Sky Full of Bacon

Quad City Pizza, Kansas City BBQ, and Malaysian in Wichita

Ketchup Boy and his older brother pose in front of the world’s largest bottle of ketchup, Collinsville, Illinois.

Before and after eating burgers in Wichita (recounted here), I sampled a number of other interesting, and at least one surprising, thing in the midwest. Strap in and let’s go:

Frank’s Pizza, Silvis, Illinois
Silvis is the town that wasn’t big enough to become one of the Quad Cities. Cathy Lambrecht suggested this as somewhere to eat a few hours out of Chicago toward Des Moines, and it lived up to what I expected for vaguely Italian midwestern pizza. The building was cinderblock-American Legion-lounge in feel, the place was packed on Saturday night with locals, the pizza was entirely decent old school, but the giveaway that you’re not in Chicago any more is the sausage. In Chicago it would be clumps of flavorful fennel and red pepper filled sausage, but in the rest of America, sausage on a pizza is something like bland breakfast sausage crumbled to tiny gerbil-food bits. Honestly, it’s like a sausage Maid-Rite in texture and taste. This is why I never ate sausage on a pizza until I moved to Chicago. The cheese was pretty good, though, and the pie is cut in strips, a weird way of slicing pizza found in some south suburbs (eg. Calumet City) as well.

Fiorella’s Jack Stack, Kansas City, Missouri
I had a long list of Kansas City barbecue places I wanted to try… which got shorter real fast when I saw how few were open on Sunday. So that pretty much put us at the outlet of this venerable KC spot located in the dazzling grand hall of the old railroad Freight House in downtown KC. Decor and barbecue quality are usually not very closely related, however, and that was kind of how I felt about Jack Stack. I admire the restoration of this great old building, and the clubby steakhouse atmosphere is pleasant, if atypical for Kansas City barbecue; but they should have one upscale place like this, and if one popped up serving this food in River North, say, it would be a great asset to Chicago. But as Kansas City barbecue goes, it was just fair— the rub on the ribs was salty, other things like “burnt ends”* were surprisingly bland. Beans were great, but that’s a small thing. We would have better on the way back.

* No longer true burnt ends, ie., the too-charred-to-sell edges, which places like Arthur Bryant’s used to set out for free for you to nibble on or season your sandwich with; but chunks of end piece brisket.

Cafe Asia, Wichita
Not many ethnic cuisines where Wichita outdoes Chicago, but by having at least two Malaysian restaurants, that puts Wichita two ahead of the none in Chicago. This one was especially an ironic visit for me because it used to be the home of Georgie Peorgie pancake house, an all-American restaurant run by Koreans where my sisters worked for years in high school and summers home from college as waitresses. Judging by the age of the clientele when they worked there, most of their Sunday-morning-after-church customers must be in the grave by now, so I wasn’t surprised it was something else; but it hasn’t changed that much, except that now there are a few Malaysian dishes on the menu, which is to say, fairly mild but pleasant (and huge) plates of curry-scented noodles, very much like what the 80s-90s chain Hi Ricky! in Chicago used to serve.

L.C.’S Bar-B-Q, Kansas City, Missouri
The place I really wanted to try in KC was L.C.’s, located southeast of downtown toward Independence. It was worth the wait, a smoke-encrusted brick building on an unlovely highway whose floors were greasy enough to ice skate in your gym shoes on. In short, the real deal— and of the three main things we tried, one was fair (a sliced pork sandwich), one was very good (ribs, with lots of smoke flavor and a hammy taste and color a little like Black’s in Llano, Texas), and one was Thank-You-Jesus fantastic: the burnt ends. Again, these were cubes of brisket with at least one exterior side, not bits of pure char, but the flavor of these smoky chunks in the slightly spicy, tangy sauce was as good as anything I ever had in Texas, where brisket is also king. This easily jumped to the top of my KC barbecue recommendations, as representing a place that most definitely is not living on past laurels (as many of the others can be said to be) but is the vital heart of barbecue right now. Fries were really good, too.

Later that day we arrived at the Ritz-Carlton in St. Louis— and if there’s a more crowded, blighted stretch of major interstate than I-70 west of St. Louis, someone should open a Denny’s every 50 feet on it like they have here. We were there for a legal event my wife was attending which included a number of meals, so I didn’t really get to try anything of note in St. Louis. The banquet that night turned out to have a downhome theme— and so, after eating sublime brisket at L.C.’s, we dined far more expensively on much more ordinary brisket claiming to represent the same culture. Ironically, for all we know the chefs may have grown up on places like L.C.’s, in a city like St. Louis it’s very possible, but thanks to advanced culinary training, everything you love about a place like that has been expensively boiled out of them and replaced by bland professional proficiency at making whatever the hotel needs that night. Progress.

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