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Beyond Calvin Trillin’s Kansas City

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My relationship with Kansas City cuisine, like so many people not from Kansas City, is tremendously indebted to Calvin Trillin’s Tummy Trilogy.  But while that bound edition’s three component parts are tremendously funny, heart-warming and generally brilliant pieces of literature, not to mention a good guide for food that still defines Kansas City, one shouldn’t overlook the fact that the culinary wisdom contained in those pages is over 20 years old.  Kansas City cuisine has transformed quite a bit during the last two decades.  The candied lady apple and concord grape deserts I consumed a couple of months ago at Blue Stem, for instance, were some of the most spectacular I’ve ever had, and couldn’t be farther from the artery clogging food extravaganza that defined Calvin Trillin’s frequent trips to the city where he was born.

Nevertheless, given my predilections towards downgrading my food standards in the central part of the country, I still expected Kansas City to be something closer to 5-10 years behind the times.  Indeed, my early research led me to believe as much.  I turned up several promising shops which had closed and only a couple of local roasters which I guessed roasted dark and used mostly low-grade beans.  I was surprised to find much higher quality than I expected.

At least three local roasters, The Broadway Roasting Company, The Roasterie and Oddly Correct Coffee Roasters (available at the Filling Station along with coffee from Broadway), stood out as doing something that wasn’t simply over-roasted, derivative second wave stuff.  They are sourcing distinctive and decent quality coffees and roasting them in a way that is both appropriate for the bean and enjoyable.  You can also find their coffees at a sizable and growing number of cafes in the area.

I was also surprised by the presence of so many non-local, reputable roasters.  Take Five Coffee Bar uses Zoka Coffee Roasters, Crossroads Coffeehouse uses coffee from Intelligentsia and Latteland’s roaster is Kaldi’s Coffee.  You can even find PT’s coffee at Black Dog Coffeehouse.

Just to be clear, I’m not singing the praises of Kansas City’s coffee scene too highly. The fact that PT’s coffee, which is just down the road in Topeka, isn’t more available at Kansas City area cafes is a sad fact indeed. This roaster, named roaster of the year, and regarded by many as one of the country’s best may be easier to find in New York City cafes.

Also, I didn’t have any exceptional cups of coffee while visiting.  The cafes I visited often prided themselves on choices and while the effort was good with a surprising number of brew-to-order options available, the quality wasn’t quite up to where I would have liked it to be.  I imagine, though, that it’s hard to run a shop in this town without providing a darker roasted coffees, lots of choices and flavored coffee drinks.  And I also imagine that only a narrow subset of patrons even seeks out something like a brew to order option.

The bottom line is that Kansas City and the immediate area has a lot of coffee potential and far more than you might expect to find if you’re coming in from one of the coasts.  There’s room to grow, sure.  But plenty of potential with some decent performances gives the out-of-town traveler plenty to be happy about and should give the locals plenty of pride.

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The Filling Station

Name: Filling Station Coffee Garage
Location: 2980 McGee Trafficway, Kansas City, MO
Roasters: Broadway Roasting Company
and Oddly Correct Coffee Roasters
Rating: 3+

A cafe title that plays on words like The Filling Station flirts with disaster by leading customers to assume the owners are opting for a clever twist on the necessity of coffee while possibly ignoring coffee quality.  Fortunately, the Filling Station has two things going for it.  First, this cafe is either located in an actual former filling station or looks like it is (I couldn’t confirm the actual history of the building).  Second, the quality of the coffee and the cafe experience is very good.  In fact, the Filling Station turned out to be my favorite place to visit during my explorations of Kansas City’s coffee culture.

This first of the two Filling Station locations offers customers a lot to love in a purely aesthetic sense.  Aged brick walls, lots of natural light with roll-up doors, a roughed up metal bar front with concrete top, antique-looking jars and attractively designed menus all contribute to a modern design that is distinctively a cafe while paying proper homage to this space’s former gas station life.  It helps as well that the cafe is bustling with a steady flow of new, and friendly, people who do things like step out of the cafe to warn you that you’ve left a cup of coffee on top of your car.  I could do without the TV, but the volume was down and I barely noticed.

The Filling Station is a dual roaster cafe.  Barista’s pull shots of the Broadway Roasting Company’s espresso blend on their four group La Marzocco Linea.  Filter coffee comes from another smaller, local roaster, Oddly Correct Coffee.  The Filling station provides customers with the choice of both a single origin coffee (Sumatra on my visit) and a house blend, both brewed on a Fetco and stored in airpump pots.  You can also, however, order an individual French Press.  I opted for the latter.

The coffee they were French Pressing the day I visited was an El Salvador (Villa Espana).  I liked this coffee’s buttery, round mouthfeel  and brown sugar sweetness quite a bit.  It also exhibited a piercing, piney acidity and hickory aroma which was intriguing but struck me as a bit too pronounced for this coffee’s other personality (3+).

My shot of espresso was at least on par, if not better, than the shots I experienced at Broadway Roasting Company’s own locations.  As with those shots, it was short, thick and and intense with very pronounced baker’s chocolate notes.  The acidity was subdued and reminded me of orange zest rather than straight citrus.  Also this shot leaned a bit more towards the smokey, spicy and herbal leaving some more distinctively clove and tobacco notes in the aftertaste. (3+)

While the Filling Station may not have substantially exceeded what I found in any other cafe in the greater Kansas City area in pure coffee terms, they do offer a few things which give them the edge in my book.  Multiple roasters (and specifically good, local roasters) with a range of coffee and brew methods is always a strong plus in my book.  Also, the cafe itself is a gorgeous place to sit and enjoy your coffee.  The bottom line is that the Filling Station is the kind of spot deserving of repeat business.

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On and Off Broadway

Name: Broadway Cafe and Broadway Roasting Company
Location: 4106 Broadway and 4012 Washington Street, Kansas City, MO
Roasters: Broadway Roasting Company

Rating: 3+

While coffee hasn’t quite achieved the feuded-over status of say, barbecue, when it comes to Kansas City cuisine, denizens of this city do have at least two decent sized roasting operations to chose from when it comes to locally roasted coffees.  Some cafes and restaurants seem to prefer the air-roasted beans produced by The Roasterie. Others stick by the longer-established Broadway Roasting Company.

Broadway’s operation started in the humble and slightly worn cafe that’s located right on Broadway in Kansas City’s Westport district.  This location is busy and full of life, frequented by a diverse mix of professionals, graduate students, retirees, skater punks and the homeless/mentally ill.  The staff were skilled and knowledgeable and the cafe offered plenty of places to sit, especially now that the roaster has been moved.  Still, I’d suggest heading a couple of blocks north and making ever so slight a jog onto Washington Street where you’ll find Broadway’s roasting facility and coffee bar in a renovated fire department building.  That location is bigger, brighter, cleaner, newer, less crowded and has the exact same menu. You’ll get more attention from the staff, have fewer interactions with people you don’t want to interact with and be able to take advantage of a bigger bean selection.

The menu at both cafes is similar. You’ll find a house blend (Colombia/Costa Rica), a decaf (Sumatra/Colombia) and rotating Single Origin coffee, all brewed on a Fetco and stored in airpump pots.  Espresso is prepared in both locations on a multiple group La Marzocco Lineas and the menu includes a medium-sized selection of espresso drinks.  At the Washington Street location, you can also observe the taunting presence of various by-the-cup brewing devices (e.g. V60, Clever, French Press, moka pot, etc), which staff informed me on multiple visits were still being used for experimentation with apparent plans to include them on the menu.  This, in my opinion, is the biggest weakness when it comes to what Broadway has to offer.

The house and decaf blends were roasted for a crowd that craves a “bolder” roast than I do.  Accordingly, I stuck with the single-origin coffees.  On one visit, I had the Mexican Chiapas, which was a medium-bodied coffee with a syrupy mouthfeel whose black pepper bite and mild acidity cut through the otherwise sweet honey and cocoa notes.  It wasn’t my favorite flavor profile of a coffee and I can’t say the brew method did it justice, but the coffee was nevertheless decent (3). On another visit, I had clean and balanced, Panama with less overall character (3-).

To me the real standout for Broadway is the espresso.  My shots were short, dense and not particularly syrupy.  Up front, the espresso (I didn’t get the name or composition of the blend) revealed a more traditional Italian profile with aromas of toasted bread, bitter chocolate and brown sugar.  That experience transformed, however, into something more distinctly American as the shot finished, leaving me with a burst of citrus acidity and fruit (pear and lime) notes.  I preferred the shot I had at the Washington Street roastery (on the right) which was better than the one I had at the cafe on Broadway, but only by a little (less so than the coloring and volume in the picture might imply), and likely to be luck of the shot rather than anything consistent in performance (4-/3+).  And, as an unheard of bonus, an espresso, which is only $1.75 to begin with, comes with a free small coffee!

Since neither location offered by-the-cup brewing options, I decided to do my own, and rather than write separately about these coffees, due to my backlog, I’m including a few notes here.  The pulped natural Nicaragua Mierisch had a surprisingly sharp and piney acidity with some pronounced herbal notes (3) while the naturally processed Nicaragua Limoncillo was (not-surprisingly) fruity of the sort that can be easily overwhelming (3), but which mellows nicely with age.  The bottom line is that both of these were good coffees, but not outstanding, or quite as good as I would have liked given the price and specificity of these lots.

Even if there are some things that I’d would like to see Broadway Roasting Company do better, there a few reasons I’d give it – at least the Washington Street roastery and cafe – moderately high marks.  The espresso is distinctive and good, and throwing in a free cup of decently good coffee with that purchase is just too good a deal to pass up.  Broadway offers a wide selection of well-priced, reasonably, high-quality coffees.  Most important, though, is that space itself is pleasant, quiet and gives you plenty of opportunities to interact with staff over the coffee you are drinking or intend to buy, which is something I observed a steady stream of regular customers doing.  That kind of interaction, which I commented on elsewhere, is one I value a lot these days and which shouldn’t be undervalued.

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Down at the Crossroads

Name: Crossroads Coffeehouse
Location: 310 Southwest Boulevard, Kansas City, MO
Roasters: Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea

Rating: 3+

I was happy, but a little surprised, to find an Intelligentsia wholesale client in Kansas City.  Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have been given that Take Five reached out to Zoka in Washington state.  Certainly, getting your coffee from Chicago isn’t all that different than Latteland getting their coffee from Kaldi’s in St. Louis.  I guess I was simply surprised that more cafe, like Black Dog, didn’t get their coffee from a high-end roaster like P.T’s coffee, much closer in Topeka.  It seems that cafes in Kansas City aren’t afraid to go cosmopolitan.

You’ll find Crossroads in a small strip mall surrounded by a handful of small businesses in an area that appears to be still up and coming.  Inside the cafe is spacious and well lit despite having only one wall of windows.  The one brick wall and airiness goes a long way to offsetting the less appealing design choices like the forest green tables and wooden chairs.  And there is the added bonus that Coffeehouse bakes its own pastries and provides a lunch menu, given that there’s not a lot else around here for food.

As I mentioned the coffee comes from Intelligentsia.  The barista pulls shots of Black Cat on a La Marzocco Linea while filter coffee consists of a rotating coffee (that day was a single origin) brewed on their Fetco and stored in an airpot.  Although it’s not on the menu, staff will also brew your choice of coffees in a Chemex.  You can also buy your choice of 4-5 different beans (including the El Diablo, which is fitting at the Crossroads for you Robert Johnson fans), but I noted that most were at least 2 weeks and sometimes up to a month past the roast date.

My shot of Black Cat wasn’t exceptional, but solidly good.  Despite a few bubbles, the crema was enduring and appropriately reddish in color and the espresso itself was sweet and juicy, slightly syrupy and thick.  I noted blackberry, milk chocolate and lime with a slightly acrid aftertaste (3+).

For filter coffee, I went with a Chemex of of the Guatemala (I failed to note which one but this was several months ago so it’s likely no longer available).  The coffee was quite good with notes of cocoa, black tea, grapes, and nectarine.  It was a clean, slightly sharp, bright coffee with mild floral notes which was well-brewed and certainly better than the brief sip of the Fetco-brewed coffee I tasted (3+).

Overall, Crossroads may not be the best Intelligentsia coffee you’ve had but it does well by Kansas City coffee standards and deserves a spot towards the top of your list when visiting.

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In the Land of Lattes, the Espresso isn’t Bad

Name: Latteland (CC Plaza/47th and Zona Rosa)
Location: 318 West 47th Street, Kansas City, MO and 7251 NW 86th Place, Kansas City, MO
Roaster: Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Company

Rating: 3/3-

Latteland is a local Kansas City Coffee chain without the trappings of your usual chain coffee.  At least, that’s my quick assessment based on a visit to two (out of seven) of Latteland’s locations earlier this fall.  I stopped at one of the two Latteland locations in Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza and another located in hybrid subdivision and shopping mall Zona Rosa (the kind of sterile, fake business district filled with chain stores and entirely new housing).  Both spots had a clean and polished interior design that, while not overly inspiring, seemed pleasant, modern and something of a cross between a lavish Starbucks, Crate and Barrel and a Froyo den.  More importantly, the form and function of both cafes was similar enough to unite them as members of the same family without making them seem like identical twins.

The coffee menu at both locations was similar, but varied slightly.  Both establishments use coffee from Kaldi’s out of the St. Louis area, which is a high quality, reasonably local roaster and much of the reason I gave this chain a chance.  These two branches of Latteland are well-equipped to pull shots of Kaldi’s Espresso 700 blend on their La Marzocco GB/5s.  Brewed coffee consists of a dark roasted blend brewed on a Fetco and stored in a thermal carafe.  The Country Club Plaza location also offers a medium roasted house blend and the option of your choice of coffee brewed via French Press (supposedly all the shops except the one in Zona Rosa offer a French Press and some offer the second coffee choice). Bagged coffee in both locations completely lacked roast dates.  Although this oversight belongs to the Kaldi’s, staff weren’t able to tell me the roast date or even the arrival date of the shipment.

The Zona Rosa branch espresso (below) edged out the shot I had at the Country Club Plaza location (above), but only ever so slightly.  Both were thick, short shots, with enduring crema and a chewy, but not syrupy mouthfeel.  I got notes of baker’s chocolate in both espressos.  The Zona Rosa shot also exhibited some cherry, orange and black tea notes with a slight citrus fruit pith bitterness (3) while the Country Club Plaza shot was marked more by lime acidity and came across as slightly sour (3-).

I decided to skip the brewed coffee at the Zona Rosa shop given that they only had a dark roasted coffee available.  At the Country Club Plaza shop, I opted for an El Salvador on the French Press.  It was a round full, slightly bright yet earthy coffee.  It wasn’t particularly complicated flavor-wise, but it delivered a very pleasing, silky, milk-chocolate like texture and was overall well rounded and complete (3+).

As a reasonably prolific chain that doesn’t roast its own coffee, Latteland seems to go a step beyond what might be expected in terms of their choice of roaster and brewing options, with the exception of the Zona Rosa shop.  Despite some flaws, they do a decent job with their coffee and seem to be more or less on par with, if not better than, many other Kansas City area cafes brewing coffee from reputable roasters with national reputations.

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A Simple Thanks

When I wrote my last blog post, I intended to write another very soon.  I only wish I was writing a normal review now, or at the very least, had some witty way to write about an otherwise lame excuse for not writing.  The last few weeks, however, have found my house with little humor as we all deal with the death of a family member that’s left us all stunned and still recovering.  I’m not one to vent my personal life in a public forum, but I felt that it was important to take a few minutes to thank all the friends and family who have kept close watch over us, whether through direct support or simply keeping us in your thoughts.  For the rest of you, I’ll be back blogging soon.  I promise.

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The Fourth Year’s a Charm

There is a time each year when one stops to pause and reflect on beginnings, major milestones, transitions and one’s inevitable plodding forward into the future.  Another year older, another year with fewer brain cells my grandfather used to say.  At least I think that’s what he said.  It seems I can no longer remember what he said like I used to.  At any rate, I’d like to raise a mug to this blog which turns three years old today!

Overall, I’d say it’s been a pretty good year.  I’ve enjoyed a lot of excellent coffee and coffee touring and certainly the coffee scene around here keeps getting better.  I’ve gotten some very nice recognition from the press and made some incremental progress towards some other coffee business ambitions I’ve been harboring for some time (don’t get your hopes up here – no cafe is in the works).  But before I get ahead of myself, I do need to point out that I’ve been remiss when it comes to timely blog updates. It’s been nearly a month since my last post and that’s not the only sizable lag between posts this last year.

I could toss out some long list of excuses like earning money to support my family’s need to eat and obtain basic shelter, the trans-dimensional time suck generated by the basic maintenance of small children or the fact that so many of the trips that provide me the opportunity to try out coffee in various cities come with strings attached.  Those trips require me to be otherwise occupied during long portions of the day earning said money, mentioned at the start of this paragraph.

But no.  I’ll take the high ground.  I will man up to my negligence. I have failed to proving my reading public with the critical coffee information it relies on to keep itself caffeinated in the most pleasurable way possible.  I will admit that I have wronged the masses by providing them too few opportunities to distract themselves from their work by reading about coffee in places that they will probably never visit.  I will do my best to change my wrongful ways and be the man seeking coffee I originally set out to be three years ago.

To make sure I have the fortitude to fulfill this promise to you, I’ve decided to go completely old school and drill into myself the sense of discipline so many an elementary teacher apparently unsuccessfully sought to create in me.  What’s the trick I’ve got up my sleeve? Repetitive sentence writing ala Bart Simpson. After all, what better way to instill in myself the desire to write my blog than associating not writing my blog with more writing.  And just to prove that I haven’t used any fancy “word processing” tricks, I offer you the above photographic evidence that my punishment is underway.

So once I get done with a few thousand sentences, I should be able to return to the significant backlog of coffee reviews that have been piling up over the past several months as well as pursuing some long-neglected new spots. Thank you for your support and I look forward to another fine year.

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Reputable Roasters in Out of the Way Places

Name: Take Five Coffee Bar
Location: 5336 West 151st Street, Leawood, KS
Roasters: Zoka Coffee Roaster and Tea Company

Rating: 3

Take Five Coffee Bar seems to fit into a familiar mold when thinking about Kansas City coffee. Like Black Dog Coffeehouse, it’s a decent café, but far away from Kansas City proper. Also like Black Dog, the reason it captured my attention is the roaster. Take Five serves coffee from Zoka Coffee Roasters, which is perfectly plentiful in the Pacific northwest where Zoka is based, but seems an unlikely find in what is essentially the geographic center of the continental U.S. (Then again, Zoka has branches in Japan!)

You’ll find Take Five down in Leawood, which makes it a good option if you happen to be staying at one of the hotels down near the Sprint Campus, or, I should add, if you actually live in this far reaching suburb of Kansas City. And by the way, if you are visiting the Kansas City area, the Sprint Campus is pretty interesting. It may be designed to resemble a college, but for me evokes a military for with 20 or so 4-5 story, uniformly designed buildings, spread across a considerable bit of land.  The place is enormous and offers an unusual perspective on corporate America.

Take Five is located in what seems to be an upscale strip mall surrounded by some sizable homes. The space inside is impressive, with several big cushy chairs, a few booths, and quite possibly a fireplace if my memory serves me correctly. It has a new, suburban, luxury-home feel that’s not exactly my cup of tea, but which I have to admit was nice. The leisure-inspiring appearance of the interior (I sadly didn’t get a photo) also makes more sense when you consider Take Five’s menu (which includes a selection of food and alcohol), their late hours and musical performance calendar. In other words, Take Five is really something closer to social gathering space than some might argue a place with Coffee Bar in it’s title should be.

For coffee, staff pull shots of espresso on a three group La Marzocco Linea and serve a French Pressed house blend that’s not the ultra dark roast you might expect to find in other cafes nearby. The barista said – I think – that the blend was comprised of mostly, if not entirely, of Central American coffees. I enjoyed the little taste I had but didn’t note the details. You can also purchase bags (but not brewed coffee) of beans by local roaster, Oddly Correct.

Instead of the French Press, I selected Take Five’s pour over option. The setup is similar to the one I’ve seen at Greenlake Zoka in Seattle – a little two cup drip stand with a ceramic Melitta cone. You can choose from about 6-7 different coffees. I went with the Rwanda.

As with Black Dog, I seemed to get a cup of lackluster Rwanda. This time, though, the issue wasn’t age or choice of brew method, but seemingly one of technique.  The coffee in my cup was bright with distinct notes of lime and green tea, but very much underextracted. I was left with a decent tasting but way too thin-bodied, watery cup of coffee (2+), which I might have considered returning had I not been halfway out the door by the time it was cool enough to taste.

Take Five did better with the espresso, using Zoka’s Paladino blend.  My shot was too top heavy – too sharp rather than too bright may a better description given its celery-like crispness and bitterness.  Nevertheless, it was complicated and nicely layered with some citrus notes, raspberry jam undertones, a medium body and a slightly syrupy mouthfeel. (3)

Take Five certainly deserves some credit for setting up a far more complicated and ambitious coffee service that one would ever expect to find in the suburbs of Kansas City.  Hopefully, I happened to hit them on an off morning and that if you go, the preparation will be a little better.  Still, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better cup of coffee down in this part of the greater metropolitan area.

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