A Few Days In

Beyond Barbecue: Debauchery & Diversity in Kansas City

by Kerri Allen
Kansas Kansas City vibes. All photos by Kerri Allen.

KANSAS CITY, Missouri - Everything I knew about Kansas City came from song lyrics.

“Everything’s up to date in Kansas City!” a perky line from the Broadway show tune “Kansas City” from Oklahoma! informed my childhood brain. More recently, I’ve been living with an earworm of Bob Dylan’s 1967 song reimagined in 2014 by Marcus Mumford, also called “Kansas City.” And there’s the enduring R&B anthem (naturally, with the same name), “Goin' to Kansas City. Kansas City, here I come,” which has been recorded by more than 300 artists from Little Richard to The Beatles.

Aside from a few lines in a handful of songs, I had no idea what the city was actually about. Last fall, I took a trip west to find out what all of the fuss was about.

The Missouri River.
The lobby at Crossroads Hotel.

Behind Brick Walls

Let me be honest. Kansas City, Missouri, is not a picturesque town. KCMO, as it’s called, sits along the muddy Missouri River and houses a slew of old factory buildings that used to churn out everything from popcorn to hair brushes to beer. When a local bass player told me it used to be called “The Paris of the Plains,” I had my doubts.

In fact, it was the Vegas of its time, that time being the early 1900s. The songs I knew did tell me that the town had “a big the-a-ter that they call a burly-que” as well as “a crazy way of lovin’.” I knew that I had to break past the city’s drab brick exteriors to find out what was going on.

I set my bags down at Crossroads Hotel, a perfect example of a building with a flat brick façade that used to encircle a Pabst Blue Ribbon factory. But as you enter the refreshed space, the sprawling lobby is all industrial chic, with a light-filled gallery space to the right and a welcoming lobby lounge to the left. Its neighborhood, also called Crossroads, is an eclectic arts district. The 131-room property was opened in 2018 by Aparium, a group that remodels properties in lesser-visited U.S. cities. (See: Surety Hotel in Des Moines, Iowa, and Jasper Hotel in Fargo, North Dakota.)

The Italian restaurant on site, Lazia, is named for one Johnny Lazia, a New York-born mob boss who called KCMO home in the 1920s and ‘30s. During Aparium’s renovation, large walk-in vaults were found where the city’s gangsters used to hide their guns, money, and stolen goods. Today those vaults are chic, private-event spaces, hosting different, if not still scandalous, affairs like Nomada’s Love Cycles party (is it an orgy? who’s to say?) or Sensatia by the local arts group Quixotic.

A pretty cocktail at Cheval.

I was starting to understand the Paris comparison — a river town with sexy nightlife. So forget the architecture. What about the food? Barbeque, sure, but what else? Entrepreneur and designer Heather White, envisioning a “French quarter” for the city, opened a trifecta of French tastes in 2020. Her excellent and eclectic two-story restaurant Tailleur sits across Main Street from the cocktail bar Cheval and its neighbor Bakery Enchante.

Before dinner, I stopped at Cheval for a clever cocktail called Celibacy and the Country (get it? a twist on Sex and the City?) with vodka, corn liquor, watermelon, lime, and smoked sugar. At a multi-course dinner at Tailleur, I picked over an array of appetizers, from fried olives to beet salad, and a French dip for my entree. (Not actually French, I know, but savory and indulgent nonetheless.) The plates are purposely mismatched, the service is Midwestern-friendly, and the food is plentiful and comforting. Quel délice.

A River Market haul.
A Mexican mural in Westside.

A Melting Pot in the Middle

Another misconception I’d cultivated before arriving (and I mostly blame Oklahoma!) was that Kansas City was all corn-fed white folk. I was glad to see the city and its surrounding farmland are much more diverse than that.

On Saturday, the weekend River Market did have a pickup truck packed with corn, but it also offered stunning flowers from the Bang Thai family farm, one of many that Asian refugees have created in the area. Missouri is home to scores of refugees, primarily from Congo and Afghanistan, and Kansas City itself has various resettlement organizations like New Roots for Refugees, KC for Refugees, and Cultivate Kansas City. This welcoming stance may harken back to the many Eastern Europeans whose great-great-grandchildren have not forgotten their ancestors’ search for a better life in the 19th century.

A sizable Mexican community has called the Westside neighborhood home for generations. That’s where you’ll find Mark and Marissa Gencarelli slinging their salsas, tamales, stone-ground corn tortillas, and Sonoran-style flour tortillas (Marissa hails from Sonora, Mexico) at Yoli Tortilleria. They follow traditional processes native to Mexico with local and seasonal ingredients found in the Midwest. Something’s working: Yoli Tortilleria was a James Beard Award semifinalist last year in the Outstanding Bakery category.

Café Corazón.

Nearly everyone I met mentioned Café Corazón, a pan-Latin coffee shop that elevates indigenous Mexican foods and drinks, with a hint of Argentine flair, thanks to the owners Miel Castagna-Herrera, Curtis Herrera, and Dulcinea Herrera. On my final morning in KCMO, I enjoyed a café de olla and a Fugazetta empanada made with mozzarella cheese and caramelized onions. The service was friendly and slow, but the tasty breakfast and vibrant decor made me feel like I was somewhere in Morelos, not Missouri.

The verdict? KCMO is a cool city. A city so cool that I’m considering taking my partner on a surprise weekend trip from Brooklyn. The global citizens are friendly, the food is rich, and the nightlife is pretty damn wild. And I haven’t even tried the barbeque yet.

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