Our food critic tried every food vendor at the Lenexa Public Market

Photography by Caleb Condit & Rebecca Norden.

In its beginning days, when the Lenexa Public Market was still figuring out what it wanted to be, it was a hodgepodge of independent merchants hawking everything from tea towels and T-shirts to coffee and the occasional tamale.

I know because I moved into an apartment across the street in 2017, the year it opened. The market was still finding its footing in the previously dormant suburban area. Part of Lenexa’s new city center—a massive development spearheaded by the city to create a “new downtown,”—the Lenexa Public Market (8750 Penrose Lane, Lenexa) has since established itself as an international food hall—and it’s blossoming.

As it stands now, the variety is astounding. The south wall alone offers authentic West African, Korean and Pakistani dishes. According to the market’s manager, Tessa Adcock, accumulating the market’s current spread of worldly cuisines was a natural process. The market has turned into an ideal place for aspiring chefs to set up shop without much overhead and see if they can make a go of it. As the market has evolved, so has the food.

Photography by Caleb Condit & Rebecca Norden.

Lenexa’s market has a solid track record of businesses that have flourished under its roof. The Taiwanese street food restaurant Chewology (which we named our Best New Restaurant in 2022) and Kate Smith Soirée’s bakery both started their journey at the market before graduating to brick-and-mortar shops in Westport and downtown Overland Park, respectively. It’s a place to keep your eye on for up-and-comers in KC’s food scene.

Six food stalls, and Mr. D’s Coffee, the caffeinated sister business to Mr. D’s Donuts, serve everything from curries and burgers to gelato and authentic street tacos. It’s as if you’re visiting the food court at the United Nations.

African Dream Cuisine

“Not Spicy” is the message displayed across the TV screen hovering over this one-hundred-square-foot kitchen space. Husband and wife Neba Ngwa and Stella Musongong aren’t sure why so many Midwesterners believe African food is inherently spicy. They assure you theirs isn’t. Musongong and Ngwa cook the way their grandmothers did in Cameroon—with whole ingredients that ooze rich flavor all on their own. Spicy isn’t an accurate description, but savory is.

Kongla fried rice, stews and vegetables make up African Dream Cuisine’s core menu. I ordered chicken stew with corn fufu, a starchy, almost doughy neutral-tasting food. On Musongong’s recommendation, I wadded up the fufu and used the small balls to sop up the stew. It was one of my first times trying fufu, and what impressed me more than the novelty of it all was the incredibly bright and fresh flavors that shined through despite the dish’s heartiness.

The smoked beef brisket was a little dry, but that didn’t stop me from devouring it along with the steamed potatoes and robust red pepper sauce. Ngwa used to smoke his meats onsite, but the limited kitchen space proved too challenging. He now uses an off-site smoker but it’s a process he is still trying to figure out, he says.

African Dream’s delicious sides are integral to help cut through the meaty entrees. The cabbage was perfectly crunchy, and the subtly sweet fried plantains complimented the many savory dishes. 

Cosmo Burger

Helmed by Chef Jacob Kruger, Cosmo Burger doesn’t stray too far from its niche: a beefy smash burger and crispy tater tots. Aside from a vegan variation and the occasional special, that’s all you’ll find on the burger merchant’s menu. That’s also all you’ll need to feel satisfied.

The trademark burger consists of a greasy patty, house-brined pickles, grilled onions, melted cheese and a special sauce all smashed together on a soft potato bun. You won’t miss fries. Golden brown tater tots make the perfect pairing.

I’ve indulged in plenty of Kruger’s trademark burgers (they’re my favorite in KC) at his original spot in Waldo’s Dodson’s Bar. Kruger took over the bar’s kitchen in 2020, wowing customers with his burgers. Unlike the dark, moody Dodson’s venue, Cosmo’s market location takes on a fresh design with neon lights and a full bar.

Recently, the burger joint has started canning its own cocktails in Lenexa Market’s upstairs kitchen, a space typically used to host pop-ups. I ordered the $8 watermelon tequila cocktail and, like many canned cocktails, it’s not exactly the most well-rounded drink. 

Sohaila’s Kitchen

Sohaila Humayon is not such a big fan of her butter chicken bowl, but others sure are. “It’s too sweet,” she says. It’s also not a traditional dish from Humayon’s home country of Pakistan, which is distinguished by its spicy flavors. But when Humayon and her children were developing recipes, they wanted to offer something approachable and less spicy for the Midwestern palate. The bed of basmati rice smothered with chicken and a creamy orange sauce is the Pakistani food stall’s best seller.

I found the chicken a bit dry, but it wasn’t anything the rich tomato-based sauce couldn’t compensate for. I was more interested in the menu items that are less apologetic representations of Humayon’s roots.

With the rest of the menu, Humayon lets her hair down, so to speak, especially on the weekends when she makes traditional Pakistani fare like the aromatic karahi keema (a tomato curry with ground beef) and channa paratha rolls (chickpeas tossed with a chutney, spicy slaw and stuffed into a flaky flatbread with raw red onions). Both dishes wowed with their depth of flavor yet maintained a refreshing quality. The samosas are not to be passed over. They’re huge, crispy and delicious.

Kimchi and Bap
Photography by Caleb Condit & Rebecca Norden.

Lisa Hamblen’s traditional Korean fare is the newest addition to the Lenexa Public Market’s swath of food vendors. The menu remains small, but the rice-and-veggie-heavy dishes should not be underestimated.

Currently, the main offerings are bibimbap and japchae. One of Korean food’s highlights is its expertly seasoned vegetables, and Hamblen does not disappoint. In the bibimbap, carrots, bean sprouts, spinach, cucumbers, bracken (an earthy vegetable with a meaty texture) and more sit on a bed of fluffy rice, yet the veggies maintain a crunchy quality, with each one delivering a complex flavor. The steamed egg and tender beef bulgogi create a whirlwind of umami-based richness.

The japchae consists of sweet potato noodles stir-fried with vegetables and served alongside rice and your choice of marinated beef or chicken. With a drizzle of gochujang sauce, it makes for a great comfort dish.

Another perk of Korean food is great leftovers. Leaving Hamblen’s dishes to sit, mingle and marinate only enhances their heavenly flavors. 

Red Kitchen

Alejandra de la Fuente began selling her tamales at Lenexa Public Market in 2017 as a pop-up. Now, she sells her authentic Mexican food out of a large space in the northeast corner of the market, and you can still snag her famous tamales to take home from the neighboring self-serve fridge.

Tex-Mex aficionados won’t find chips and salsa but instead classic flavors and dishes from de la Fuente’s Mexico City upbringing. Red Kitchen’s homey items like burritos, stacked tostadas and street tacos are hard not to love. The tacos de guisado come with white rice in corn tortillas and a choice of toppings. I recommend the chorizo and potatoes. The sharp and slightly spicy flavor is mellowed with white rice.

If you try anything from Red Kitchen, it should be the chilaquiles served only on weekends for breakfast and lunch. The tortilla chips, sauteed in a red chile sauce, are simultaneously crunchy and soft and mingle with salsa verde, crema, shredded chicken and raw onions. It is a roller coaster ride of textures and pungent flavors. Customers waiting in line for food “oohed and awed” when they saw my order. It was delicious.  

Topp’d Pizza + Salads 
Photography by Caleb Condit & Rebecca Norden.

I saw families with littles ones making the most out of free kids’ pizza night at Topp’d, and almost all of them finished it off with a scoop of gelato. It’s definitely a fun and easy spot to take the kids.

For me, with such an array of exotic dishes directly across the hall, I thought a standard pizza and salad stall might be a hard sell. But chef Chad Talbott has been with the Lenexa Public Market since the beginning, and his offerings are familiar and comfortable.

The pizzas have a hand-tossed thin crust, and Talbott doesn’t skimp on the ingredients. I decided to forgo personalizing my pizza and try the stall’s signature pie, a red sauce base loaded with melty cheese, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, black olives and red onions. It was quick and satisfying. The same goes for the Greek salad. The toasted Italian sub was fine, but I’d suggest sticking to the pies.

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