Wednesday, March 12, 2008

KC Shopping: Smoke 'n' Fire

This post is the first in a series about shopping in Kansas City. Since I'm new here, I want to see the best the city has to offer. For example: Where do they sell the best imported Italian ingredients? Where can you find awesome artisanal cheeses? Who's the best butcher in KC? Where do restaurants buy their supplies--pots and pans, dinnerware, food?

A Honda Civic my Argo, I'm in pursuit of the many Golden Fleeces this city has to offer.

My first stop on this journey was Smoke 'n' Fire, "a family owned fireplace and barbeque store established in 1998, specializing in both indoor heating and outdoor cooking." Now that I live in one of the BBQ meccas of the country, I knew I needed to find a comprehensive source for all things grilling and BBQing. With friendly, helpful employees and more spices than you'd find in Paul Prudhomme's pantry, Smoke 'n' Fire is a wonderful store for both the amateur and the professional grillmeister. Although the prices are slightly higher than what you might find at a grocery store, the selection at Smoke 'n' Fire is far more extensive than what you'd find anywhere else -- and I prefer to support local businesses and vendors.

The photos on the store's website were more than enough to convince me to drive 20 minutes to check the place out. The banner at the top of the homepage is a panoramic shot of the inside of store, showing not only the different grills and smokers, but also the aisles of cooking utensils and food products.

The site has a specials section from which I printed a page of coupons. The coupon that appealed to me most was the spice cabinet "spring cleaning": bring in any old rub, spice or seasoning and get $1 off the purchase of a new rub or seasoning. So, I condensed multiple bottles of the same spice, threw some of the nearly empty ones in a bag and looked forward to swapping out the old for the new.

I also looked forward to snapping some great shots of the inside of the store. But I was put off by the sign on the window of Smoke 'n' Fire that said something along the lines of, "No video cameras or photography permitted." I didn't ask anyone if they'd make an exception, remembering that the banner at the top of the homepage was a better shot of the whole store than I'd be able to get on my own. The banner on the site changes depending on which page of the site you navigate to, so you can pretend you're taking a mini-tour through those photos.

My own tour of the store focused completely on the retail section, which was stocked with every grilling accessory imaginable, from the standard -- wood chips and chunks, charcoal, grill brushes, sauce mops, kabob racks, thermometers -- to the unorthodox -- telescoping forks, 20" tongs with an LED flashlight, seasoned wood skewers, the "turkey cannon." The store also carries all sorts of cookware, including Lodge cast-iron products. As a single girl who's not quite ready to invest in a full-sized grill, I picked up a one-burner Lodge Logic reversible grill pan/griddle instead ($37.95).

The next step was figuring out what to cook on my new toy. An entire wall is stocked about five-feet high with rubs, marinades, spices, oils, vinegars, sauces and dry mixes. I must've looked as confused as a guy at Victoria's Secret, because after just a couple of minutes of clueless gawking, a handsome young employee sauntered over to me and asked if I needed any help. I took him up on his offer and kept him occupied with questions for at least the next 10 minutes.

He helped me pick out a sauce: Blues Hog BBQ ($5.25/pint), which he declared the best BBQ sauce ever.

He helped me pick out a rub: Obie-Cue's TX Sweet Rub ($8.00/12 oz.), which he recommended for use on chicken.

He helped me pick out a crust: Char Crust Sundried Tomato and Garlic ($6.00/4 oz.), which he said would work on any type of meat or fish. I found it at Price Chopper for a buck less, evidence that some of the products in the store can be found for (marginally) less elsewhere.

I picked out a dry mix on my own: The Garlic of Eatin' ($3.75/2 oz.).

I hauled my wares to the cash register, passing the grills as I made my way. In addition to standard Weber and Ducane grills, Smoke 'n' Fire sells custom-built grills and islands. The large showroom contains numerous examples of what you can have installed on your patio or in your backyard.

I also peeked at the kitchen, where classes are held almost every Saturday and on the occasional Thursday. Regular classes last two hours and mini-classes last one, and cost $55 and $25, respectively. Chef Richard McPeake, a regular instructor at the Culinary Center of Kansas City, teaches the majority of the classes, which are on techniques of grilling and smoking.

After staring at grills and other large things I cannot afford, I finally made it up to the cash register. I presented my coupon, which I was able to use for the rub and the crust. The lady ringing me up said the Garlic of Eatin' mix is delicious, and that the recipe on the packaging for garlic and artichoke dip is worth the calories in the mayo. With full endorsements from the staff on all of the food products I bought, I was very excited to bring them home and try them out.

The next night, I tried the Char Crust on some boneless, skinless chicken. The grill pan did its job, creating perfect, parallel sear marks on the chicken. A little rotating created those awesome hatchmarks.

And the Char Crust did its job, too, forming a flavorful, not-too-salty crust wherever it was dredged on the chicken.

With or without BBQ sauce, the chicken was delicious. I used a very small amount of the Char Crust on the two breasts I cooked, so I think I'd be able to coat at least another dozen. I'm looking forward to tasting the other products I bought at Smoke 'n' Fire, as the Char Crust didn't disappoint and the grill pan made a fine debut.

If you like to grill, BBQ, smoke or do any sort of cooking, head over to Smoke 'n' Fire. Don't bring your camera, but do bring an appetite for grilling -- and some coupons of those printable coupons.

Smoke 'n' Fire
8030 W. 151st St.
Overland Park, KS 66223

Monday, March 10, 2008

So much better

My remedy for flavorless chicken worked like a charm.

Behold, chicken and waffles.

Sitting atop a buttery waffle and then doused with syrup and hot sauce, Stroud's chicken undergoes a complete transformation. At once sweet, salty and savory, this is the royal treatment for chicken.

Review: Stroud's

I went to an institution yesterday. Yes, I'm fine. No, the walls weren't padded. And no, I didn't have to wear a straight jacket. It wasn't that kind of institution.

In Kansas City, Stroud's is an institution people willingly go to. There aren't any barred windows or nurses in white uniforms, but rather pan-fried chicken and whole lot of history. I know for sure that I never want to be in an institution, but because of the underwhelming chicken and mediocre sides, I'm not so sure I'll be running back to this culinary institution.

Ira shows you where you can park.

As of 2005, Stroud's had two locations in Kansas City and one in Wichita. Since then, the original South KC location has closed; a new one is due to open later this month in Fairway. Stroud's at Oak Ridge Manor in North KC is a good 40-minute drive from the Kansas suburbs, but as a fried chicken fanatic, I was hardly put off by the distance.

Set back from the highway off a two-lane road, Stroud's occupies a 179-year-old building which served for years as a home for the Compton family. After changing hands a few times, the building was purchased by the owners of the original Stroud's in South KC, whose restaurant had already been frying up chicken for 50 years. Since 1983, Stroud's at Oak Ridge Manor has carried on the traditions established by the flagship restaurant.

Oak Ridge Manor is more charming than that guy who opens doors and pulls out chairs. Its white siding and green shutters give way inside to rustic oak and walnut logs and beams.

As if still being used as a home, the restaurant is composed of many rooms, all of which are used for dining. The walls are adorned with plaques and awards for the restaurant's famous fried chicken, with a number of newspaper and magazine articles interspersed for good measure. Hidden among the self-appreciation is a worn, ragged document in a black frame. Turns out it's the original deed for the property, signed in 1827 by some guy named John Quincy Adams.

I arrived at Stroud's with my friend Ira at 2:25 on a Saturday afternoon, just short of half an hour after opening. The hostess informed us that the dining room was full, so we had two options: wait 45 minutes for a table or eat the bar. Irked at first, we opted to eat at the five- or six-person bar, which was empty when we arrived, but full five minutes later.

If unable to eat in a dining room, the bar is an acceptable backup. Wrapped in the same warm wood as the dining rooms, the small bar has a warm, homey atmosphere that's not too prim or stuffy for licking grease off your fingers.

The bartender, who tended to us acutely during our entire lunch, took our orders and passed them on to the kitchen. In addition to a side dish and cinnamon rolls, a first course is served with every meal, giving diners a choice between chicken noodle soup and salad. I chose the soup and Ira the salad. Both arrived about five minutes after we placed our order.

The soup was a yellow broth with small globules of golden fat floating on top. In the broth were small, soft pieces of carrot, celery and onion, as well as shredded bits of chicken, evidence that the soup was made down the hall in the kitchen. I could've happily eaten a bowlful of the noodles and nothing more. Thick, hearty and tender, the noodles were among the best I've eaten.

Ira's salad was standard iceberg with one unusual ingredient. Nestled alongside the standard cucumber and croutons was a slice of ruby-red beet. Add a sprinkling of mozzarella and a couple of wedges of lemon for some extra flavor, and you have your Stroud's salad.

Half an hour after Ira and I finished our first courses, our entrees arrived. My wing, thigh, leg and breast were served on the same large platter as Ira's all-dark meal of two thighs and two legs. The chicken had a light brown crust that didn't quite qualify as golden.

Beneath the slight crunch of the underseasoned crust was underseasoned chicken. Nothing about the chicken as a whole was particularly flavorful, leaving my tastebuds disappointed. I applaud the kitchen for keeping the chicken moist, but I want to take the cooks shopping at Penzey's.

Being starch lovers, Ira and I ordered mashed potatoes and cottage fries as our side dishes. The mashed potatoes were starchy, which I like in baked potatoes but not in their mashed counterparts. The consistency was grainy, not creamy like mashed potatoes should be. Like the chicken, the mashers were sorely lacking in flavor. A hearty pinch of salt and some pepper would've made up for the fact that I couldn't taste any butter in the potatoes.

Perhaps the mashed potatoes were underseasoned so gravy could be ladled on top, but the gravy was sort of congealed and not particularly appealing, so I refrained from using it, instead letting it jiggle in its bowl. Please notice, though, the abundance of pepper in the gravy, evidence that someone in the kitchen knows where to find some and how to use it.

I associate cottage fries with Yours Truly, a small chain of restaurants in Northeast Ohio. Their crinkle-cut circular fries were golden and crispy on the outside, but fluffy and tender on the inside. Given the yardstick Stroud's cottage fries had to live up to, it's no surprise that they were a disappointment. They weren't crispy, they weren't golden, they weren't fluffy. I sometimes call myself a "French fry whore" because I enjoy and eat all fries, but I didn't eat more than a dozen of these cottage fries. Even a swim in some Heinz couldn't save these spuds.

For some reason, we were served a bowl of green beans. I don't think we were supposed to get them -- and Ira and I don't like green beans -- so they sat there on the bar, looking like they'd just emerged from an aluminum can. Yummy.

The cinnamon rolls served with the meal seemed better treated as a breakfast or as dessert, which may be why Stroud's doesn't have a dessert menu. With tops crusted in cinnamon sugar...

...the rolls were yeasty and fluffy inside...

...and buttery on the bottom. I'd eat one of these for breakfast, but I kept them far away from my fried chicken. I really would've enjoyed a flaky, buttery biscuit with my chicken, but there was no KFC within walking distance.

After licking my fingers clean, I pulled my credit card out of my wallet and paid for the $34 meal. Considering how much food comes with each meal, the $16-$20 price is a pretty good deal. But if you find that food lacking in flavor, a reasonable deal won't bring you back to any restaurant. So, I basically spent $20 on a really good bowl of chicken noodle soup.

I brought home some leftover chicken, which is now sitting in my fridge, waiting to be consumed. And I know just how to bring some flavor to it: butter, syrup and hot sauce. Chicken and waffles, here I come.

5410 NE Oak Ridge Dr.
Kansas City, MO 64119

P.S. Gratuitous chicken mailbox shot:

Sunday, March 9, 2008

A message from Bacon and Bakin'

And also today's lunch.

It's the double-smoked bacon from the Italian grocery and deli ("Specialita d'Italia") at City Market in KC. Four thick slices cost me $1.05. The bacon was out of this world. I baked it at 350 degrees for, oh, 10-15 minutes, until it was slightly crispy. Bacon this thick would have to be charred in order to be completely crispy, so aiming for a combination of meatiness and crispiness is best for this bacon. (I normally broil bacon, but I didn't feel like cleaning up a bacony broiler pan, so I opted for bakin' the bacon. Worked out nicely.)

The double-smoked bacon had a smoky flavor that did not overwhelm the flavor of the meat. I tasted not only smoke, but also pork; it was a nice balance. The tiny bit of rind was the best part of each slice. It got crispy out the outside, but stayed tender underneath that crust. The rind melted in my mouth.

As you see, there was a lot of meat in each slice and not a whole lot of fat. I hate when the fat in bacon is floppy, gelatinous, and generally unappetizing, but the dearth of fat in this bacon and the method of cooking ensured that I didn't end up with anything nasty on my plate.

I liked this grocery not only for their awesome bacon, but also for their groceries. Take, for example, their selection of DeCecco pastas. For $2, I bought a box of one of my favorite shapes of pasta. Here are the little tennis racquets bathing in creamy vodka sauce:

The store also sells the unbeatable San Marzano tomatoes, all sorts of olive oils and vinegars, and other imported products from Italy. Unfortunately, I didn't see pici there, that thick, Tuscan pasta I couldn't get enough of during my 10 days in Italy.

When I need good Italian groceries--or some outrageously good bacon--I know where I'll be going.

(P.S. I apologize for my truancy as of late. I have all sorts of stuff to write about now, so hang tight.)