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My lack of enthusiasm for the snack shack dates to the moment I heard an especially pretentious and self-important Crossroads habitué claim to hold court here. "There's no place like it in Kansas City," she said, with theatrical fervor. "It's Paris in the 1920s! It's Gertrude Stein, Erik Satie!" At the time, I found it way closer to some B-movie version of a 1950s "beatnik" club in the Village: bongos, berets and beards.
For better and worse, YJ's today can't really be defined in any conventional way. It's cozy and crowded with stuff (including a piano that takes up a quarter of the dining room), and it really is a fabulous place for people watching (better in warm weather, when you can do your gazing outside). Some important names, in local art circles anyway, really do hang out here, and I can understand the allure of coffee sipping and gossiping. For dining? Not so much.
YJ's has an extremely limited menu. The daily special, no matter what it is, is strongly encouraged by the staff. The one I tasted one recent day was extraordinary in concept: a Middle Eastern lunch plate with a mound of delicious couscous studded with ruby pomegranate seeds and golden raisins, a spoonful of a fiery pepper hummus, a tiny salad dotted with feta cheese and chopped cucumber. So far, so good. But there was a lump of dry white rice and, perched atop it, a knot-shaped hunk of lamb that was so dry, fatty and chewy, I was able to try a bite only with some effort. Just one bite, though.
There was a chicken version, too, with pieces of bird so dry and stringy, they might have been scraped from a plate served to Satie in the 1920s.
The dining room is cleaner than it looks through the grungy windows, but the place means to be disheveled, with stacks of magazines, beads, paintings and plastic grapes scattered here and there. It's a kid's clubhouse, powered by a different brand of nostalgia than the other spots. And, more than any other place mentioned here, it courts its cult status.
I'm not the sort of unconventional customer that YJ's wants, but I now have a grudging respect for its popularity. It's fiercely iconoclastic, from the décor to its imaginative specials. There's nothing else like it in Kansas City (or in Paris).
None of these five restaurants really knock me out, but I'm in awe of the devotion that some diners have for them — it's a kind of borderline-religious zeal that you shouldn't question too much. I once asked a friend of mine, who had fallen in love with a man who had no obviously redeeming qualities, why him? "Because no one else can see what I see," she said.
It's the same for those chili dogs, burgers and tacos, that soup, and the habits that perpetuate them: a divine madness.