Now 135th Street is the new 119th Street. A new crop of restaurants has sprouted along that thoroughfare to keep residents of those cookie-cutter housing developments dining practically in their own backyards as Johnson County keeps pushing its way south.
Apparently, there's a whole generation of suburban homeowners out there who wouldn't dream of driving north of 75th Street for a meal. Recently, I met a young woman from Olathe who had never been to the Country Club Plaza and expressed no interest in ever going there. And she'd never heard of Zona Rosa up north. "Is that right outside of St. Joseph?" she asked me.
The flip side of that story could be about my friend Ned, who lives in midtown and flatly refuses to drive south of 95th Street because, he says, he gets migraines looking at the pretentiously grand entrances to developments with names like Patrician Woods.
Ned usually balks at dining in the Kansas suburbs, but after I took him to a new restaurant called Wil Jenny's, he confessed to liking it so much that he actually tried to go back a few days later. Not alone, of course, but accompanied by a Johnson County friend "the one who tore down an ugly 1960s Leawood ranch and built a divine mansion," is how he describes her. They got hopelessly lost.
"I couldn't remember if it was on 131st Street or 145th Street," Ned told me. (The restaurant is on neither street.) "And calling directory assistance didn't help because I kept calling the place Will Penny's."
Will Penny is the name of a 1968 movie about an aging cowboy. Wil Jenny's, on the other hand, is the name that Kevin Timmons and Doug Watkins founders of the two successful Nick & Jake's Bar and Grills have given their four-month-old dining concept (which is, conveniently, right across the parking lot from the first Nick & Jake's).
There's some cutesy fake legend about the restaurant's namesake (a poor Texas boy who became an oil mogul, blah, blah, blah) that's as silly as the menu's "Texas Caviar" a four-bean salad in a slightly sweet vinaigrette. (The restaurant's moniker combines the first names of Timmons' daughter and Watkins' son.) But even if no actual Texas wildcat inspired Wil Jenny's, it's the kind of joint that a Hollywood cowpoke like Will Penny played by the solidly Republican Charlton Heston would find perfectly comfortable. It's more luxury than Lubbock. The expensively mounted dining room just borders on hoity-toity, even though the menu is strictly roadhouse fare: traditional Tex-Mex dishes (fajitas, chile rellenos, tacos) with home-style Lone Star favorites such as smoked beef brisket, chicken fried steak, prime rib and green-bean casserole.
Bob and Ned loved the place instantly. Ned was impressed by the costly fabric used to upholster the cozy banquettes; Bob admired the soaring ceiling and the stone fireplace mantel surrounding a crackling gas-flame fire. "Why don't they open places like this in the middle of the city?" Ned asked. "Don't they think city dwellers would dine at a restaurant like this if it were located on 13th Street instead of 135th Street?"
I reminded him that the last time a cowboy-inspired, Southwestern-style restaurant opened in the heart of Kansas City, it was the ill-fated Canyon Café on the Plaza. "But that place had awful food," Bob said. "The food at Wil Jenny's is really good."
I'll confirm that. On one visit, I could barely finish a wagon-wheel-sized platter heaped with brisket and spinach enchiladas because I'd already filled up on soft corn tortillas dipped in creamy white cheddar queso and then sipped a soothing cup of the heartiest chicken tortilla soup I'd ever encountered.
At that meal, I was dining with my friend Franklin, who calls Wil Jenny's lean brisket slathered with a spicy barbecue sauce made in Hutchinson, Kansas not quite up to the perfection of urban barbecue joints like Bryant's or Gates, but pretty damn good.
"It might be first-class Texas barbecue, but it's not Kansas City barbecue," he said. "The side dishes are extraordinary, though. The corn pudding is just this side of nirvana. I'd come back just for that, if I had any idea where the hell we are."
Because Wil Jenny's is deep in the heart of Johnson County and not in Texas, it's more salon than saloon, with white-cloth napkins and colorful china on top of butcher paper. But the meals are modestly priced, and the young servers are loaded with pep and personality though not all of them have developed that unique knack for keeping an eye on all of their tables at the same time.
"When a server is young and beautiful, you can overlook a lot of little flaws," Ned said on the night he dined there with me. "Like forgetting to bring fresh silverware."
Ned was fascinated by the idea of eating a deep-fried chile relleno stuffed with slow-smoked beef brisket instead of cheese and ordered that dish after stuffing himself silly on warm tortilla chips and a mild but tasty guacamole. "This may be the only menu in town where you can order prime rib, a cheeseburger and a steak with fried eggs and enchiladas," he noted.
Servers bring out that smoked prime rib only after 5 p.m., but diners can always order a French-dip sandwich, made from shaved slices of rib. I barely finished half of this terrific, two-fisted affair: luscious beef piled on an onion roll and drenched in white cheddar queso. That night, my appetite had been tempered by an excellent fajita salad an ice-cold jumble of iceberg and romaine tossed with black beans, corn, cheese, tortilla strips and thick slices of chicken breast.
As Ned gave a running monologue about his remarkable relleno slathered in rojo sauce he claimed it was "one of the best things I've ever eaten in my life" Bob quietly enjoyed a platter crowded with smoked sausage, a couple of meaty spare ribs, several slices of tender brisket, and a cup of a cheese-drenched creamy hash-brown casserole. It could have fed a half-dozen serious wranglers, but Bob cleaned his plate and had room for dessert.
We agreed that the slab of pecan pie was the least winning entry on the dessert tray. (It was served cold and tasted like a defrosted commercial bakery product.) Ned's hefty mound of hot peach cobbler was probably the best. There are other things I'd like to try on Wil Jenny's dessert menu, but that would require a lot more self-control earlier in the evening and several more trips out south.
But I might as well enjoy the drive to 135th Street, before the county really does sprawl all the way to Texas. Wil Jenny's Tables & Tap