When EJ’s Urban Eatery in the West Bottoms at 1414 W. Ninth St. opens Tuesday, it will be Kansas City’s first Meat and Three.
In the South, the term means a cafeteria-style restaurant offering a choice of a meat and up to three vegetable side dishes.
A trip to Nashville’s iconic Arnold’s Country Kitchen inspired chef John C. Smith introduce the concept here.
“These meat and three in the South, they were the town hall that was the sense of place,” says Smith, who previously worked for The Jacobson, Pig & Finch and 801 Chophouse. “That was where everyone went.… It was a place where you got a piece of home.”
In a turbulent and divided world, the classically trained chef also aims to make the kind of food that brings people together.
“I would love to have Republicans and Democrats sitting at the same table next to each other because food brings people together.… Why can’t we take something a lot of people are familiar with, and why can’t it be something casual, fun and energetic with a modern twist — but still comforting, relaxing and joyful?”
Smith grew up in Chicago, but his family has roots in Holly Springs, Miss. When he moved to Kansas City, he immediately homed in on Missouri’s Southern flavor roots, including a taste for barbecue, fried chicken, smoked meats and garden-fresh produce.
Smith expects the remodeled brick-cedar-tin interior that was once Jerry’s Woodsweather Cafe to serve as a neighborhood joint attracting industrial workers and antiques hunters during the week, but attract Kansas Citians from across the metro on weekends, similar to Arnold’s.
“In line with me was the governor and his two Secret Service guys. In line with me was two players from the Nashville Predators. In line with me was three of the four Tennessee Titans. In line with me was (country singer) Blake Shelton,” Smith says.
Guests at EJ’s will walk up to a host counter, view the menu on a chalkboard reflecting the daily selection, and place their order, which is served to them at the table. The menu will feature brisket, ribs, fried chicken and biscuits and gravy — Smith will add his own chef-inspired twist.
“I thought, what if I happened to use local vegetables and source heritage beef out by Lone Jack? What if I use fresh fish and the best ingredients?” he says.
Breakfast will include fried chicken sandwiches, shrimp and grits, avocado toast and egg and dirty rice burritos. Lunch includes soups, salads and sandwiches, including pimento grilled cheese and Texas Hot Guts (a smoked beef sausage sandwich on a brioche bun with Creole mustard and giardiniera).
Meat and three options start with a choice of espresso-rubbed smoked brisket, a half herbed-roasted chicken, smoke pork loin with ginger, chile and thyme, blackened catfish, salmon stuffed with shrimp or pastrami rubbed grilled beef tips.
Vegetable options include local greens, roasted Brussels sprouts with green apples and honey, mashed potatoes and gravy, baked macaroni and cheese, dirty rice and smoke carrots with brown sugar molasses glaze and toasted peanuts, Creole seasoned fries, spicy creamed corn, sauteed French beans and fried green tomatoes.
Espresso-rubbed brisket with braised mixed greens and white barbecue sauce ($9): I tasted the first brisket to come out of a Fast Eddy’s Cookshack pellet smoker. A fan of fragrant, tender, hickory-smoked beef slices with an aromatic espresso crust arrived on a simple white plate.
The brisket is brined, rubbed with espresso from Blip Coffee Roasters in the West Bottoms and smoked for 12 hours until the center is nice and juicy and the outside has developed a bark, something that Smith refers to as “the crust.” The slices revealed a line of fat still intact, which made for exceptionally moist meat.
The Alabama white sauce is a spin that pays homage to Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur, Ala., where the popular mayo- based sauce was created in 1925. The peppery sauce was originally used with chicken and pork but works well with other meats. “I hope I do them proud,” Smith says.
Turnip and collard greens from Crum’s Heirlooms are a side offering. The greens are braised in a burbling stock of seasoned ham stock made from Burgers’ Smokehouse ham, garlic, onions, jalapenos, vinegar, honey, salt and pepper. The tender greens are finished with additional bits of chopped ham and a dash of Crystal Louisiana hot sauce.
Breakfast ribs with redeye gravy-hollandaise ($9): These tasty, slightly spicy pork spareribs are brined overight in apple cider vinegar then rubbed with breakfast sausage seasoning — brown sugar, sage, thyme, black pepper, salt and crushed red chili pepper. Then they’re smoked for six hours over hickory wood to produce what Smith calls “competition-style” — the meat is tender but requires a bite to get it off the bone.
Smith drizzles the ribs with a redeye gravy whisked into a housemade mayo to create a redeye gravy-hollandaise. The mustard-colored sauce is drizzled over the ribs and served with bread-and-butter pickles and jalapeno slices. The red-eye gravy also makes an appearance on the shrimp and grits.
Biscuits and gravy (full-order $6, half-order $4): This version is more refined — and layered with subtle flavor — than many served around town. The biscuits are light and flaky. The gravy is made from beef hot link sausage and country ham for smoke and extra body smoothed out with a bit of sherry vinegar and Crystal Louisiana hot sauce for some back-end heat.
Hours: Breakfast 7-11 a.m., lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Brunch 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Coming in fall, dinner Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday brunch.