January 13, 2006
of nine – 54th Street north of the river
When I found out the Greater Kansas City chapter of the Missouri Restaurant Association named 54th Street Grill and Bar founders Tom and Ann Norsworthy Restaurateurs of the Year, I decided to check out what the trade association members considered impressive.
Norsworthy's prediction in a Star article further piqued my interest. He said, "The reality is in 10 to 15 years you're not going to see anyone in the restaurant business who isn't as big as we are or bigger, except for niche operations."
To see what the future holds, Emily and I ventured out to the 15-year old chain's second oldest location, 6332 N.W. Barry Rd., Kansas City, MO. It's in a strip of shops with Blockbuster and Subway in the Boardwalk Square Shopping Center. The chain has nine locations scattered around the edges of the metro area from Grandview to St. Joe.
The décor features gewgaws and gimcracks covering the walls and hanging from the ceiling. I think I found out what people do with their Antiques Roadshow rejects. The noise in the hundred thirty-seat place was as loud as the décor, in the dining room as well as the bar.
The gargantuan menu has more signature dishes — I stopped counting at twenty-five — than a more traditional bar and grill has on its whole menu. Broken down into fourteen categories, 54th Street' menu offers a mélange of steaks, burgers, sandwiches, salads, fourteen "Munchies" and 6,817, 873 chicken breast variations (or so it seemed). The selection is a mix-and-match list of cuisines from Italy to the Orient with stops in Mexico, Chicago and Buffalo.
The Cajun Philly sandwich, the California Bleu Tossed Salad and a Gyro "Hero" Pita only scratch the surface of 54th Streets culinary creativity. The Fettuccine Alfredo comes with a Cajun-seasoned chicken breast. Some of their "South of the Border" dishes come with guacamole ranch dip while Chipotle tartar sauce accompanies the catfish. The web site calls the cuisine "American Casual".
I'd call it "corporate fusion".
Jim Walker, who described himself as a "fifth-tier manager," told me on the phone that most of their menu comes ready to cook from a supplier. He proudly explained how they'd just started making the baked beans from scratch in-house.
Most of the "Munchies" would better serve as snacks than appetizers. Starting at $2.99 for chips and salsa to $8.99 for a combination of onion rings, Mozzarella sticks and potato skins; the selections include the usual fried choices, dips with corn chips and "South of the Border" concoctions. Walker said their "signature" Gringo Dip and Chips ($6.99) was the most popular dish on the entire menu. A mixture of something called "our famous house dip" with pepper jack cheese, Pico de gallo and cayenne pepper.
On one visit, we opted for the Chicago Spinach and Artichoke Dip ($7.49) "baked Chicago style and topped with Monterey Jack cheese" — the only non-"signature" dish we tried. After dashing from vehicle to restaurant in the rain, we found the warm gloppy stuff atop corn chips soothing and satisfying when spiced up with some salsa. The best thing about the dish was it's prompt arrival at the table on a cold rainy night.
In fact, on both visits, our food came to the table with great efficiency. That says something good about the service. But it also suggests how little time their pre-prepared dishes require to cook. I've waited longer for fast-food burgers than I waited for the meals at 54th Street. The young servers have their routines down and the place runs like a well-oiled machine.
At our first meal, I had the "signature" baby back ribs ($13.99) and Emily ate a Texas Country Fried Steak ($9.89). Although the menu says the ribs get smoked, I couldn't detect any dusky flavor in the meat. The generous, meaty slab had been slow cooked and finished on the grill, so the meat fell off the bone tender and juicy. I found nothing signature about them, just baked ribs in a mundane barbecue sauce.
Emily's didn't fare as well with her meal. The chicken-fried steak had a dominating hard crust covering the meat, cooked until tough and dry. And they hadn't nuked the gravy long enough to liquefy the paste.
She enjoyed her second meal much more, choosing The Bandido Border Platter ($9.79), consisting of a beef and cheese enchilada covered in sauce, a generously sized taco in a crisp flour tortilla, refried beans and rice. We couldn't find anything to dislike about the meal, nor did we taste anything remotely spicy or memorable.
I chose from the Pick Two Combination ($13.69) section the second time, from a choice of a sirloin, bacon-wrapped filet, the ribs, a BBQ chicken breast, chicken fingers, breaded shrimp or a grilled shrimp kabob. Although the sirloin proved satisfactory (I'd hope any joint with "Grill" in its name could cook a steak), I thought the shrimp had been too close to the meat on the fire. The harsh, charred flavor didn't complement the briny, sweetness of the shrimp.
Dessert prices range from $2.99 for old-fashioned milk shakes to $4.99 for a chocolate spoon cake, Snickers pie, apple/cranberry crisp or New York cheesecake. We tried the signature spoon cake and the fruit crisp; the desserts also look pre-packaged. The cold cake didn't need a spoon. The pudding had congealed with a dense and dry cake, although it was certainly chocolate. We enjoyed the warm fruit crisp with vanilla ice cream more.
In this column, I try to write about recommendable restaurants. This one 's no exception. I can honestly say this about The 54th Street Grill and Bar: If I'm overtaken by hunger on Parking Lot Avenue out in Shopping Center City, I'll go back there before any of the other nearby chains. In the meantime, I've got a much better idea of what the Missouri Restaurant Association considers impressive. And I have more appreciation for what Norsworthy calls "niche operations".
Mike Taylor can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
fork, knife, spoon
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