Global Grub

Last week, Kaite Stover and Paul Smith of the Kansas City, Missouri, Public Library were kind enough to ask shy, retiring little me to introduce the first “Eclectic Eats” event at the Central Library. The ethnic-restaurant-appreciation series opened on May 15 with the owners of Em Chamas Brazilian Grill offering samples of churrascuria. It concludes with a program featuring food samples from Tasso’s Greek Restaurant on May 29 at 6:30 p.m. I won’t be at that one, alas, because I have to actually eat in restaurants sometime.

The library may be celebrating Kansas City’s diverse international cuisines, but it wasn’t that long ago when the city’s choices for “ethnic restaurants” were limited mostly to the big three: Italian, Chinese and Mexican. By the time I moved here in 1984, it seemed that there was at least one sushi joint, along with a couple of French bistros, two Greek restaurants and the International House of Pancakes.

When, I wondered, did the culinary traditions of other countries start making their mark in the Land of Steak and Potatoes? Not in 1900, according to that year’s city directory. Of the 135 restaurants listed that year, all but a few were named after their owners, who sure didn’t sound like foreigners.

By the time the 1909 directory came out, the culinary climate appeared to be getting a shake-up. Among the 200 or so restaurants listed in that edition were three German-Jewish delicatessens, two Italian diners and seven Chinese restaurants, including the first location of the legendary King Joy Lo at 12th Street and Grand. King Joy Lo, which later moved closer to the big movie palaces at 12th and Main, served the bland Cantonese fare and Chinese-American innovations that Kansas City loved. Chop suey, chow mein, egg foo young. But they did it right, outlasting all of their 1909 rivals and offering egg drop soup up into the 1950s.

A few more Mexican and Italian restaurants show up in the 1949 city directory, but those cuisines didn’t really take off until the ’60s. It took two more decades for Thai, Indian, Mediterranean and Japanese fare to really make an impression on the city’s restaurant scene.

Now, other than Russian, it’s hard to think what we’re still missing.

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