Our critic sings the praises of Papa Lew's Buffet 

I have a friend who lives in California and comes to visit once a year. She's fond of Kansas City's iconic restaurants (Stroud's, Arthur Bryant's, Plaza III), but she's particularly thrilled if we can squeeze in a visit to the 12-year-old Peachtree Buffet (6800 Eastwood Trafficway) for what she calls a "soul-food extravaganza."

The buffet was created by James and Vera Willis, owners of the new Peachtree Restaurant in Lee's Summit (see review). The place quickly built a loyal following of fans hungry for generous portions of home-style cooking — including fried chicken, baked chicken, beef ribs, cornmeal-crusted catfish, fluffy yeast rolls and arguably the best bread pudding in the city. It's already outlasted most of its rivals, including the beloved Three Friends Bar-B-Q at 2461 Prospect, which had offered a weekend buffet on the second floor of the building.

But another soul-food buffet deserves some serious praise here: Papa Lew's Buffet. It's been at 2128 East 12th Street for four years but was started by the late Lewis Lyman Sr. at 18th and Vine in 1982 — long before this historic neighborhood got a makeover, two museums and, for a time, the original Peachtree Restaurant.

The buffet at Papa Lew's is smaller and less elaborate than at the Peachtree, but the staff and customers are warm and friendly, and the food is wonderful. The restaurant opens at 8 a.m. for breakfast (both buffet and menu offerings), but so far I've only stuffed myself at lunch, on great fried chicken and extraordinary chicken and dumplings. The menu changes daily, but I love the crunchy catfish fingers, the creamy mac and cheese, the flavorful greens, the cornbread and the fried pork chops. My server chided me for skipping the tender neckbones and black-eyed peas, but I had already eaten too much by that point and almost passed on tasting the two cobblers, peach and apple. They looked so tempting that I had to try, you know, a couple of small bowls.

On Thursdays — from 6 to 9 p.m. — Papa Lew's offers all-you-can-eat crab legs and the soul-food buffet and a beverage for less than $20. "It's a really good deal," my waitress told me.

It's a deal as sweet as the casino buffets, and, even better, Papa Lew's is nonsmoking. Now hand me a plate, baby.

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