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Required Eating: 10 Meals Not to Miss in Kansas City

By Caitlin Morton

May 25, 2021

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At Corvino, you can opt for a chef’s menu in the Tasting Room or small plates and live music in the Supper Club.

Photo by Martin Diggs

At Corvino, you can opt for a chef’s menu in the Tasting Room or small plates and live music in the Supper Club.

With everything from massive cinnamon rolls to authentic Mexican and Vietnamese cuisine on offer, barbecue is just the beginning.

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Kansas City just keeps getting better and better—especially when it comes to its restaurant scene. What used to be a one-stop barbecue shop is now a city bursting with countless dining options and cuisines, from street tacos to the best bowl of pho you’ve ever had. 

Below, we’ve rounded up the can’t-miss meals to try while you’re in town, including a fancy tasting menu, a roadside hamburger, and some serious shrimp and grits. Leave your diet at the door and come sample all this impossibly cool city has to offer.

Head to Q39 for creative takes on barbecue like brisket poutine.

Brisket poutine at Q39

Kansas City has more barbecue restaurants per capita than any other city in the United States, so you better believe locals have opinions when it comes to the best places for burnt ends. Still, even the staunchest barbecue loyalist will admit that relative newcomer Q39, opened in 2014, is well worth your time. 

It’s a tad fancier than some of the old-school joints (and you’ll want to make a reservation), but the vibe doesn’t overshadow the fact that the meat and sauces here are phenomenal. The ribs fall right off the bone, the sausage is perfectly flavored, and the smoked chicken might make you reconsider red meat altogether. But it’s innovative dishes like the brisket poutine—crispy fries topped with beef brisket gravy, chopped brisket, cheese curds, and barbecue sauce—that let Q39 hang with the heavy hitters. 

Cinnamon rolls at Big Momma’s Bakery and Cafe

Cinnamon rolls are a big deal in Kansas City. Not only will you find them on most dessert menus around town, but locals often pair the sweet treat with a bowl of chili as a complete meal. (Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.) It’s hard to pin down exactly which restaurant makes the best cinnamon rolls, but our vote goes to Big Momma’s Bakery and Cafe

Since opening in Raytown in 2004 (there’s also a new Kansas City location off I-435), Big Momma’s has garnered quite the reputation for its cakes and breads, but especially for its cinnamon rolls, which come in three sizes: the bite-sized Mini Momma, the dinner roll–sized Little Momma, and the Big Momma, which is about the size of a salad plate. Whichever you choose, you’ll be rewarded with a chewy, gooey roll, smothered in your choice of vanilla, caramel, milk chocolate, or raisin-and-pecan icing. 

Don’t miss the double cheeseburger at Town Topic, a Kansas City institution.

Double cheeseburger at Town Topic

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Like a lot of restaurants on this list, Town Topic doesn’t look like much from the outside; it’s just a little diner off the side of Broadway in downtown Kansas City. However, any doubts you have will quickly dissipate when you smell the burgers cooking before you even leave your car—and see a line of customers wrapped around the building. A city staple since the 1950s, Town Topic smashes its patties on the griddle to create seared, practically crunchy edges, then tops them with grilled onions that melt in your mouth. Order the double cheeseburger and pair it with a side of fries or a slice of pie.

Tacos al pastor at Tacos El Gallo

KCK gets most of the hype when it comes to Mexican food in Kansas City, but KCMO has a few worthy contenders. One such place is Tacos El Gallo, a casual market-slash-restaurant off of Southwest Boulevard. Although it’s housed in a row of other Mexican cantinas, it stands out for its colorful hanging flags and swarm of hungry people gathered outside. 

Inside is a flurry of activity, with an open kitchen, shelves of groceries and clothing, and dozens of piñatas strung from the ceiling. The menu is expansive, but go for the $2 street tacos, all of which come in homemade corn tortillas piled high with onions and cilantro. The cooks are gloriously heavy-handed when it comes to the meat fillings, whether you order beef tongue, chicken, or al pastor. (Definitely order the al pastor.)

One of Kansas City’s first barbecue chains, Gates is a favorite for its burnt ends and fries.

Burnt ends sandwich at Gates Bar-B-Q

Founded in 1946, Gates Bar-B-Q is one of Kansas City’s original barbecue chains. The menu here is entirely unpretentious—no six-ingredient sandwiches or fancy appetizers, just a list of meat served on a tray or between two slices of bread—but you have to be a bit in the know when it comes to ordering. To do it like a local, get in line and, when a cashier yells “Hi, may I help you?”, be ready to yell your complete order right back. 

The signature meat of Kansas City is burnt ends—crispy, fatty scraps cut from the ends of brisket—and that’s exactly what you should order at Gates. Be sure to also get a side of fries, because they’re the best out of all the city’s main barbecue restaurants.

Espresso cream soda at Monarch Coffee

You could spend an entire day touring the many coffee shops in Kansas City, but save yourself the time and energy and head straight for Monarch Coffee. (There are two locations: one on Broadway in midtown, and one on Grand Boulevard next to Crown Center.) Here, you’ll find the same great lattes and hand-brewed, pour-over coffees you can get at most city cafés, but you’ll also discover coffee drinks that are more like carefully crafted cocktails, including a lavender mocha topped with gold flakes and a coffee-flavored clarified milk punch with fresh sage and a splash of bitters. 

One of the best drinks is The $timmy, an espresso cream soda served cold. Soda water is mixed with cane sugar and vanilla, then topped with perfectly brewed espresso, creating a parfait of flavors that’s at once refreshing and indulgent. As an added bonus, the café’s floral wallpaper and golden chandeliers are practically begging to live on your Instagram feed. 

For Midwest comfort food with a twist, try the Stilwell at the Loews hotel.

Shrimp and grits at the Stilwell

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You won’t see the Stilwell on many “best of” lists, but that’s only because the restaurant just opened in March 2021 in the Loews Kansas City hotel. Helmed by young chef Patrick LeBeau, the spot puts a modern spin on classic Midwest comfort food, with shared plates like prosciutto biscuits with smoked blue cheese butter, fried chicken with truffle mac-and-cheese, and oatmeal cookies with bourbon ice cream. 

If you really want a memorable meal, make sure to order the shrimp and grits. The grits are thick and cheesy, and the whole dish is topped with a dollop of smoky pulled pork that adds an extra level of flavor. We suspect the Stilwell will rise through the ranks of Kansas City restaurants quickly, so you should get there now before reservations are hard to come by. 

Pho bo at Vietnam Cafe

Located in River Market, Vietnam Cafe has hands down the best Vietnamese food in the entire city. The cozy joint recently received a design upgrade and now features a nicer, bigger dining area, but the inexpensive bowls of pho and fried sweet potatoes are the same as they’ve always been, which is to say delicious. The broth is the star of the show here, made from boiling down beef and chicken bones for a full 24 hours. You can taste the love in just one spoonful of sinus-clearing pho, topped with fresh cilantro, bean sprouts, sliced jalapeño, and a few squirts of Sriracha. Whether you grab your order to go or warm up in the restaurant, you’ll be treated with fast service, great prices, and perfectly un-Americanized comfort food.

The tasting menu at Corvino is perfect for a fancy night out.

Tasting menu at Corvino Supper Club & Tasting Room

If you want a high-end dining experience in Kansas City, you can’t do much better than Corvino Supper Club & Tasting Room in the Crossroads, one of three KC restaurants with a AAA Four Diamond rating. The restaurant has two concepts: on one end, an 18-seat Tasting Room with a dramatic 10-course menu; on the other, a 70-seat Supper Club with à la carte shared plates and live music. Go all out for the tasting menu and look forward to strangely delicious items like seaweed doughnuts, tater tots with caviar and shallot pickles, and sheep cheese ice cream, plus some classic favorites like fried chicken and short ribs.

Locals line up at Betty Rae’s for unique ice cream flavors like brown butter and toasted pecans.

Brown-butter-and-toasted-pecans ice cream at Betty Rae’s

After closing both its Waldo and River Market locations this past year due to COVID-19, Betty Rae’s is finally back. The immensely popular ice cream shop recently reopened under new management, but fear not—the famously unusual menu and brightly colored decor are the same as always. Flavors change every once and a while, but some favorites include brown butter and toasted pecans, goat cheese and apricot, and lavender-honey. And because this is Kansas City, you can always ask for barbecue ice cream made with Joe’s KC Burnt Ends & Sauce.

>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Kansas City

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