BY OWEN MORRIS
Some of the best meals available in Kansas City are not on any menu. They're “off-menu” items, and they exist at almost every restaurant, available to regulars and whoever else is lucky enough to find out about them.
But you can’t just walk into most restaurants and ask about off-menu items. Many chefs will take that as an affront to the menu they designed, and waiters who don’t recognize you will give you the stink-eye as they think, “Who is this chump that thinks he owns the place?”
But these items do exist and they can be delicious. You just have to know what to ask for. Here are three that would make a good start.
Chicken tenders at Houston's Restaurant on the Plaza
fingers tenders are normally a food more befitting of the kid’s menu, but Houston's are an exception. These aren't frozen breaded bags of crap but plump pieces of chicken with a unique breading that lightly coats the chicken instead of smothering it. Yet you won't find the chicken tenders on the Plaza mainstay's menu -- kid's or otherwise.
Houston's General Manager Charlotte Hopkins says that's not because Houston's is elitist but simply because it doesn't have room on the menu. "We try to keep the menu a manageable size and so we take items off for space reasons," she says. "We still use the tenders in our club salad and we're more than happy to make them for any customer."
When I told Hopkins that Houston's chicken tenders may be the worst kept secret in town, she just laughed. "They're not meant to be secret. They were on the menu for 20 years. Probably half the employees in the kitchen don't know they're off the menu since they're such a popular item."
Pollo Abruzzi at Anthony's Restaurant
The downtown Italian establishment has a much bigger menu than Houston's but still couldn't find space for all its classics. That includes the pollo abruzzi, a fried chicken breast covered in a traditional abruzzi sauce of butter and lots and lots of garlic.
Waiter/bartender Donnie Cox says the kitchen tries to be as flexible as it can for its customers. "With the pollo abruzzi, it's no big deal since we have veal abruzzi on the menu. We do stuff like that all the time, like switch the meat or take off the vegetables. Since everything is made from scratch we'll try to use any ingredients we have to make it. If you don't see it on the menu, just ask." As for his favorite off-item menu, Cox doesn't hesitate. "It's the shrimp-genovasse. It's an alfredo and oil and butter sauce with these jumbo shrimps. The flavors are amazing."
Waldman Crispy Chicken at Princess Garden
Like Anthony's, Princess Gardens, located at 89th and Wornall, is another long-time establishment with a loyal clientele. The restaurant has even named one of its dishes after a customer.
Waldman Crispy Chicken is a poultry take on the traditional crispy beef dish, with a lighter sauce. Dr. Steven Waldman has been a customer for 30 years. He gives credit for the dish to his son Corey. "It's like having a really crispy sesame chicken and I love sesame chicken," Corey says.
The dish has "amazing flavors," Dr. Waldman says. "A hint of peanut and orange with a very good bite that’s also has some spice and is crisp.”
Another off-menu item he orders is the pine-nut chicken. “The chef, Robert, is a true, creative chef," Waldman says, "and any dish, on or off the menu, will have innovative, bold flavors.”
"I Leave Myself in the Chef's Hands."
It’s a little trick of the trade that you can walk into almost any fine-dining establishment and utter some variation of those words.
That’s restaurant-speak for "give me your best". But beware, it’s a double-edged sword. While the meal will surely be impressive, it's also a chance for the chef to finally make his most extravagant dish -- one that he loves but no patrons dare order because it's four times the cost of other entrees.