Chow Town

Tasty tenderloin can be found in this unexpected Kansas City store

The Lunch Box’s panko-breaded tenderloin is crispy and made with fresh meat.
The Lunch Box’s panko-breaded tenderloin is crispy and made with fresh meat. Special to The Star

“Where? Really? Uh-huh. A good tenderloin? OK. You’re sure? In a liquor store?”

Click.

I’ve just been given another tenderloin tip. Ever since my tenderloin article from October 2015 was posted, I get these tips all the time. Some end up great, some are just so-so. With this particular tip, it’s hard for me to believe that I’m going to find a hand-pounded, made-fresh-daily, nicely seasoned tenderloin inside a liquor store. I guess I shouldn’t be so skeptical; Kansas City has a world-class barbecue joint inside a gas station. So, I’m ready to do some research for the Chow Town readers.

This place is open on Labor Day, so our party of three drives to the West Bottoms. I’m vaguely familiar with the area but can’t exactly place this particular location. Then I turn the corner, and there it is. You can’t miss it: a standalone, bright red building, which sets it apart from the muted tones worn by most buildings in that area. The sign out front says 9th Street Liquor, but I’m told inside is The Lunch Box.

Prepared for an “interesting” encounter, we walk in. The first thing I notice is how clean the store is. And there are tables. Actual tables and chairs in a liquor store? OK, I’m surprised.

Above the front counter are four huge chalkboard menus, filled with tempting options. One board is for breakfast; one for sandwiches; one for burgers, dogs and sausages; and a final chalkboard for munchies, sides, salads, etc. This “liquor store” is serious about serving up some food. And I’m serious about wanting to chow down on this food. We don’t hesitate.

We all place our order with the friendly guy behind the counter. Tenderloin, single burger with cheese, fries and a BLT. As we’re waiting, I take a look around the store. Beer, liquor and soda line the exterior walls of the structure, while clearly the main area is occupied by the five tables and 14 chairs. It’s almost like this isn’t a liquor store trying to be a restaurant, but more like a small diner that has a huge variety of drink options … and you can get those options to go.

The food is brought to the table, including our waters. Often, you can’t get that sort of service in a lot of other fast-casual places, and this is happening in a liquor store. Before my mom and I get the chance to even touch our food, my wife is already excited. “Oh wow, try the fries, try the fries,” she says. Without skipping a beat, my mom and I both grab some. And yes, they are really good. Truly “fresh cut daily” as the chalkboard promised, as well as nicely seasoned with salt and pepper.

Now it’s time for the moment of truth. A hush falls over our table. It’s time to get serious, and check out our lunch.

I bite into the oversized protruding edge of my tenderloin. My initial thoughts are: This is crispy, the meat was fresh (not frozen) and seasoned (many places miss this step), and the breading is seasoned, too. Wait a second! This isn’t the normal “tenderloin type” breading that I’m used to. It’s panko. Panko! The only other time I’ve had that was when I made it at home myself. Using panko may defy tenderloin tradition for some folks. But because of my background and interests, I’m don’t really feel bound by tradition. I’m more interested in great flavor, taste and texture. And this tenderloin, my friends, is winning in all of those categories.

One by one, each of us extols the merits of our lunch decisions.

“This is the perfect-sized BLT (with cheese) for me. And look at all of this bacon,” says mom.

“Check out this burger,” says my wife. And I did. It was fresh-ground beef like the ones that I make at home — no frozen puck haphazardly tossed on a flat top — and for only $5. That’s something you don’t see very often.

Now I feel the need to get to the bottom of all of this. It just doesn’t make sense to me. When I get to the counter, I meet Aaron Fleenor, the owner of 9th Street Liquor/The Lunch Box. “OK, what’s the deal?” I ask. “I’d figured you’d just be serving food made out of frozen products. After all, you’re right around the corner from Restaurant Depot. That would be easy for the local lunch business.”

“Sure, I could,” says Fleenor, “but I used to be in the restaurant industry, and I know the difference between fresh, quality foods versus frozen, industrial food. Trust me, US Foods stops by frequently to show me how they could save me money and labor by selling me prepackaged, frozen products,” he laughs. “The thing is, I just don’t want to do it. To me, it’s worth it to thinly slice the KC strip for our cheesesteak. I prefer to hand-pound out the tenderloin and bread it with the seasoned panko. I want to grind the beef each day to make a better burger. It’s the details that matter.”

I couldn’t agree more.

And we didn’t wait long to go back. A few days later, we tried the Cuban and grilled chicken club sandwiches. Both were delicious and generously portioned. Soon we’ll have to try what Fleenor says is his best-seller, the breakfast burrito. If it’s anything like what we’ve had so far, I know we’ll leave happy and satisfied.

If you want to have your own surprise and experience eating in a liquor store, I highly recommend stopping by 9th Street Liquor & Deli (otherwise known as The Lunch Box) at 1701 W. Ninth St. They are open 365 days a year and operate from 7 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and 9 a.m. to midnight on Sunday. Get your fill of some great homemade food, and who knows, you might find some other satisfying beverages to take home with you.

And please keep those tips coming my way. Bon appétit.

Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS barbecue judge, a student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.

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