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.
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 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.
You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you. The scent of smoke from wild plum, oak, grapevine, and lavender clings to my skin, my hair, and my clothes. Smoke hangs on with persistence, a ghost that lingers, a presence that is intangible but most certainly there.
As the chef and brand/event manager at Fence Stile Vineyard and Winery, I spent the afternoon preparing ingredients for a farm and market-themed wine and small plates dinner taking place on November 18th in the Tasting Room. Near a pond with a slushy iced surface, I built a small fire to grill radishes and smoke leeks sourced from farmers Tom Ruggieri and Rebecca Graff at Fair Share Farm, based in Kearney, Missouri. I used wild plum wood obtained from farmer Linda Hezel at Prairie Birthday Farm, also based in Kearney, and oak and grapevine from the winery estate. A single piece of oak formed the foundation of the fire. Smaller pieces of wood tilted at angles on both sides of the oak like church rafters. Brisk November wind blew across the pond and fanned a flame. Kindling shriveled into glowing orange threads and ash. Soon the fire roared as wood crackled and hissed.
The upcoming wine and food dinner highlights ingredients and products from Fair Share Farm and Prairie Birthday Farm. Also, Dr. Janet Smith of Borgman’s Dairy Farm, based in Holden, Missouri, supplied milk, cheese, yogurt and other products made from goat milk.
Several varieties of French-American hybrid grapes grow along ten hilly acres that surround the tasting room at Fence Stile. Owner-winemaker Shriti Plimpton launched the winery and vineyards nearly ten years ago. The winery is known for its dry and semi-dry wines, but has a wide range for those with sweeter palates. The upcoming dinner is an opportunity to offer a showcase for how three wines produced onsite – Vignoles, Backpack Red, and Vidal Blanc – pair with seasonal farm ingredients prepared to their utmost flavor.
Vineyard manager Shawna Mull tends to the vines year-round. Sometimes, a section of vine runs its course. Cut into small segments, this particular dry, dead grapevine in the heart of the fire had no more life to give as a lifeline for grape clusters. Burning vine and wood produced smoke that enveloped the bulbs of radishes with leafy greens still attached and a cluster of leeks thick as metal pipes.
You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you.
The wind shifted and smoke blew past my face, prompting my eyes to water. The smoke sent a signal, a reminder. Smoke and fire heeds its own whims and acts as its own master. I attempted to coax the smoke to lend its scent to vegetables on the grill. I tried to tame orange licks of flame to do by bidding. I poked and prodded and fed the fire’s appetite. Flames subsided into coals and smoke wafted at a steady pace, dancing around the radishes and leeks.
Slowly, the bright magenta skin of the radishes dulled and charred with black flakes. Most of the greens had burned away. Removed from the grill, the radishes more closely resembled baby red potatoes cooked directly in a fire. Grilling the radishes mellows its sharp peppery bite and introduces a soft sweetness. The subtle taste and aroma of smoke will interplay with the sweetness, a tart dash of lemon juice, creamy butter, and a dash of salt to unite the flavors.
The leeks grilled until they softened and charred at the edges. Once the coals were ready, I added stalks of dried lavender from Fence Stile’s flower bed to further perfume the smoke dancing around the leeks. After sufficient smoking, I plucked the leeks from the grill, doused the coals, and headed to the kitchen.
The leeks and radishes are only some of the produce received from Fair Share Farm. They also provided pristine small salad turnips with ivory skin and lush plumes of green leaves. I trimmed the greens and set them aside. They will be sauteed in a pan with Chinese broccoli and served with spelt, a rustic grain similar to farro. Salted and buttered grilled radishes will accompany the greens and spelt. I roasted the trimmed turnips with garlic cloves in the oven until they were tender, sweet gems.
After paring the charred tough outer skin of the leeks, I cut them into long strips and then chopped them into smaller pieces. The scent and taste of smoke on the leeks seemed to aggressive. Not only would it compete with the other flavors in the dish, it would overwhelm the wine pairing with Backpack Red. This light-bodied, dry red blend of Chambourcin and Norton offered a hint of pepper and earthiness on the finish. Bold smoke would wrestle and dominate the wine, altering the balance of the sweet, salty, earthy and smoky flavors.
I tucked the chopped leek into a food processor and pureed the contents. A light cloud of steam and smoke arose. Perhaps the leeks could become a sauce for oven-roasted turnips? Ransacking the refrigerator, I selected a jar of creamy goat milk yogurt from Borgman’s Dairy. Slowly, I spooned dollops of yogurt and sprinkled a bit of salt into the leeks and whipped them further. The leeks transformed into a creamy, thick sauce that still bore a hint of smoke. The savory, smoky sauce will provide suitable balance for sweet, earthy turnips.
Slowly, the various components of this dish, one of three, were coming together.Once assembled, plated and served, this melange of smoked, roasted and sauteed vegetables and grain should work in harmony. The goal is to stimulate the senses, appease the appetite, and illustrate how Backpack Red tastes with a variety of flavors while holding its own.
Other small plate dishes for the Farm and Market meal include a sweet potato, ginger, and turmeric samosa with curry goat’s milk yogurt sauce (paired with Vignoles). Dessert will be honey and apple sweet grits topped with Fence Stile blackberry compote and goat’s milk caramel sauce (paired with Vidal Blanc).
Smoking is one technique used to impart flavor and aroma to food. Its scent and taste connect with the primal parts of our brain and ancient appetites that learned how smoke adds character to food and drink consumed. Even when curls of smoke have dissipated, the aroma of smoke is a remnant of wood and vine that grew over years, served its purpose, and continues on its journey in an intangible form. Smoke is ethereal yet real like the memory of a remarkable meal or bottle of wine that makes a lasting impression long after the last bit and sip.
You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you. It sends a signal from past to present before continuing on for those ready to receive.
Green Dirt Farm hosted a KC Ale Trailbeer dinner on October 31st with Chef Craig Howard of Howard’s Grocery, Cafe and Catering, and myself as guest speaker. ReGina Cruse of Green Dirt Farm, Craig and I worked together to plan this end of harvest event and cross-promote the farm’s cheeses, my book, local breweries and beer, and Craig’s new cafe.
The evening turned out to be beautiful with a crisp chill in the air and clear skies. The barn was heated and cozy and the family-style dining table was set. Musical duo Victor and Penny arrived and set up to perform acoustic sets before and after the beer dinner. Their charming sound created a perfect relaxing backdrop for the event.
Craig Howard and Allison Muller.
Craig and his assistant Allison Muller busied themselves setting up an outdoor kitchen to finish preparation of the four-course meal. Once all of the guests arrived and visited a small flock of sheep grazing nearby, the group settled at the table. After introductions and a welcome by farm owner Sarah Hoffmann, I shared some back story on the making of KC Ale Trail, why I wrote the book, and the “grueling” beer research behind the effort.
Green Dirt Farm owner Sarah Hoffmann.
Soon, we launched into the first course. Servers brought out plates of flatbread topped with Ruby cheese, pea shoots, carrots, and sweet potato. Ruby is a new cheese from the farm made of 100-percent cow’s milk. The cheese is buttery, tangy and floral. According to ReGina, it has been washed for the first two weeks of its life and then grows a beautiful powdery bloom. The cow’s milk is sourced from Jerry Miller and his family who live in Stanberry, Mo.
I chose to pair this dish with Boulevard Brewing’s Tank 7, a Farmhouse Ale style with a floral and citrus-y hops nose. The flavor begins with a soft, sweet maltiness and a brief finish of hops bitterness and citrus-y grapefruit. I felt the floral aroma of the beer would match the aroma and tanginess of the cheese while the malt would complement the flatbread.
For the second course, Craig prepared a butternut squash soup that matched the spirit of the fall season. The soup was garnished with sauteed local greens, local bacon, pepitas, and fresh cheese from Green Dirt Farm. The cheese is soft, crumbly and mild-tasting. I decided on Free State Brewing’s Oktoberfest for this course, a seasonal beer with a solid balance of caramel notes from malts countered by a touch of hops bitterness on the finish. The pairing worked quite well, underscoring the seasonal nature of both food and drink that both farmers and brewers honor year-round.
Next, the main course of ground lamb burger on Farm to Market buns included Green Dirt Farm’s Prairie Tomme cheese, ale caramelized onions, eggplant bacon, pickles, and sides of marinated vegetables and crispy potato with preserved tomato. Craig Howard excels at using and preparing a variety of local and regional ingredients with different cooking techniques. This dish was an elevated play on pub fare – a burger with cheese and potatoes.
In that spirit, the light-bodied Pub Ale from Tallgrass Brewing made sense at a match-up. This lower-alcohol session beer was made for knocking back one or three with this type of food. Craig just turned up the creativity and flavors. This beer’s malt profile jumps out with caramel flavor. It was a popular pairing and course for guests that came from Dallas, Kansas City and outside of Lawrence and Blue Springs.
Gradually, our bellies were getting full. We did save room for the dessert course of devil’s food cake loaded with Tuffet cheese and candied pecans, plus a drizzle of red currant sauce. This rich chocolate-laden cake and the dense cream cheese-like texture of the Tuffet needed a bold beer to anchor the pairing. Rather than a chocolate milk stout, I opted for Mother’s Brewing Winter Grind, a coffee stout that distinctly tastes like a strong, robust cup of joe. I’m glad I chose a coffee-infused beer rather than one with chocolate. The latter might have been too much for the cake.
I enjoyed chatting with the diverse group of people with different backgrounds, ages, and familiarity with local craft beer. We wound down the night with more music from Victor and Penny. Some guests loaded up on Green Dirt Farm’s cheeses to take home. The Royals were competing in Game 4 of the World Series against the NY Mets and would later win the match 5–3. Most fans in attendance at the dinner made haste to head home or somewhere to catch the game.
Overall, the dinner was a smashing success – a perfect union of local food, drink, and music. I was pleased to partner with and cross-promote a local farmer, brewers, and music act all in one setting. I left with a full belly but wish I could have stayed longer near a campfire, sipping on a seasonal beer and letting the last hours of Halloween slip by as the night grew dark and cold.
If able, we might set up a similar event in the the first or second quarter of 2016. It would be interesting to see how we can pair seasonal spring craft beers with sheep’s milk cheeses. The cheeses will have subtly different tastes and aroma from the terroir and diet of the sheep. Until then, it was time to head back to Kansas City on the Ale Trail.
Tallgrass Tap House in Manhattan, Kansas, hosted its first-ever beer pairing dinner on Friday, October 23rd. I was the featured speaker and discussed the making of KC Ale Trail and answered questions about local/regional breweries and beer styles. Each guest enjoyed a hearty four-course meal with beer pairings and a copy of the book. Here is a recap of the meal with beer pairing notes.
Above, the first course of Velvet Mussels featured sauteed mussels in a Velvet Rooster Belgian-style Tripel and smoked tomato broth with saffron and served with sourdough toast points. Paired with the Velvet Rooster from Tallgrass. As you’ll read below, each course incorporated one of the brewery’s beers in the actual cooking.
The second course of acorn squash bisque with toasted pepitas was paired with Pumpkin Slayer Porter, a seasonal brewery-only release with prominent pumpkin pie spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. We were the first guests ever at the Tap House to try this beer that was subsequently released to the public in the tasting room later that night.
Course three was a massive plate of bison short rib braised in Tallgrass Pub Ale demi-glace with gooseberries, served with pancetta asiago dauphinoise potatoes and roasted root medley. This course was paired with Pub Ale, the brewery’s malty mild English Brown Ale with caramel notes.
Finally, we wound down with a dessert of pumpkin pear bread pudding laced with pecans and a Great Hambino caramel sauce and creme anglaise. Great Hambino Porter was provided with this course. As a bonus fifth course, each guest received a flight of the brewery’s Subrosa Berliner Weisse with three additional flavored variations. A Berliner Weisse is a traditional German wheat beer style that is sour and often served with added fruit syrup to balance out the tartness. Tonight, we were served the unadulterated Weisse and versions with raspberry, blackberry and honey lavender sauces. All were delicious.
Subrosa Berliner Weisse with flavored sauce variations.
Thanks to Tap House general manager Matt Ruhnke, chef Lance Gipson, and brewer Brandon Gunn for their help in organizing and co-hosting the event. Lance and Brandon each took turns discussing the courses and pairings. I was able to spend time chatting with the group overall and visiting each table for more conversation and questions. The meal and evening were great.
Matt Ruhnke, Chef Lance Gipson, and brewer Brandon Gunn.
Brewer Brandon Gunn discusses each beer paired with a food course.
That evening, the Kansas City Royals beat the Toronto Blue Jays that evening in Game 6 of the ALCS and advanced to the World Series. Our group was able to watch the game after the dinner on a large-screen TV. I whooped and howled and cheered as the Royals eeked out a 4–3 win. I could hardly sleep that night, eager to return to Kansas City.
If you ever find yourself in Manhattan, be sure to stop at the Tallgrass Tap House for some excellent beer and food.
Kansas City never ceases to amaze me. This past weekend’s sunny weather and clear blue skies made it irresistible to head outdoors and explore. I found myself driving to the East Bottoms, West Bottoms and downtown in search of old brewery buildings to photograph for my next book, Kansas City Brewing. While strolling around the East Bottoms, I came across these cute tiny goats feeding on hay and minding their own business. From time to time, I take a drive or walk to explore my hometown and find fresh sights and surprises. It makes me happy to discover or simply see a corner of the city I hadn’t noticed. Sometimes I come across new friends that like to eat too.