corner of Summit Street. The couple worked with real estate developer and landlord Adam Jones to radically transform the space. The restaurant and bar occupies the main floor with additional seating and open kitchen on the mezzanine, and an outdoor patio. They installed a spiral staircase that leads to a basement bar, where retired Boulevard Brewing employee and music fan Trip Hogue spins ska and reggae vinyl records on Friday evenings. Good and Hull now had a setting to fashion a full-blown restaurant concept that suited their interests, expertise, and vision.

“I’m excited about the building,” Good says. “The time we had at the Novel space was important. We got to know people in the neighborhood. We want to be a neighborhood space for people in the community.”

 

From the Hearth
TThe wood-fired hearth is a key fixture in Fox and Pearl’s open kitchen visible from the mezzanine. Regarding the kitchen design, Good says, “People are interested in knowing where food comes from. People are interested in photos of the cooking process.”

Split pieces of oak and hickory wood are stacked on the patio, readymade fuel for cooking in the mason-built hearth. Local artist Bill Wenzel constructed the smoker positioned to the left of the hearth. Fox and Pearl also has a separate larger smoker formerly used at Hank Charcuterie. Good makes charcuterie and butchers meat in a dedicated room in the basement.

“Having a hearth will change the cooking quite a bit,” Good says. “I knew how to cook over fire. Now it’s getting in there, learning the tricks and setups and what works here. The built-in smoker can also be used as a warming oven. It imparts good flavor.”

Good drew inspiration for live-fire cooking from other chefs. Fox and Pearl developed its basic hearth design on chef Ted Habiger’s setup at Brewery Emperial in the East Crossroads. Both Habiger and Good were individually inspired by Camino, an influential Oakland, California, restaurant known for its wood-fired cooking. Highly-regarded Argentine chef, author, and restaurateur Francis Mallmann was another culinary North Star for both Habiger and Good’s aspirations to use a hearth in their kitchens. Good and his chef de cuisine Isaac Hendry (above right), who previously cooked at Hank Charcuterie, Bluestem, and Port Fonda, also researched many books on wood-fired cooking. 

Food is served on earthenware dishes created by Lawrence artist Michael Crouch. Good discovered the artist’s handcrafted coffee mugs in a Lawrence shop and commissioned the dishware. “It was his first time making plates,” Good said. “The kiln is wood-fired. Each firing gives each dish its own personality.” 

The focus on butchery and charcuterie is evident on the menu. Pork, beef, and chicken as well as rabbit, duck, lamb, and eventually goat will make appearances. For instance, made-from-scratch rabbit bacon sausage arrives on a cream-colored dish with a deep lip. Grilled potatoes, shiitake mushrooms, paprika sauce and mango-colored flower petals also adorn the dish. While categorically a meat-and-potatoes dish, the tangy mushrooms and savory sauce added pleasing depth to comfort food that’s far from plain. I paired this course with Off Color Brewing’s Apex Predator. This farmhouse ale is juicy and hazy with a dry finish and fruity character. Quite different from Belgian-forward floral saisons and farmhouse ales like Boulevard’s Tank 7, Apex Predator seamlessly paired with the caramelized flavors and delicate smokiness of Good’s lightly grilled food.

Other dishes include porchetta on a bed of horseradish turnip purée with grilled onions and salsa verde. Smoked and grilled duck breast is served with caramelized onion tart, cider turnips, and duck jus. Large parties might opt for the family-style portion of fried chicken with fermented hot sauce and pickles.

Vegetables, starches, beans and ingredients kissed by flame and smoke are also key components of dishes. For instance, roasted root vegetables are plated with peach sorghum vinegar, duck confit, and a crispy poached duck egg for good measure. 

Simplicity sometimes means restraint, allowing fresh ingredients to express flavor without unnecessary adornment. Subtly smoky tomato vinaigrette contributed umami to a salad of heirloom tomatoes, spicy greens, grilled squash, and cucumber relish. The dressing added depth with drowning the salad in a tsunami of excess. Nettle sheep’s milk cheese and crispy strands of fried shallots offered contrasting textures to a salad as pleasing as a summer lullaby. 

Duck pâté topped with strawberry jam and served with Ibis Bakery bread arrives on a wood plank. Ibis Bakery produces some of the best bread in the city. Its crunchy crust and chewy interior dappled with air pockets was a smart choice as a platform for what felt like a sophisticated PB&J. The bread counterbalanced the pâté’s custardy texture while the jam’s sweetness brightened its mild flavor.

Served in a petite iron skillet, a blueberry buckle dessert was on point with its homespun feel. A buckle is a coffee cake-like dessert where the cake batter rises or “buckles” around the fruit. This version had the lightness and texture of a sweetened cornbread with intense berry flavor. While an unconventional choice, I ordered a glass of J. Brix Skin Contact Pinot Gris 2018 to accompany the dessert. The Pinot Gris’ cherry notes, subtle spice on the finish, and gentle structure of this skin contact (aka orange wine) paired well with the buckle and delivered a satisfying conclusion to the meal. 

Lo-Fi Wines and Cocktails With Character
General manager and wine director Richard Garcia (above left), who first met Good and Hull as coworkers at Pachamamas, also worked at The Golden Ox, Novel, and The Antler Room. The couple recruited Garcia to be a core team member at Fox and Pearl, where he fashioned the wine list with an emphasis on biodynamic wines. 

“I call them lo-fi or minimal intervention wines,” Garcia says. Vineyard management and use of chemicals is 100-percent dependent on the environment and climate. When possible, Garcia sources wine from small producers dedicated to using “little to no chemicals in the vineyards that would wind up in the ecosystem.” These selections mirror “what Vaughn is doing in the kitchen” as far as working with small, eco-conscious farms and producers.

Designed to be approachable, the wine list highlights lo-fi wines and also lesser-known New World and Old World wines. Garcia says, “The world of wine is vast and hard to navigate. You try to find importers that parallel your values and offer wines you enjoy.”

Garcia’s wine descriptions are intentionally light and “tongue in cheek.” For instance, a Hungarian Hegyi-Kaló Kékfrankos 2015, made from Blaufränkish red grapes, is summarized as “cherries and violets, balanced acid and texture, sleeper hit for sure.” A sparkling La Vignereuse Gaia Quoi! Pet-Nat Syrah, from Gaillac, France, sounds like a catchy K-pop song – “plum and violet fizzy pop, easy going and super fun.” The listing for La Vignereuse Mayga Watt 2017, a Gamay from Gaillac, France, is hardly pretentious – “strawberry soda sop, melty push pop, indeed chuggable.”

“Making wine lists is like making mix tapes,” Garcia says. “There are elements of yourself and poetry. Little gems you want to share with friends and the world.” 

Bar manager Katy Wade (above right) honed her craft at top venues in Kansas City and Lawrence, including Voltaire, The Golden Ox, The Rieger, Julep, and 715 Mass. Her approach to unfussy cocktails further reinforces Fox and Pearl’s intent to be “a welcoming neighborhood place.”

Look for seasonal ingredients, such as blackberries and blueberries, and local spirits in cocktails. As an industry veteran, Wade is savvy to the wealth of well-made craft cocktails through Kansas City. She simply aims for her offerings to be “fun, accessible, and good.” 

To that end, Copper and Tod is a riff on the animal names in the film The Fox and The Hound. Wade says, “It’s our take on an Old Fashioned.” J. Rieger & Co whiskey, Old Grand Dad bourbon, Amaro Nonino, and Luxardo Maraschino form the quartet in this classic. 

The Third Plate is a rotating seasonal cocktail utilizing local produce. “It’s inspired by chef Dan Barber’s book on how we eat, what is available and seasonal,” Wade says. She also plans to develop alcohol-free and low-alcohol cocktails, a trendy alternative now available in New York and Los Angeles bars.

The basement bar and lounge, not a speakeasy, mind you, will have different offerings than the upstairs bar. Wade intends to feature spirits that “express a sense of place and terroir,” such as single-estate Tequila Ocho and sherries. She adds, “We’ll use the space to explore special spirits in a more intimate setting, where the bartender may spend more personalized time with guests.”

Feels Like Home
Fox and Pearl’s food evokes the bygone days of farmhouse cooking once commonly practiced in households as a matter of necessity. Baking bread, putting up preserves, butchering meat, and growing vegetables in a garden were (and are) labor-intensive activities. Putting sustenance on the supper table was more practical than pastoral. Foodstuffs were once exclusively sourced from farmland, ranch, field and stream. Fox and Pearl offers a modern version of this experience, where guests may enjoy the delicious riches of someone else’s creativity and labor.

Good’s cooking draws on southern and midwestern cooking influences from his upbringing. His iteration of regional cuisine uses wood and smoke in time-tested techniques. Yet, he isn’t beholden to Kansas City’s barbecue tradition or boundary lines of what regional cuisine should be. The menu at Fox and Pearl is adventurous yet approachable. Chermoula-rubbed quail with stewed field peas and greens, black garlic yogurt, radish salad, pickled garlic scape, and hush puppy? Good deploys a North African sauce on a game bird supported by southern cooking staples. Elsewhere, heartland meets Old World as Good marries casarecce, a type of Sicilian pasta, with Kansas white beans, mustard greens, herbed buttermilk cheese, and black walnut gremolata. These dishes exemplify Good’s culinary imagination and versatility by tapping into seemingly disparate foodways. 

Fox and Pearl will inevitably be described with words like rustic, farm to table, rootsy, and chef-driven. These words still have currency and apply, to a degree, to the food and experience that Good, Hull and their team have shaped. Yet, sometimes language or a hashtag serves as shorthand to sketch an impression, conveying an implied sense of being in the know without fully providing context.

Rustic evokes gauzy imagery of rural life in the countryside, where folks wear denim and mud-flecked boots and drive old trucks that run forever. The term also refers to unsophisticated, coarse people from the country, who lack social graces or polish. A yokel, if you will. The food, wine, cocktails, service, and decor at Fox and Pearl is anything but unrefined and provincial. Fox and Pearl connects diners in a cozy urban neighborhood setting with farms, ranches, and provisional suppliers located outside of city limits. 

More to the point, Fox and Pearl’s team have realized a vision for their aspirations. Within the realm of possibilities for what a new restaurant and bar might be, Hull, Good, and their team’s combined ideas and raison d’etre for Fox and Pearl are synchronized and unified. Warm sunlight fills the space and glows across the maple floor. Spacious booths and banquettes, family-style tables, and cozy bar stools offer multiple settings to have an intimate meal, a convivial gathering, or to rub elbows with the charming person at the bar. While brand new, Fox and Pearl already feels as familiar and inviting as home.

Swedes and Sunshine
Parking at the intersection of Summit Street and Avenida Cesar E. Chavez affords a view of the 1907 three-story brick building that houses Fox and Pearl. Cast iron five-pointed stars adorn the brick wall to the west like black sparks from an ancient fire long since cooled and bound in place. These stars are anchor plates, commonly used in European cities, towns, and villages on 18th and 19th century brick and masonry-based buildings. Connected to a tie rod or bolt, the anchor plates provide strength by reinforcing the wall. If read like a constellation and with knowledge of the city’s history, the stars are clues to the slow, gradual evolution of the Westside.

Fox and Pearl makes its home in a neighborhood long associated with its Latino and Mexican-American residents and cultural roots. Yet the building is a reminder that the area was once known as Swede Hill. In the 1900s, around 2,000 Swedes and western European immigrants settled in this hilly section of the city. 

According to Niel M. Johnson’s Swedes in Kansas City: Selected Highlights of Their History, Swedes began arriving in Kansas City in 1868. Some continued westward to rural towns such as Lindsborg, Kansas. Others settled near Kansas City’s riverfront, where they worked at meatpacking houses and on the railroads. 

By the 1880s, growing numbers of Swedish settlers congregated next to German and Irish immigrants. Swede Hill “was bounded by 25th Street (the railroad tracks) on the south to 16th on the north and from the bluff on the west to Broadway on the east,” according to Johnson. Gradually, Mexican-Americans rented and bought homes built by immigrant Swedes. By the 1920s, the neighborhood’s identity shifted from Swede Hill to the Westside. 

Swedish-Americans once gathered in the brick building that is now home to Fox and Pearl. The building originally housed the Nytta, Nöje och Enighet Lodge [usefulness, enjoyment, and unity], a Swedish-American social organization. The Swedish Pioneer Club No. 1 (Pionärklubben), another fraternal organization established in Kansas City in 1896, also met at the hall. 

Swedish-Americans observed native customs at the hall, such as midsommar and the julfest [Midsummer and the Christmas festival]. According to Johnson, cultural programs also included “readings of Swedish stories and reports by members on trips to Sweden or to remote places in the U.S.” Following each program, members served “a light supper, which might be accompanied by a case of beer and a fifth of ‘sunshine’ (whiskey).”

The first floor of the brick building later housed a drug store, possibly Stevens Drug Store, and grocery, likely Noon and Johnson. By 1970, the Swedish Pioneer Club and NN&E had dissolved. The latter organization sold their building to the Guadalupe Society. 

 A preserved Swedish lodge banner bearing the slogan Nytta, Nöje och Enighet is currently displayed on another floor of the brick building. The banner may be moved to Fox and Pearl’s upper dining room. 

The Swedish spirit of usefulness, enjoyment, and unity and Westside roots imbues Fox and Pearl’s modern space with an innate sense of history tied to the community. Other signs of the building’s rich history are evident. Blue-and-white tilework by Fox and Pearl’s fire engine red front door designate “Drugs,” a nod to the pharmacy that once operated in the space. 

Inside, Fox and Pearl displays a black-and-white photograph from 1923 of a grocery store and a second-floor butcher shop that once conducted business onsite. Artist Peregrine Honig and musician Mark Southerland, two longtime creative contributors to the cultural growth of the Crossroads, lived and worked in the building’s first-floor studio space years ago. Boulevard Brewing Company’s marketing department offices were once located on an upper floor of the building. Today, Fox and Pearl operate in a fully-transformed setting replete with rich history, providing hospitality, supper from its hearth, and even a bit of “sunshine.” 

Fried Rice and Friendship

Fried Rice and Friendship

This week I prepared a simple fried rice with some day-old rice, eggs, garlic, and nam pla. As I cooked, a memory arose of fixing a more elaborate version of the dish with my former co-worker Mark Harris. We worked together at IFTC, a subsidiary of financial software and services firm DST, nearly thirty years ago.

We worked at adjacent desks separated by low gray walls into a cluster of pods. Another team member, Anita, sat next to us. Mark and Anita were loud, sassy, and outspoken. They brought bold attitude into every conversation, whether discussing paperwork, dissing a customer’s complaint on the phone, or joking with each other.

As a shy Asian-American fresh out of college and inexperienced in the workforce, I couldn’t have been more different from Mark and Anita. They relished being obnoxious and outrageous as extroverts. Mark was a six-foot-tall African-American with a large frame, close-shaved head, and an expressive face. He threw frowns full of dissatisfaction like hatchets. Mark often raised one eyebrow to show surprise, disapproval, or doubt, or simply to convey a nonverbal challenge. Anita was tiny and scrappy, full of rapid-fire commentary, and unwilling to back down in a challenge.

As the newest member of the team, I was quiet and soft-spoken. I let their banter and tirades blow past while I learned the ropes of my customer service job. I laid low for the first two weeks, only asking questions to learn processes and procedures. Mark and Anita chatted, argued, sassed, joked, and slung slang like fastballs at each other while I listened. Their patience with my quietness, apparent lack of personality, and non-participation in their office antics soon ceased. They weren’t having it.

I was on a phone call one afternoon discussing an account with a customer. Mark grabbed a large paperclip and flung it at my head. His eyebrow raised, daring me to respond. Anita watched in anticipation. I felt the paperclip bounce off my forehead, recovered from the distraction, and finished the call. I looked at Mark with a mixture of irritation, surprise, and confusion. Who does that? How rude. Mark and Anita burst into laughter at my shocked expression.

“I just had to break the ice,” Mark said, staring me down with a wide grin. “You’re too quiet.”

Ice broken, I spoke up more, joined in their banter, and countered remarks with my own. I learned and adopted slang of the day, talking about hoopty cars and whatnot. We made up our own slang for the office and the world around us. We told stories about daily encounters that created shared bonds and inspired laughter. We understood each other better even though our background, music tastes, life perspective, and goals remained different.

Over time, Mark and I ate lunch together. We’d hop in his jeep, top down, and zip over to a fast food drive-through or take our packed lunch to the park. Anything to breathe fresh air and get out of the office on a nice day. The latest R&B hits from KPRS boomed on his stereo. Sometimes Mark would sing, crooning with delicacy and soul that ran counter to his bullish demeanor in the office.

Eventually, Mark took an interest in my dual culture background, being half-Thai, and my interest in cooking. I learned basic Thai dishes from my mom and also explored cooking while living on my own in college. As a young white-collar worker, I had no idea that I would pursue professional interests in cooking and writing about food years later.

Mark wanted to eat healthier and learn how to cook fried rice and stir-fry. I volunteered to show him how to cook. One day we bought groceries at the supermarket and took them back to his parents’ home in Kansas City east of the Plaza, if I recall. I steamed rice, sliced and prepped vegetables, and chatted with Mark in his parent’s kitchen. I’m sure they wondered what the heck this skinny guy was doing, but they didn’t interrupt us.

I was eager to show off my cooking skills and introduce Mark to an authentic Thai-style dish. I used freshly steamed rice instead of day-old rice so the grains were too wet and gummy. I added too many types of thinly-sliced vegetables to make the rice more colorful and add volume. The vegetables only added more moisture to the gummy rice. I used soy sauce instead of nam pla (fish sauce) for fear of stinking up the house and Mark’s unfamiliarity with its intense salty, fishy flavor. Working in an unfamiliar kitchen with another person’s pots and pans, I didn’t anticipate the different heat level of the stove or how the pan’s surface would stick. The result was a massive glob of sticky rice, soggy vegetables, and flavorless shrimp. To his credit, Mark didn’t bust my chops over the cooking disaster. We ate as much as we could. I never cooked my hoopty version of Thai food for him again. The subject of cooking never came up at work.

We remained friends and co-workers for another year or so. I left the company to begin a six-year run at Twentieth Century Mutual Funds until it transformed into American Century. Eventually, I left the mutual fund industry and corporate world to pursue an interest in cooking and becoming a chef. That led to another track, where I completed a master’s degree in writing and publishing from 2000-2002 at Emerson College in Boston. I incorporated my professional experience and personal interest in food into writing.

Once I left IFTC, I lost touch with Mark as he pursued his career path. I learned quite a bit professionally from Mark and Anita about working in a corporate office without losing your personality and identity. I experienced fresh perspectives on culture, slang, work, and living in Kansas City. Their lives were far different from my sheltered suburban upbringing and four years of college.

Even now, I remember Mark’s statement to Anita one afternoon. She was worried about some matter troubling her. Mark said, “Don’t be scared. Be aware.”

Simple but empowering. Rather than cower in fear, practice awareness. Listen, learn, and watch. Be informed and prepared as much as you can for life’s challenges and threats. I try to apply Mark’s words in situations that prompt a choice of being scared or aware.

And whenever I come across a large paperclip, I’m ready.

Do Yelp Reviews About Authenticity Signal White Supremacy?

Do Yelp Reviews About Authenticity Signal White Supremacy?

Are Yelp reviewers pushing white supremacist norms by their usage of “authenticity” in food and restaurant reviews? It’s an interesting, provocative question, considering that Yelp has amassed 17 million restaurant reviews from more than 30 different countries. Writer and researcher Sara Kay’s Eater article, Yelp Reviewers’ Authenticity Fetish Is White Supremacy in Action, draws startling, if dubious, conclusions.

Kay clarified her position with regard to Yelp’s 17 million reviews. She wrote, “Of course, not all of these reviews support white supremacy, or even mention authenticity.”

To reach her findings, Kay narrowed the scope of her study. She read and studied 20,000 Yelp reviews as part of her thesis as a master’s student at New York University in the Food Studies program. 

Kay wrote: “I narrowed my data collection to reviews from New York, and focused my field even further by picking from Zagat’s top ten most popular cuisines in New York City: Mexican, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, French, Italian, Korean, and Indian, adding Mediterranean and Soul food based on recent dining trends.”

To summarize, Kay’s study focused on 20,000 Yelp reviews based on ten cuisines confined to one city.

That’s a far cry from the generalization implied by the article’s clickbait title. Without reading further, the inference is that there’s notable white supremacy in play among Yelp reviewers in New York. 

A second critique of the article, based on questionable research, is tethered to this admission.

“While I don’t know anything about the specific demographics of the reviewers I studied, trends in the reviews I read reflect some of the more troubling themes seen on the internet these days,” Kay wrote.

As such, Kay cannot reasonably conclude that reviewers’ comments are coming from white people or from any racial group in particular. Regardless of who the reviewers may be, she suggests that the reviews push white supremacist norms – a broad claim. Again, the author loosely extrapolates findings from a geo-specific study, based on Yelpers who are unidentified demographically.

Kay also asserts that her findings echo “themes” seen on the internet that are “frightfully mimicking of other supremacist trends on the internet and in American life.” Her cherry-picked link somehow conflates her assertions as similar to radical extremism on social media. Oh me, oh my. Who knew that writing a Yelp review was a gateway to white supremacy and echoed the tendencies of radical extremism?

Let’s dig deeper into Kay’s points.

She asserts that Yelp reviewers judge restaurants by “authenticity” and tend to put non-white restaurant owners in a trap. Either the owners keep their non-European food (i.e. Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese) cheap and therefore “authentic,” as deemed by the reviewer, or face the consequences of lower ratings and being decried as “inauthentic.”

Others have made similar observations in more eloquent, astute terms.

In Maria Goody’s article, Why Hunting Down ‘Authentic Ethnic Food’ Is A Loaded Proposition, published by NPR’s The Salt in 2016, she turns to Krishnendu Ray, the chair of the food studies program at New York University.

Krishnendu Ray notes, “When we seek authenticity from a star chef — say, Thomas Keller of the Michelin-starred restaurants The French Laundry and Per Se — what we really want is his signature, his individual creativity evinced through food, and we’re willing to shell out big bucks to get it.”

Ray elaborates that when diners demand authenticity from “ethnic” cuisine, what they really seek is a replica. In other words, “a true copy of our expectations––some platonic ideal of what a dish should taste like,” Ray says. “It’s a definition of authenticity that can trap the immigrant cook in very narrow expectations.”

Ray’s view certainly has merit; however, she approaches authenticity from a different angle from Kay’s position. Ray asserts that the economic value of authenticity is tethered to a star chef’s status and skill. We pay more because of the chef’s brand name and reputation. What’s unstated in Ray’s second quote is what value is assigned by diners to the “replica” of ethnic cuisine and what people are willing to pay for it.

Regarding Ray’s point, there’s false equivalency in the comparison between fine dining vs. “ethnic” cuisine. If the chef is producing top-level cuisine, regardless of its origins ethnic or otherwise, then diners bring a higher level of expectations to the table and are willing to pay for it.

It’s important to acknowledge the vast hierarchy between star chef, chef, and cook. The skill, creativity, and wow factor of a star chef’s work and reputation foster quite high expectations. No one realistically expects the same standards from a cook at a run-of-the-mill family or independent restaurant, whether the venue serves burgers, regional fare, or Chinese. Accordingly, it’s natural that the food and venue are evaluated by different standards than a fine-dining establishment and its star chef.

Circling back to Kay, she writes in her study of Yelp reviews:

“…when reviewers use ‘authentic,’ they put unfair expectations on restaurateurs to maintain a low set of standards for their establishment — much lower than any restaurant serving Western cuisines. The language directly supports a hierarchy where white, Western cuisine is allowed more creative latitude to expand, explore, and generate profits than its non-Western counterparts.


Eater

This conclusion begs examination of what is authentic, is there a consensus on authenticity, and who decides that standard with regard to food tied to a culture or tradition. From there, it also seems slippery to apply the term “authentic” and vague standards comparatively to “white, Western cuisine” that may or may not have any discernible ties to a culture or tradition. It also begs the question: What is considered white, Western cuisine? Does it make sense to compare a Yelper’s review of foods in this vague, broad category to foods from Mexico, China, and Vietnam, for example. with a more defined taste, appearance, tradition, and history?

Kay’s study and conclusions are problematic in its methodology, sample size, broad assumptions about the nature of authenticity, and how/why online reviewers use the term. Bandying about the term “white supremacy” in this study based on flimsy evidence in a poorly-constructed context is troublesome. Addressing white supremacy is absolutely worthy of examination to generate discussion and solutions. Making broad claims based on a bucket’s worth of reviews drawn from an online ocean of information is ludicrous.

Image: By Larry Miller – Flickr: Tinos Tacos, Roseburg, Ore., CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32052457


Tradition and Trend in Buttermilk Grafitti

Tradition and Trend in Buttermilk Grafitti

I’ve been reading Buttermilk Grafitti, a food memoir by Edward Lee. Lee explores melting-pot cuisine across America. His writing deftly examines cities and communities and how immigrants and cultural forces shape a cuisine or local specialty. Lee shares anecdotes and conversations with chefs, cooks, restaurant owners, food enthusiasts, and passersby on his travels. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter, “The Palace of Pastami.”

Brian Shapiro, Shapiro’s Delicatessen, Indianapolis: “All the chefs these days are artists, and that’s fine, but then you have a restaurant linked to an individual, not a tradition. There will never be a restaurant that lasts one hundred years anymore. Chefs change their food depending on the trends. We don’t.”

Chef-author Edward Lee: “So there is no chef here?

Shapiro: “We don’t call them chefs. It is family recipes that are made by everyone. It speaks to the culture of the group, not an individual. If we persist in making food that is an individual expression, our restaurants will only last as long as the artist’s whim or the public’s attention span. This…” He gestures to the room. “This can go on forever.”

This passage sparked a lively conversation when I posted it on Facebook. For me, Shapiro doesn’t entirely discount the impact of chefs as artists who may adapt to trends. His primary point is that adhering to traditional recipes and preparation methods have been the key to his family’s kosher delicatessen over four generations.

Operating since 1905, Shapiro’s focuses on a specific culture and its foods. It makes sense to emphasize the consistency of preparation and quality over time. The pastrami sandwich, stuffed cabbage, matzo ball soup, and other dishes are standbys. They are tried-and-true touchstones for regular customers that have been patronizing Shapiro’s for years. These prepared foods upholding Jewish traditions are also a draw for tourists and food lovers seeking genuine tastes.

There’s something comforting in eating food like this. Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken, whether it’s classic Italian-American cuisine based on family recipes brought from the old country or fried chicken that stands the test of time. Clearly, Shapiro’s has found a successful approach that pleases customers and generates profits. Otherwise, change would certainly happen if the business weren’t making money.

Underscoring Shapiro’s point, the focus centers on the food preparation more than the cook or chef making it. The culture of the group, the tradition of the family, whether tied to ethnicity or regional style, supersedes the influence of any one person.

Ong Choy With Pork Belly at Kim Son’s

Detour

Tonight I pulled into Kim Son’s Restaurant (7514 N. Oak Trafficway, Gladstone). Glad I did. 

A $6.95 Chinese buffet banner hangs above the front door. It is a tempting lure; however, that price applies to the lunch buffet. Later, the young woman behind the register said that a dinner buffet might be available in coming weeks. Meanwhile, I was hungry and curious to see what else Kim Son’s had to offer.

The menu offered both Chinese and Vietnamese dishes. In need of updating and reprinting, the menu has a number of items that are crossed out. I opted for #14, a Vietnamese dish made with ong choy and pork belly served with rice. 

Ong Choy

Ong choy is also known as morning glory, water spinach, and many other names. If you haven’t had ong choy, then seize the opportunity to eat a dish that features it. Ong choy is an oft-eaten staple in Thai and Vietnamese households. Abundant and available at Asian markets, inexpensive, and delicious, ong choy is also nutritious as a leafy green.

I haven’t seen the vegetable as an option in Vietnamese restaurants around Kansas City. Maybe I just haven’t noticed it. Regardless, this dish had a home-style cooking feel to it that made it more appealing. 

I failed to jot down the Vietnamese name of the ong choy dish I ordered at Kim Son’s. The proper name of the dish is similar to rau muong xao toi, or ong choy stir-fried with garlic. The menu has options for at least two other dishes featuring ong choy besides pork belly, but I cannot recall whether it was catfish, chicken, or other protein. Odds are you can order a vegetarian dish of it that would also taste great.

The plant has a thin, long, and hollow stem and a slender triangular-shaped leaf when uncooked. Whether stir-fried or steamed, ong choy has the light taste of fresh leafy greens with no bitterness and a tender texture. Thin watery sauce in this dish added subtle sweetness and hint of salt. A wedge of lime squeezed onto the dish provided a suitable amount of acidity for balance.

Thin pieces of pork belly were mostly lightly rendered fat that added layers of flavor – a faint sourness reminiscent of cured Chinese pork sausage, a hint of sweet fatty bacon, umami, and salt.

Cooked ong choy is easy enough to eat with chop sticks. Transfer a mouthful from the main dish onto the rice mounded on a separate plate. Scoop underneath and guide the mouthful to its destination. A fork and spoon may make the handiwork easier for those not adept with chop sticks. Be sure to spoon some of the sauce from the plate onto the rice so it soaks up the combined flavors. Don’t waste a drop of sauce or grain of rice.

An order of ong choy with pork belly was an ample portion for one, but easily shared between two people. While the amount of pork belly wasn’t substantial, its contribution to the overall flavor of the dish was evident. Pork belly played a supporting role while ong choy shined as the star of the show.

Kim Son’s menu has plenty of other familiar Vietnamese dishes, including spring rolls, pho, and banh mi, as well as classic Chinese fare. If inclined, try some of the less-familiar selections. The prices are super affordable. My initial unplanned visit was rewarding enough to merit return trips and sample other dishes. 

Beyond the Buffet

A final note on appearances.

Don’t venture to Kim Son’s for the decor or ambiance. Indoors, it is a colorful mishmash of low-key design and startup decor – think Las Vegas palace meets Chinatown meets restaurant makeover candidate. There’s an over-sized fish tank of goldfish trolling around in yellowish water. Even so, don’t expend effort knocking the venue for its looks. After all, it takes a lot of $6.95 lunch buffets to cover overhead. 

Here’s what I’m saying: Go for the food and simplicity of the experience.

There’s something delightful and understated about a suburban Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant in the sleepy nook known as Gladstone. The city’s modest civic revival hasn’t quite reached every shopping strip and parking lot filled with more pools of amber light than vehicles on a quiet weekday winter evening. With luck and time, joints like Kim Son’s and other Vietnamese restaurants and eateries in nearby Gladstone Plaza will find a growing audience for their food and drink. Kim Son’s has homestyle appeal with potential for growth. Hopefully, that sidesteps the formulaic offerings of a chain restaurant, an all-out dumbing down an “ethnic” eatery to accommodate timid diners, and hip takes on classic cuisine that render its spirit impotent. 

On the other hand, if you want a large volume of assorted food at a cheap price point, Kim Son’s will gladly welcome you to its buffet, too. 

These restaurants seem like the kind of modest venue that the late Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, might explore. Famous or not, the intent is not to be a foodie prima donna or a colonist, who “discovers” or denounces a “find” based on self-appointed criteria and standards. Instead, try savoring a single unfamiliar dish. See if it stands out from the usual array of greatest hits that normally constitute menus in Asian restaurants. Meet the food, culture, and experience on its own terms. Enjoy the detour.