In 2018, actress and comedian Alyssa Limperis tweeted: “The airport is a lawless place. 7 a.m.? Drink a beer. Tired? Sleep on the floor. Hungry? Chips now cost $17.”
In all its hilarity, the viral tweet was a spot-on depiction of the chaos often experienced in airports. Manners of civility change in a place where tired and hungry travelers from around the world accumulate in masses. In the airport, that $13 stale who-knows-how-old ham and American cheese sandwich (aioli not included) at the newsstand will begin to look approachable to even your most pretentious foodie friend. Quality is not the priority.
However, Kansas City’s new airport is making a valiant attempt to prove that an airport terminal can serve up some tasty fare. The airport has more than thirty restaurants, over half of which are local establishments. On a recent trip to Arizona, I got to check out the new digs, and while overall I was pleased with the modernized travel hub, I was quickly reminded that airport food, even with plenty of effort and good will, struggles to surpass its lawless environment.
The local restaurants trying their hand in the airport space include some impressive names. Pigwich, Poio Mexican BBQ and Urban Cafe are small-business gems in Kansas City’s food scene, and I hold them in high regard. When I heard other local businesses like Brown and Loe, Soireé Steak and Oyster House, Meat Mitch and Stockyards Brewing Co. would join the lineup, my curiosity piqued.
It’s difficult to envision a local food establishment making a successful transition to the airport setting—not just because of the chaotic environment we are all too aware of but because of the vastly different business conditions. From operation hours and physical space to foot traffic and clientele, it’s a different arena.
The aforementioned beloved KC establishments specialize in creativity. Their original locations have infrastructures within their kitchens that encourage consistency and allow them to focus on the small details. Without the chef’s magic touch, a burger made in Pigwich’s City Market location, for example, will oftentimes not taste the same as one made elsewhere, no matter how similar the recipe and ingredients are. It’s not impossible, but replicating the magic of technique and skill is tough.
Nevertheless, the airport is committed to serving local food and, especially, to sharing KC’s most notable food genre: barbecue. It equipped itself with two 2,400-pound Southern Pride smokers in its dedication.
I arrived at 7 a.m. for my 2:30 p.m. flight to have enough time to explore and investigate.
I made my way down Concourse A to Urban Cafe, where the bacon, egg and cheese sandwich on sweet raisin bread gave me hope. It was soft, warm and served alongside fantastically seasoned breakfast potatoes. It was one of the best breakfast dishes I’ve ever had in an airport setting.
Surrendering to the chaos, I ordered the $20 pineapple blueberry cocktail made with Polly’s Pop, an Independence institution. The bartender claimed the absurd price is due to the leftover soda in the cutesy glass bottle being given to you to finish alongside your cocktail. They’ve got us right where they want us, folks.
The fried oyster po’boy from Soireé was surprisingly good. With a drizzle of remoulade sauce and a topping of pickled red onions, the presentation was what I would expect from a restaurant outside the airport, and I began to think I had been too skeptical.
Burgers and Cries
At the opposite end of Concourse A, however, Hearth provided the unsightly food I’ve come to associate with airports. The “locavore kitchen” features local foods from Kansas City farms and producers, with a friendly bar and grill menu. The brisket short rib burger packed with cottonwood cheddar, bacon and habanero jam came out from the kitchen in an uninspiring fashion. While the taste was ultimately unoffensive (it was a burger and fries, after all), the meal looked sad with its sweaty meat and soggy bun. Considering the atmosphere was sleek and modern, almost elegant, the burger was a stark contrast.
Made of KC Food Hall
Next to Hearth is the Made of KC Food Hall, which houses Bloom Baking Company, Poio Mexican BBQ, Hungry Hatch and Pigwich. The system is conveniently set up so you can order from all four menus online. My nachos from Poio, topped with the works, were an admittedly safe pick that I would eat again. However, there is no doubt in my mind that nachos at their original KCK location would put the ones I had to shame.
The same is true for the Pig Mac burger I got from Pigwich. Reminiscent of a McDonald’s Big Mac, the burger was disappointing with its very stale bun. Similar to Poio, had I ordered the exact same thing at Pigwich’s City Market location, I’d be raving about it from the rooftops. While Hungry Hatch also didn’t blow me out of the water, it’s a nice option to have if you want something health-forward.
Considering there is one chef behind the kitchen in this food court, it is no wonder the quality suffers. The kitchen is working on autopilot as they create other restaurant’s recipes. While this doesn’t mean they result in necessarily bad food, they are not great representations of the restaurants in which these recipes hail from.
The pulled pork sandwich ordered while at Stockyards Brewing Co. arrived in a pitiful display but was fine with enough sauce. The brewery was packed on my afternoon visit, and I couldn’t help but pause to appreciate the momentous occasion, sad sandwich and all, of a busy restaurant in our own KC airport.
Meat Mitch’s barbecue restaurant is welcoming with its floor-to-ceiling windows and bright modern layout. I was surprised to see the great presentation on my barbecue platter, but the brisket was dry.
Good Is Great
Naturally, any local restaurant doing business in an airport for the first time will need time to adjust.
“The patterns [of foot traffic] are crazy because it can be really slow and then all of the sudden there’s two hundred people who want to be fed,” says owner Mitch Benjamin of Meat Mitch. “The expectations are that [the airport restaurant] matches exactly what we do in our Overland Park location, but naturally there’s a learning curve. We’ll get there.”
I know that Pigwich’s City Market location serves some of the best sandwiches in the city and the West Bottom’s Stockyards is a phenomenal brewery. I’d recommend these places to anyone—certainly anyone visiting from out of town.
Given the trials and tribulations that naturally occur with the airport being so young, judging its food feels like judging the service at the DMV. Is it great? Of course not. Does it do what it needs to do? Yes. Am I going to most likely deal with a disgruntled employee and sympathize with them yet still want to get what I came for? Also, yes. With that being said, if you’re eating at the airport, here’s how you should navigate it.
Focus on easy eats that are hard to screw up—in other words, foods that require minimal prep. The fried smoked chicken salad at Meat Mitch is really delicious and doesn’t set high expectations. Poio’s nachos are also a great example. These dishes are forgiving and can withstand some variance in quality.
Order all barbecue at your own risk. Be prepared to douse the meat in sauce.
Is the $20 cocktail worth it? Maybe, if you’re in a jetlagged haze or have the screw-it attitude of the weary traveler who has been cooped up in economy for the past five-plus hours. In that case, the price and bright yellow bottle of soda might just be the perfect act of comfortable anarchy. While I didn’t partake, many restaurants have self-pour beer stations, a fun and novel concept not seen at many other airports.
Despite a few disappointments, all the local options are still better than stopping at the Cinnabon. What I experienced at the airport is just a small sampling of the airport’s offerings.
Considering one of the biggest complaints of the old terminal was its dearth of food options, it’s possible that excitement overtook the new planners and they overcompensated. Only time will tell.
Despite my critiques, the variety alone is stellar and the options are endless. The airport has succeeded in serving a vast array of good food to satisfy travelers. “Good” often is not considered a glowing critique for food, but I assure you, in the airport setting—and such a young one at that—“good” is a great category to be in.