I grew up in Kansas City. And as a little kid I used to love to go to work with my dad and hang out with his friends, especially when they went to lunch. They always seemed to find these cozy places that were almost electric with energy.
One of the places they used to go that I remember was called Ross’ Grill, located somewhere downtown, on Grand, I think. Ross’ specialty was tenderloin sandwiches. And I just don’t mean any tenderloin. I mean the huge “bigger than your head” type of tenderloin.
My dad and his dad loved tenderloins. In fact, when grandpa would take us down to the Ozarks, we always had to stop by some roadside place and eat tenderloins. They were always the huge spilling-over-the-bun type. Since that’s what I grew up with, that’s what I consider the norm or “gold standard” for tenderloin sandwiches.
As I got older, I would always try to find those types of tenderloins and the joints that made them; I’m sure I was trying to relive those memories. But I was disappointed by what I was finding out there. Maybe I just didn’t know where the good places were anymore.
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By the time I was in my 30s, my wife and I left Kansas City and started traveling the U.S., which made finding the gold standard of tenderloins even more elusive. While we were having new culinary experiences in other regions, that perfect tenderloin was always in the back of my mind, nagging me.
We would go around and try different places only to be disappointed because we were served some previously frozen, puny, puck of a tenderloin on a boring bun. You just can’t recover from that no matter how good the fries are, right? So, I pretty much gave up on this quest.
Then we moved back to Kansas City. Wow, how my hometown had changed! Downtown was expanding and was no longer a weekend wasteland. The culinary scene was really evolving. But I still had a longing for that childhood tenderloin.
By this time, I’d probably immortalized my tenderloin expectation so much that there was no way I could possibly find any place that met my standard. I went on the hunt for that elusive sandwich again. This time, I was armed with a lot more information and had excellent recommendations from my culinary friends.
Did I find some tenderloins that met my long-held expectation? You bet I did. Ahh … finally, my dry spell of crappy tenderloins was broken.
So here are some of my favorite places to get a tenderloin. Now, I don’t want to start a fight. I’m just saying these are some of mine, in no particular order:
▪ Christy’s Tasty Queen in the Turner area of Kansas City, Kan.
▪ Lew’s Grill & Bar in the Waldo area of Kansas City
▪ Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange (bar menu only as a mini tenderloin) in the Crossroads area of Kansas City
▪ Kitty’s Cafe in Kansas City
▪ Tenderloin Grill in Kansas City
▪ Conrad’s Restaurant & Alehouse in Liberty
Just when I thought that I had this whole “tenderloin of my youth” issue resolved, I get tagged on Facebook by my friend, David Schulman. “Craig Jones, you need to try this tenderloin.” I was skeptical. But then I saw the picture of it. It looked amazing … and huge!
OK, that convinced me to give it a try. I get my crack team of eight fellow tenderloin experts together and we make a trek to this place that I had never heard of in the Northland.
Although I grew up north of the river, I have to admit I don’t go up there much to explore food. However, recent finds like Dominic’s Italian Express and Smitty’s Diner are a couple of great examples of why I should. Anyway, right in the heart of North Kansas City, on 20th Avenue just north of the intersection of Swift and Armour is Christine’s Firehouse Grill and Bar (220 E. 20th Ave., North Kansas City.)
We sat ourselves at some hightops that are right off of what appears to be a stage and dance floor. We were greeted by a friendly and welcoming waitress. We accept the menus as a courtesy, but we all know what we want. Tenderloins!
As our waitress returns for drink orders, all of the menus are closed and on the table. “Tenderloin with everything” … for everyone at the table. The only variation that I can remember was someone ordered the beer battered curly fries (highly recommended).
While we’re waiting, everyone talks tenderloins, and what defines a good one. The coating (must not fall off), the size (it must be dramatically larger than the bun), the flavor (it must be seasoned properly — not boring), the thickness (thick, but not too thick), the tenderness (no gristle) and the toppings (there was quite a divergence on this topic, but mustard, mayo, onions, and horseradish seemed common). And it should go without saying, but no frozen patties.
Next topic: What was everyone’s favorite tenderloin and why.
“Have you tried (name your place)?” or “I don’t like the way they serve them at (another place).”
Clearly, everyone in this crew has their informed opinion and their favorite place. It’s going to be hard to sway anyone. Maybe this crowd is too tough and set in their ways for this outing. Now I’m starting to feel sorry for the waitress.
Like a course serving at Bluestem, the table is descended on by multiple wait staff hauling platters of Titanic-sized tenderloins. One of our tasters, Shannon Bowman, shrieks “OMG, look at those.” OK, even I’m a shocked by the size. Each plate is adorned with a tenderloin that meets all of the criteria I just listed earlier ... and it really is bigger than my head! The noise level of the room just doubled, no, it tripled, based solely on our gasps, comments, giggling and exclamations. Now this is going to be an experience.
One by one, we dressed our tenderloins. Pickles, tomato, mayo, horseradish sauce (yum), mustard, ketchup. The preparation was rushed so that this esteemed panel could quickly move from “eating with their eyes” to shoving lunch into their mouths. Me included.
Upon the first bite, here’s what I noticed: Perfectly seasoned, check. Thick, check. Hand-pounded and really good breading that didn’t fall off, check. And yes, the tenderloin is clearly at least three times larger than the bun, check. Note: You can order extra buns for 50 cents.
As quickly as the sound level had escalated seconds earlier, now all you could hear was the subdued, muffled sounds of pleasure and chewing. I’ve always found with this loud crowd, the easiest way to shut them up is to feed them some really good food. This was no exception.
As I’m sitting back and enjoying this tenderloin I’m thrown back to a time where I’m 11 years old. My dad and his co-workers are yucking it up with their corny and punny jokes (according to my wife I inherited that same trait) and everyone is having a good time. It’s their break from work. Then I bring my attention back to the present, and I realize that my friends and I are doing the same thing that my dad and his friends had done back then; enjoying down-home comfort food with good friends.
Let the world keep moving on while we ignore the stresses and tugs of work, home, families and politics. Almost like time standing still … but with a really good tenderloin and great company. I wish there was a way that I could bring my dad and grandpa here. I know that they would approve. But alas, I know that can never happen.
Please understand that with this article, I’m not trying to replace your favorite tenderloin joint. That’s about as ridiculous is trying to change your political stance by posting a meme on Facebook.
Instead, I do want you to open up your horizons just a bit. Please take the time and travel north of the river and give Christine’s tenderloin a try. Tell ’em The Grill Mayor sent you.
Who knows? It might jump into your top three favorites like it did for me. What do you have to lose? Sit back. Enjoy. Take a break from work and let the world go by.
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 BBQ judge, a student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.