Baseball Roadtrip 2009: Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines
Wed, 07/8/09 4:29 PM
Our 16th annual Baseball Roadtrip is in the books, so before this trip becomes a distant memory, I wanted to post this report, mostly as a thank you to all those whose previous reports and suggestions helped make this trip a memorable one. Most of the eateries I visited have been well covered here, so I’ll keep my comments brief. I had some actual business mixed into this trip, but I’ll only concern you with the food and the baseball.
DAY 1: Tuesday, June 30
Early morning flight from LGA to MCI (which apparently is also called KCI? That’s very confusing) First stop was the Negro League Museum. I had been there before, but it was worth a second visit. It’s short on artifacts, but long on information. It’s very nicely done. From there, it was only a few blocks to ARTHUR BRYANT’S.
From right to left: ribs, beef and burnt ends. The ribs were just OK. Cooked well, but lacking flavor. The beef was simply awful. Dry and tasteless. The burnt ends were very good, but a tad mushy. All in all, I have to agree with the folks that have declared Arthur Bryant’s to be past it’s prime. My one previous visit there in 1995 was a memorably wonderful meal. Some of the food served to me this time was disgraceful, especially for a world famous institution.
After taking care of some business, I headed over to STROUD’S SOUTH, which I believe was over the border into Kansas. Thanks to whoever gave me the tip that the South location was open through out the day.
Now, I hate to blaspheme in here, but this wasn’t the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, not by a long shot. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the chicken, but I found it to be completely lacking seasoning. It was coated and cooked to PERFECTION, but the flavor was totally flat. I actually reached for the salt shaker, which is something I very, very rarely do. Great crust, cooked perfectly, but lacking in flavor. The potatoes and gravy were fantastic, but those green beans were definitely out of a can. There was some porky stuff in there, but the beans themselves were processed mush.
Next stop was Kauffman Stadium, my first visit there since 1995. I was really awestruck as to how the renovations transformed this place. The last time I was there, it was artificial turf. The grass makes all the difference. The new pavilions behind the fountains are fantastic. Oh yeah, the best part: I bought a ticket at the box office for $7. A+. Kauffman is now in my top 10 ballparks.
After the game, I was looking for a snack, so I punched up the Roadfood POI on my TomTom. TOWN TOPIC was the choice. However, when I arrived, it was closed! Bummer! I thought it was 24/7??? Luckily, a passerby informed me that the other location was the one that was open all night, and it was just around the corner.
My cheeseburger and shake were pretty standard greasy diner fare. Not bad, but nothing special either. The onion rings were outstanding however, and the atmosphere is Roadfood heaven.
DAY 2: Wednesday, July 1
With a very long day ahead, a very early breakfast brought us to NEICIE’S. A bit of a dicey neighborhood (an understatement) but the place was packed with people from every walk of life. A good sign. From the Stern’s review, and as read on the menu, they offered pork chops “fried right” for breakfast. That cannot be resisted. I got mine as a sandwich with eggs and cheese, with a side of biscuits and gravy.
As you can see, the pork chop is bone-in, so it was a “sandwich” in name only. It was absolutely fried right. Delicious. The biscuit and gravy were also superior. Thankfully my waitress warned me that I was ordering too much food and suggested a half-order of biscuits. She was right, as I couldn’t possibly eat more than half of what I was served. The cakes in the display case looked so phenomenal, I had to take a slice of lemon cake to go. I ate that cake later in the day and it was hands down the best piece of cake I ever had in my life. So lemony, so sweet, so moist: a perfect piece of cake. In honor of that cake, the great breakfast, the warm service, the local flavor, I believe NIECIE’S of Kansas City belongs in the Roadfood Hall of Fame (if anyone ever decides to create one).
After finishing up my business in KC, we took the three hour drive north to Omaha, Nebraska. Arriving just in time for lunch, we headed straight for JOE TESS PLACE. Knowing that this was going to be a trip dominated by red meat, a little fish seemed like a nice change. We both had their “famous fish” which is breaded and fried carp. Unusual for sure, but very nicely prepared. Sorry for the poor picture, but that’s a “two piece” which looked to be the tail section and the middle section of a fish, jacket fries (I never hear this term before. Apparently it’s just skin-on, fried sliced potatoes) and cole slaw.
The fish was a very mild semi-firm white fish with a very nice cracker-meal crust. They score the fish many times before breading, so there’s a greater surface area to crust up. Great idea. Joe Tess Place is absolutely frozen in time. Between the wood paneling and the overstuffed red vinyl barstools, it feels like 1972 in there. It’s a neat place, worth a visit for sure.
Before heading to the hotel, we set the GPS for eCREAMERY, a local Omaha ice cream store that is becoming famous for creating custom flavors for shipping around the country. Sounded worthy of a visit. It’s located on a very nice little street near Creighton University, away from the commercial thoroghfares.
Clockwise from the top, I believe that’s chocolate, cinnamon and coffee. I figured that this was supposed to be super-premium ice cream, so I didn’t want to drown it in toppings. The cinnamon was absolutely phenomenal. Super rich, super flavorful, but not so heavy on the cinnamon as to make it “spicy”. The coffee and the chocolate were equally wonderful. Well worth the diversion.
After checking in to the hotel and a taking care of a little business, we headed to Omaha’s most famous restaurant, JOHNNY’S CAFÉ. I really love the location of this place- down by the old stockyards off the main roads amongst a bunch of warehouses. Just like Joe Tess, Johnny’s is frozen in time, sometime in the late 60’s/early 70’s. This is an OLD SCHOOL steak house if there ever was one. Our waitress went on and on about their special homemade cottage cheese and fresh baked rolls, but frankly, there was nothing special about either item. Then there was the steak:
This is a dry aged strip steak from Midwest corn fed choice beef. It was cooked to perfection. Really a fantastic steak. Everything else on my plate was inedible. Not just bad, but NOT EDIBLE. The potato and the onion rings were cold and congealed, undoubtedly cooked at the beginning of the shift and thrown in a bin somewhere before they landed on my plate. The restaurant was nearly empty, so there was simply no excuse for this. There’s got to be better places than this in Omaha to get a great steak. Johnny’s didn’t even try to present a fine meal.
The next stop was Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium, home of the college world series. I arrived about a week after the CWS had ended, and the stadium had been handed back over to it’s regular tenants, the AAA Omaha Royals. Hundreds of thousands of fans from all over the country descend on Omaha each year for the 10 days or so of the College World Series, and Rosenblatt bursts at the seams each night with 25,000 fans. As you can see, the locals are a tad less excited about minor league baseball than the are about the CWS.
Rosenblatt’s days are numbered, as the College World Series is getting it’s own stadium in downtown Omaha, and the AAA Royals are moving out to the suburbs (Omaha has suburbs?). I’m glad I saw it before the wrecking ball arrived.
The game let out around 9:30, just enough time for me to grab a RUNZA. It had been years, but it was just as doughy and tasty as I had remembered.
DAY 3: Thursday, July 2
After taking care of a little business early in the morning in Omaha, we pointed the car east and set the GPS for FARMER’S KITCHEN in the oddly named Atlantic, IA. It took a little longer to get there than anticipated because of some construction traffic, but we were in our seats at 11:10 AM looking for a hearty breakfast. No such luck. The waitress very apologetically informed us that they don’t serve breakfast after 11. Our sob story about the traffic and how we had crossed the country just for one of their breakfasts had no effect. We were 10 minutes past breakfast and even though the place was nearly empty, the kitchen would absolutely not prepare anything off the breakfast menu. I really would have walked out in most other circumstances, but we were starving and by the looks of Atlantic, there were not going to be any better options. After scanning the lunch/dinner menu, the waitress came back over to mention that the “pig skillet”, which is ham, bacon and sausage served over hash browns with country gravy can be topped with eggs. Well, that sounds like breakfast to me, so that was my choice.
Breakfast indeed. Hot, greasy, fresh and delicious. Outstanding meal. If not for the bizarre adherence to the menu rules, I would say that this was one of the top Roadfood joints in the Midwest. Seriously, they served me eggs, hash browns, bacon and sausage, but they would not serve me “breakfast”? Just plain silly. Anyway….as I walked over to scan the dessert case, the big fella at the cash register mentioned that their sour cream raisin pie was listed in the Stern’s book, “500 Things to Eat Before It's Too Late”. That was good enough for me, and I got a slice to go. Back on the road towards Des Moines.
Being a sucker for American pop culture, a sign on the interstate that read “JOHN WAYNE’S BIRTHPLACE: 14 MILES” drew me in like a magnet. It was a long 14 miles off the interstate, but a fun diversion nonetheless. Winterset, IA:
A tiny little house in a picture postcard of a tiny little town. Pure Americana. I sat on the hood of my car eating that sour cream raisin pie from Farmer’s Kitchen (outstanding), just watching the tourists come and go. Fun times. Next stop, Des Moines.
The Roadfood POI on my Tomtom (and by the way, I can’t plug that enough. Excellent work.) told me that BAUDER’S PHARMACY was nearby. Stopped in for a small sundae.
Just like the Roadfood review says, from the outside, this place looks like nothing. Inside, it’s a fabulous old-fashioned soda counter with working pharmacy. There must be a story behind this place because the counter and all the fixtures appear to be about 50 years older than the building. Anyway, the ice cream was pretty standard, but the hot fudge was great and the whole thing was expertly put together by a cheery Midwestern gal. Nice place.
A had a little more business to attend to in Des Moines, so dinner was unplanned and kind of on-the-fly. I found a local restaurant called THE FLYING MANGO that was very good. Kind of a funky/modern place with a menu of some interesting twists on standard grill fare. I had an amazing Latin strip steak with chimichurri sauce. Really fantastic artwork on the walls, too. Sorry, no photos, but there’s a website: http://www.flyingmango.com/ourstory.html
Luckily, I finished up my work to catch about half the Iowa Cubs game at Principal Park (formerly Sec Taylor Stadium). It’s yet another cookie-cutter 1990’s minor league park that is nearly indistinguishable from a hundred other parks of the same era. It’s right off downtown Des Moines backed right up to the Des Moines River. This might have been a great spot to build a ballpark, but rather than celebrate the river view, they built this monstrosity with it’s back to the water, with no view of it. Just stupid in my opinion. Just take a look at this place…is this a stadium or a corporate office park???
Inside, it’s nice, with great sightlines and a decent view of the state capitol. The grass is beautiful and the fans are actually into the game. Des Moines seems to be a good baseball town with good attendance and loyal Cubs fans. Too bad they got such a bland ballpark.
Driving back to the hotel, we spied this sign:
How can anyone be expected to resist this on a summer evening? SNOOKIE'S is an old-style walk-up soft ice cream stand with a small inside seating area and lots of chairs and benches out front. I didn’t look all that closely at the menu and just got the old standard vanilla cone:
Good stuff. Nothing groundbreaking but hit the spot nonetheless. Their standard topping is a mixture of sprinkles, nuts and candy crunch.
DAY 4: Friday, July 3
Morning in Des Moines, all we had to do today was drive back to Kansas City for our flight home. We headed to THE MACHINE SHED for breakfast. This place claims to be a small chain of restaurants dedicated to honoring the American farmer. Very noble idea. But COME ON!!! Roadfood? This place? This is a CORPORATE restaurant. It’s anything but Roadfood. It’s part of a giant chain of hotels and restaurants spread all over the Midwest. I cringed the moment I walked in. From the manufactured quaintness of the gift shop (that you must pass through to get to the cavernous seating area- sound familiar Cracker Barrel fans?) to the laminated menus peppered with phrases like “farmhand” and “heartland” and “traditional”, to the gaggle of identically costumed wait staff (overalls and gingham, subtle as an anvil)…this ain’t a restaurant, it’s a theme park. Yes, there was food, but nothing worthy of a photo. The portions are enormous, but the food was as bland as I expected. Cold, soggy bacon, over-hard eggs when I had ordered over easy, a pancake that had a vulcanized sheen on one side…just a bad meal in general. How can a restaurant that seats about 400 be expected to cook anything properly to-order? This place is everything that’s bad about chain restaurants.
Anyway, with that abomination in my rear view mirror, we headed south towards K.C. There was time for one more meal before the flight. Roadfood, don’t fail me now!
Sweet fancy Moses. L.C.’S BAR-B-Q of Kansas City. THIS is Roadfood. In a gritty industrial neighborhood out behind the stadiums sits a little broken down shack that served me the best
pork product barbequed meat I’ve ever had. Behold the burnt ends from L.C.’s:
The perfect marriage of smoke, salt, char and
pig beef. Fantastic. Amazing. Memorable. The burnt ends in combination with their sauce and that white bread was almost too good to be believed. The hand cut fries were outstanding too. My only regret was that I didn’t get a chance to try all the other beautiful things that were resting in the smoker, like the sliced beef, the ribs or the turkey. Another nominee for the Roadfood Hall of Fame. It’s simply the best BBQ I’ve ever had. Nice way to end a trip.
In summary, here’s how I ranked the eateries I hit on this trip (ice cream-only stops not included)
1. L.C.’s Bar-B-Que, Kansas City, MO
2. Neicies, Kansas City, MO
3. The Flying Mango, Des Moines, IA
4. Farmer’s Kitchen, Atlantic, IA
5. Joe Tess’s Place, Omaha, NE
6. Stroud’s, Kansas City, KS
7. Town Topic, Kansas City, MO
8. Arthur Bryant’s, Kansas City, MO
9. Johnny’s Café, Omaha, NE
10. Machine Shed, Des Moines, IA
Thanks to everyone who’s previous reports made the planning of this trip a hell of a lot easier. Special thanks to the Roadfood team who put together the POI for the various GPS units. GPS is the greatest innovation since the automatic transmission, and the Roadfood POI kicked it up a notch.
P.S. Whaddaya know, this was my 1,000th post. Edited for burnt end clarity- Pigiron.
<message edited by Pigiron on Wed, 07/8/09 9:14 PM>