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.