For a few weeks each year, Kansas City winters make it impossible to get warm. No amount of long underwear or itchy wool socks help, so we cuss more than usual. We dream of being able to use "winter" as a verb: "This year I am going to winter in San Diego." One time, I shoved hand warmers in my pants before I walked to Broadway Café - true story. Midwest weather can be brutal.
Before you start thinking that this whole concept of "seasons" is overrated, warm up with one of these local soups. For 20 minutes, they'll take your mind off the cold - or whatever winter woes may be troubling you.
1. Seafood pho at Vietnam Café after shoveling all the snow that none of the neighbors would.
Much like heated floor tiles or hot yoga, the word pho is enough to increase my core temperature. This traditional Vietnamese soup is fairly simple. It contains broth, rice noodles, herbs and beef or chicken, though tofu can be substituted for the meat.
At Vietnam Café (2200 West 39th Avenue, Kansas City, Kansas), protein options also include brisket, pork or seafood. The dish is made with spices imported from Southeast Asia and served with a side plate of garnishes: fresh bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, jalapeños, and lime wedges. Pho is the culinary equivalent of a Beach Boys song - it warms you from the inside out. You might say it soothes the soul.
2. "Soupy" chili at Dixon's Chili Parlor because you haven't seen the sun in a week and just need a damn nap.
Dixon's (9105 East U.S. Highway 40, Independence) has been dishing up beans and beef for the fine people of Independence since 1919. In addition to its recipes, the restaurant hasn't much changed its appearance. The plain Formica tabletops and neon sign provide a nostalgic, no-nonsense ambience. People come here for one reason: to shovel down-home foodstuffs into their face holes.
That said, this venerable institution's take on chili is probably a little different from what you grew up eating. It arrives on a plate instead of in a bowl, and you can order it dry, soupy or greasy. According to our friendly waitress, a veteran in the art of chili assemblage, the greasy version involves "meat grease," so I went with the soupy, which contains bean broth. Extra ingredients are available on the side. I seasoned mine with onions, cheese, jalapeños, pickles, vinegar and chili powder. It's kind of a DIY operation, so it's rewarding when you get the flavor just right.
3. Sweet-potato soup with crème fraîche and slivered almonds at Room 39, for when you have feelings you don't understand.
This intimate space has become an area favorite thanks to its ever-changing seasonal menu of locally grown and raised items. (The winter offerings highlight Campo Lindo Farms, in Lathrop, Missouri.) Whatever you do, don't go to Room 39 (1719 West 39th Street) expecting to have a cheap, light dinner. With options including sheep's-milk cheese (from Green Dirt Farm, in Weston) and wine-steamed mussels, you'll want to try a bit of everything; in fact, you should probably just spring for the four-course tasting menu so you don't miss out.
The night I stumbled in from the cold, the restaurant was serving sweet-potato soup, which was rich, creamy and satisfying without being too thick or filling. It also wasn't too heavily seasoned, so the potatoes' natural sweetness still surfaced. Upon finishing it, announced my intention to order more and marry it.
4. Chicken noodle soup at Stroud's, because you need to call your mom back already.
When I tell people I haven't eaten at Stroud's (4200 Shawnee Mission Parkway, Fairway), they act like I just punched their grandmother. Mouth agape, eyes bulging, they're shocked and borderline offended. "Really?" they say, unable to fathom this reality. It's the same way people react when I tell them I haven't seen Star Wars.
But after finally dining at this 80-year-old Kansas City mainstay, I get it. The place has been serving up Helen Stroud's recipes for longer than most of us have been alive. Most important, the food is damn good. I tried a bowl of chicken noodle soup, and it was like the kind my mom used to make, with hearty chunks of meat and thick egg noodles. The broth was so flavorful and warming that I wanted to take some with me in a to-go thermos.