But Kansas City has always been a steak town, thanks to its historic connection to the stockyards. Over the past decade beef fell in and out of fashion (thanks to an array of medical reports weighing in -- pro and con -- on the healthful effects of eating red meat) in other parts of America, but it's always been big in Kansas City.
In the 1996 edition of Food: A Culinary History, Harvey Levenstein wrote that as early as 1793, "an impressed French traveler estimated that Americans ate seven to eight times as much meat as bread.... Like their British forebears, Americans were suspicious of fresh vegetables and preferred to cook them (and fruits, too) until they were almost mush."
Two hundred years later, a grilled steak and mushy vegetables (mashed potatoes, boiled green beans, baked beans) is still considered an all-American combination. But thanks to a growing ethnic community, there are more intriguing ways to sample cow in this cowtown.
How about a hearty plate of Com Bi Cha Bo Nuong (char-broiled beef and egg loaf) or Pho Bo (rice noodle soup with beef) at the new Vietnam 2000 Cafe (522 Campbell)? This restaurant has set up shop in the 19th-century drugstore building that for many years housed Kansas City's first Vietnamese restaurant, the beloved Kim Nguyen Deli.
The new owners have given the formerly mauve interior a fresh coat of paint (baby blue this time), and the old booths seem to have been re-upholstered, but the place looks much the same: unpretentious and ancient. At a recent lunch, the room was filled with business types in three-piece suits, construction workers in dusty tank tops and boots, and, at one table, two chic ladies in slinky chiffon pantsuits.
Because of the Buddhist influence on Vietnam, plenty of vegetarian dishes grace that country's culinary repertoire. The Vietnam 2000 Cafe offers vegetarian versions of crunchy spring rolls wrapped in soft rice paper (the other kind has pieces of pink shrimp) and meat-free soups and rice dishes. Carnivores like me, however, can be grateful that in the 13th century, Vietnam was invaded by Mongols, who brought their love of beef with them and ultimately inspired a number of excellent dishes, such as the beef-and-noodle Pho soups.
At Vietnam 2000, the soup arrives hot and steamy in a big plastic bowl, ready to be dressed up with a splash of the piquant nuoc cham (made with salty nuoc mam, a fermented fish sauce) and bits of lemony fresh cilantro, a squeeze of fresh lime and -- for the brave -- a dash of hot chili sauce. The soups are big enough for two, especially after adding a second dish, such as a fragrant plate of lemon grass chicken with rice.
One of this restaurant's best appetizers -- the fried and crunchy fritters made with shrimp and sweet potatoes -- is meat-free but makes an excellent prelude to a dinner of Bun Bo Nuong, char-broiled beef with rice vermicelli. The hot, crispy orange fritters are split at the table, wrapped in cool lettuce leaves and dipped in sweet and tart nuoc cham, that addictively tangy sauce made of sugar, vinegar chilies, nuoc mam, and fresh lime. A few bites of this and you'll never long for a french fry again.