I am not going to pretend by any means I am an expert on Big 12 hoops. Growing up in the West Coast, it was primarily a diet of Pac-12 (then Pac-10) and WCC basketball, and if I got up early enough in the mornings, it would be Big East or Atlantic 10 basketball on ESPN (oh the Marcus Camby UMass, Ray Allen UConn, Allen Iverson Georgetown, and Kerry Kittles Villanova days). The Big 12 (or Big 8 in its prior existence)? Eh…I haven’t really cared or paid all that much attention to it. Kansas? I would have rather seen them upset in the tourney than win a national title (wasn’t the biggest Roy Williams guy). Texas? They were cool when they had Kevin Durant…I guess (I did see him play against a Nick Young-led USC team my sophomore year in college when the NCAA Tournament held…
Not feeling the need to drive through late 4/early 5 o’clock traffic on Main Street in downtown Kansas City, I parked my car just outside Union Station and decided to take a ride on the KC Streetcar, which had opened in May. The KC Streetcar has stirred up all kinds of emotions with KC citizens and taxpayers: some think it’s the start of a major change in public transportation in KC that will ultimately make KC more of a major city in the Midwest; some think it’s a waste of taxpayer’s money to satisfy the ego of Mayor Sly James, a train enthusiast, who has made it his main agenda since taking office to get create a major transportation system in the KC Metro area. It’s kind of early to tell what is the right stance on this issue. Sure, it would be nice if the Streetcar would be able to go through red lights, or was on a separate line that wouldn’t interfere with traffic (similar to what I saw in San Jose with their light rail system, which is built in the middle of the street so it doesn’t need to adhere to traffic signals), but it’s a good start for the city in terms of getting people on board with public transportation (which isn’t easy to do in cities in the Midwest outside of Chicago); makes traveling around the downtown area of KC a lot easier (it’s nice that you can go from the River Market to the Crossroads without having to drive around or walk long distance); and the train itself has a sleek design that’s better than other transits I have seen from other major cities (SacTown, you need to get your act together).
Anyways, to bring things back, this isn’t a post about the KC Streetcar (though I probably will write one in due time). In addition to taking the Streetcar to avoid traffic headaches off of Main Street Downtown, I also decided to take it because their Kauffman Center stop took me to 16th street. No, I was not going to the Symphony or to see Los Tigres del Norte perform (or anything perform…it was Wednesday at 5 p.m.). Instead, I was going down the other direction down 16th street, in between Main and Grand, for Happy Hour at a small cocktail lounge called the Belfry.
To be honest, I had never really heard of the Belfry, mostly due to the fact that it sits in a weird “No Man’s Land” between Downtown KC and the Crossroads. I don’t feel anything is “truly downtown” south of Truman Road, but the location of Belfry is a bit north for Crossroads as it would be quite a hike for someone to go there on a First Friday’s. (But hey…Streetcar solves that! So maybe it’s not so bad, taxpaying haters!) And it’s location in between Main and Grand, makes it get ignored in the “what neighborhood does it belong to?” shuffle. To make matters worse in its favor, it doesn’t have that “prime” location off of Main Street that benefits other establishments in the “No Man’s Land” like Anton’s or Nara or Bazooka’s (if you have to ask what kind of place Bazooka’s is…well…it may not be for you and you probably can’t afford it). And yet, despite it’s “humble” location (and establishment, which I will go into more later), the Belfry surprises as an affordable whiskey/beer lounge that offers a down-to-earth atmosphere, as well as competitive fare in comparison to any other “Happy Hour Crowd”-catering bar in the Downtown/Crossroads area.
As you walk down 16th street, the Belfry barely sticks out. The street consists mostly of converted lofts, used for both residential as well as office use, and the Belfry’s exterior blends into those surroundings. If you just took a glance at it, and didn’t know what it was, you probably would confuse it for a Non-Profit office or some “new-age Christian church” that caters to Millennials. But then you take a step inside…
Well, not much else sticks out either (sorry for the dramatic pause). You walk up a small stairwell, and you are greeted with a fork which can take you to two main areas in the complex. Granted, it still has that initial appearance of an office building, but more like one of those “Hmm…this could be a civil engineering or architecture firm” office and less like a “I could probably get my TB test done here” center (which it could also pass for from the outside if you have been to some of those clinics downtown or in midtown). The owner of the Belfry owns the whole building, but the room to the right, spacious and decorated with multiple tables and a bar in the corner, is reserved for special events and parties, and isn’t used regularly, especially during the week and in the afternoon (when I was there).
So, being that the right side was as deserted and gravitating as the ballroom in the Stanley Hotel (and that’s from a non-Jack perspective; Jack would disagree and say that the dining room was the shit), I veered to the left, which was empty, but it at least had a bartender at the counter, cleaning glasses as I walked in. Considering it was just before 5, when most people (unlike myself in the months of June-August) were just getting off of work, the sparseness of the bar didn’t put me off or make me want to go somewhere else (not that I had a choice since I was meeting someone there). It had just opened. And when bars just open, they can be dead. Unfortunately, not every bar or establishment can be like Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas.
The look of the Belfry from the inside is one that is both cozy and modern; minimal meets classic. There are about five-to-six hardwood tall tables with an accompanying four tall stools at each table. In the back corner, to the right of the clock on the wall, a plush four-person couch is designed for people to engage in conversation as a group or get a little “cozy” without crossing the line. And at the bar, about 10-12 tall stools sit at the dark brown, hardwood counter, with flexible backs of the stools that make leaning back an occasional plus. The Belfry doesn’t really try to “wow” their patrons with their interior design, though it’s not off-putting by any means. Think of it as a modernized VFW that can allow anyone in, coupled with the kind of hipster flair one would see from a dining or coffee establishment on the Westside.
What makes the Belfry aesthetically pleasing is behind the bar, as the extensive beer and whiskey selection will make any millennial grow a chest hair in awe. As you can see in the picture above, this is a “whiskey” lounge in every sense of the word. They have probably dozens of selections of bourbons, Scotch whiskeys, Irish whiskeys, you name it. They have local whiskeys like the J. Rieger Kansas City Whiskey, made by the same people who own the Rieger Hotel in the Crossroads, but they also have a lot of nice varieties of the expensive small batch bourbons and Johnny Walker’s as well (I’m talking “Blue Label” shit here). They have a small Gin, Tequila and Vodka selection (as you can see in the bottom right of the photo), but truth be told, the Belfry is about showcasing the whiskey, and in its pure forms. Yes, they can make classic cocktails, but in terms of specialty drinks, they only feature about 8-10. If you do feel the need for something mixed into your whiskey, I would suggest that Grand Fashioned, the Belfry’s take on a classic old-fashioned using J. Rieger bourbon. It’s the kind of drink that will make you feel like Don Draper in “Mad Men” only without the 50’s racism and misogyny.
The Belfry has a quality cocktail selection (the trafficway was also a solid cocktail that utilized Rye), but to be honest, whiskey, especially expensive stuff, is meant to be consumed in its purest forms: single or double, neat. No fancy mixers. No vermouths or shit. Thankfully for whiskey purists, the Belfry adheres to that kind of minimalistic perfection with their expansive whiskey selection. So, to get the full Belfry whiskey experience, find a bourbon or scotch or Irish whiskey on the menu that entices you, order a single (or a double) neat, and just sink it in.
Whiskey may be one of the feature characteristics of the Belfry, but Kansas City is not Tennessee or Kentucky. Kansas City is a beer town, and a growing craft beer city with the rise of Boulevard being served in drinking establishments now all over the country (I have a friend who drinks Boulevard in DC), and more and more smaller craft breweries opening up in the Metro every year. The Belfry also pays homage to KC’s craft beer scene with 20 beers on tap, showcasing everything from IPAs, to Gose’s, to Saisons to even Imperial Stouts. The beers rotate regularly, as evidenced by a clipboard/office paper menu that look similar to the check in sheet I used to have as a RA when freshmen reported to their dorms for orientation day. It’s not fancy, nor is it the kind of feature Jon Taffer would approve of, but I can appreciate such a “low cost” menu design to make sure everything remains accurate on a daily basis. They also have a massive chalkboard near the entrance that lists all 20 beer selections, for over-anxious types (i.e. me) who don’t trust everything on that piece of paper on the clipboard. For those looking for a suggestion, the Great Divide Yeti, an Imperial Stout from Colorado, is a beer enthusiasts’ pound of pure, with the dark coffee/chocolate appearance and taste one would expect from an Imperial Stout, but not as heavy as the typical IS. And, at 9.4% it also packs a punch, so enjoy 1 or 2 and you’ll be good (though as with any stout, you probably will be good after 1 or 2 anyways, considering they can be filling).
But, any kind of specialty cocktail/craft beer lounge such as the Belfry wouldn’t be good for Happy Hour without a decent food menu. Despite its simple appearance inside, the food is a dantiful surprise, as James Beard Award-winning chef, Celina Tio, who also owns Julian in Brookside, is in charge of the menu at the Belfry. The food is a fusion mix of sorts, ranging from homestyle favorites one would find at a good local cafe, to small-plate dishes (on special during happy hour), to more modern takes on pub food. Yes, you can get a classic burger with fresh cut fries, and the rigatoni entices with fresh ricotta cheese, a chunky tomato sauce, and spicy Italian sausage that tastes like it came from a local butcher shop. (Anton’s or Broadway Butcher perhaps?) However, what really made Tio and the Belfry’s menu stand out was their take on vegetables. Their special pan fried cauliflower has a sweet spicy texture it, with the cauliflower nice and tender, and the spiciness enhancing the flavor of the vegetables, not overpowering it.
And while that was good, it still paled in comparison to their tempura-fried broccoli rabe.
Words cannot describe the balance of the crunchiness of the tempura batter with the honey Sriracha glaze. Yes, you read that right FUCKING HONEY SRIRACHA GLAZE. (I know what you’re thinking: “GTFO!”) An explosion of Asian-American flavors burst through in this dish, as the hot, sweet, salty, and crispy textures made it worth savoring for seconds before going onto the next bite. Tio is an Asian-American chef who holds multiple Asian heritages (with Chinese and Filipino being two of them), and her multi-Asian ethnicity is showcased proudly in this dish, with multiple references to different Asian flavors present. This dish may go under the radar with most patrons. After all, fried broccoli? “Fuck that. I didn’t come to this whiskey and craft beer bar to eat a dish my fucking mom made me eat before I got spumoni ice cream, homie.”
But trust me. The honey sriracha tempura fried broccoli rabe blows flavor gaskets to the 100th degree.
The Belfry may not resonate with everyone. If you want a nicer, more traditional cocktail bar environment, Julep in Westport may be your cup of tea. If you want a cocktail bar with more flair, then Manifesto in the basement of the Rieger Hotel would be a better pick. If you want multitudes upon multitudes of beer selections, than the Ruins in the Crossroads and their self-pour station is your best bet.
But the Belfry is a nice balance. It’s simple. Both in menu and in environment. It’s a great to hang out with people after work or on a lazy afternoon or evening. It’s free of distractions. And despite it’s lack of amenities, the Belfry proves to be a special place where one can grab a bite to eat and a glass of whiskey or pint of craft beer during happy hour. It feels like your place, like your club, like your friend’s gallery or print press in the Crossroads that chills the fuck out on First Friday’s and serves liquor and beer to whoever drops in.
That kind of special environment can not be duplicated with amenities or fancy decorating. It has to be truly genuine for that vibe to be replicated.
Luckily for KC bar and happy hour patrons, the Belfry has that authenticity, and more importantly…charm.
It’s a quote one of my friends told me about Rosedale BBQ in Kansas City, Kansas near the State Line of Kansas and Missouri. The area surrounding Rosedale BBQ is interesting to say the least. It is on Southwest Boulevard in the Rosedale neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, and is right off of where 7th Street Trafficway (the gritty part of Kansas City Kansas that also goes through Armourdale and Central) turns into Rainbow Boulevard (which is a bit more bourgeois thanks to KU Medical Hospital and West 39th). It is located near railroad tracks, which might be abandoned (I don’t know, I have never seen active trains on it), definitely abandoned grain silos, the Rosedale World War I Memorial Arch (the stepchild to the more well-known Liberty Memorial) and two popular Mexican Restaurants (Taqueria Mexico and Sabor y Sol).
When you think about it, Rosedale BBQ, which has been around since 1934 and is one of the oldest BBQ places in Kansas City not named Arthur Byrant’s or Gates, is a microcosm of modern day Kansas City Kansas: a dying railroad industry, old immigrants meet new, and a blue collar approach to life that can border on slow or “dwelling in the past” to most people who are not familiar with the citizens of the area.
When I first moved to Kansas City, I settled off 6th and Central Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County through the suggestion of a friend of mine (though people always remarked it was crazy, since it wasn’t really near any major entertainment districts and it had a reputation as a rough area around the metro). It was as if I were transported to a world that was part working class Pennsylvania, part Chicano East Los Angeles. You had people who came from old immigrant families from Croatia, Slovenia and Poland, who came to Kansas to work for the railroad industry and had brought with them their traditions and cultures which manifested in bars, restaurants and Catholic Churches around the area. And then time passed, the railroad jobs became scarce, the housing became cheap, and in came Chicano and first-generation American families from Mexico and Central America, bringing their own cultures and traditions to the KCK area, shaping it into the current KCK and Wyandotte County that is seen today. In my mind, KCK was an embodiment of the American dream slowly developing and shaping to the modern day world, only this story wasn’t happening in Los Angeles or New York or Miami, but in the Midwest in the heart of America, but on the Kansas side rather than Missouri.
As I lived in KCK for over two years before I moved to Midtown KCMO, I slowly uncovered more unique places to eat and drink: numerous taquerias; burrito windows open 24 hours on the weekend; Go Chicken Go; Salvadoran restaurants that specialized in Papusas; Pollo Asado joints that only sold half and whole chickens with beans, rice and tortillas; Italian delis in nearly abandoned strip malls; and no dining room-area Chinese places serviced by really sarcastic cashiers, just to name a few.
But at the end of the day, my favorite place to dine in KCK was Rosedale BBQ. Granted, I liked it because it was BBQ, and as a Californian, I really never knew what “true” BBQ was until I came to Kansas City. To me, BBQ was baby back ribs and dry beef and sausage my family would get every once in a while from Back Forty BBQ in Roseville. I never experienced real brisket or burnt ends or spare ribs, which is the only ribs to eat according to people in the Midwest outside of Chicago. But in all honesty, Rosedale represented that melting pot of KCK, that Midwest blue collar, working class identity meshing with the ever-changing demographics of Kansas City Kansas as well as the Westside Kansas City Missouri community right off of Southwest Boulevard.
To be honest, the food at Rosedale is good, better than it gets credit for according to Yelp, but it struggles with consistency. The beef can be moist and tender one day, and chopped up and fatty the next. The hot BBQ sauce can be spicy and savory as well as the perfect complement to their crisp-fried crinkle cut fries. But on some days, the sauce is over-peppered, tasting as if somebody accidentally dumped way too much pepper in the jar by accident in the sauce, and was too apathetic or cheap to throw it out and simply make a new batch. The ribs probably are the antithesis of what any BBQ snob would prefer: they are untrimmed with a lot of fat and grizzle, fall too easily off the bone, and though they have a nice smoke ring, they may seem to dry to most rib purists’ taste.
But, Rosedale isn’t the place for BBQ artistry. Joe’s and Jack Stack and Woodyard are those places, establishments for backyard suburban BBQ aficionados who want to whet their appetite for real BBQ when the weekend cookout fare didn’t live up to expectations. Those places are for the tourists and the BBQ snobs of the surrounding Kansas City Metro Area who feel the need to justify their food choices and BBQ allegiances based on what was featured in the Michelin guide or what has 5 stars on Yelp. And no offense to those places. They are good, and I enjoy eating at those places on occasion.
However, they are not Rosedale’s.
For starters, they do not have Rosedale’s speed. Even when the place is busy, Rosedale churns out BBQ dinners and sandwiches in record speed. The cashiers don’t write any orders down and have a lingo that is unique to their establishment. (For example “beef deluxe combo, fries extra crispy”, a very popular order you will hear being yelled to the kitchen window consistently means beef sandwich on bun with fries that are put in the deep fryer a little bit longer than usual). Even during a lunch or dinner rush, you can get your order and eat in 20-30 minutes. For the working man on the clock, Rosedale is the perfect spot that will get you back to work with some time to spare, perhaps to get or make a pot of coffee to avoid that afternoon post-lunch coma.
And secondly, no other BBQ place can beat Rosedale’s prices. You can get a slab of spareribs for around 18 bucks and 14 on Monday’s. A beef sandwich, fries and a RC cola will usually ring you in just under 10 dollars. It is common to just get a few morsels of BBQ for around 15-20 dollars at more “popular” BBQ establishments, but at Rosedale one can guarantee to be full not just in the stomach, but also decently so in the wallet or bank account afterward.
You see…that is why Rosedale is quintessential KCK: it is geared toward the working man in terms of area, speed and prices. People can geek all out on the kitchy-ness of a BBQ restaurant in a gas station or a place where presidents dine when they visit KC. But Rosedale is authentic and in an unapologetic way that seems to buck what is expected from other BBQ joints that are sprouting up all over the city. They are not into competitions. They are not going to be featured on Diners, Drive Ins and Dives. And yet they still serve food fast at a low cost and continue to bring in a diversity of customers. Whether it’s in the old wooden booths or at the old time counter, Rosedale attracts white working men still in their overalls from a long day of working in various kind of skilled industries, as well as Chicano families who are ordering a slab and a half to go along with a pound of fries (actual terms of the restaurant by the way). It is common to see businessman in button down shirts and slacks rub shoulders with 20-something hipsters in skinny jeans, cleverly designed T-shirts, and bottle-cap glasses. Rosedale attracts the kind of crowd you’d be hard-pressed to see from other BBQ places, and for the most part, they are Kansas City-people, either from KCK or the nearby Westside or Midtown. That kind of customer authenticity is not easily duplicated, and I believe it will be hard to duplicate from other places in the near as well as far-off future.
When Rosedale BBQ opened in 1934 by Anthony and Alda Rieke and brother in law Tony Sieleman, it was known as the “Bucket Shop” and primarily sold buckets of cold beer and hot dogs. Their catchphrase was “Buy it by the bucket!”. As the story goes, after driving by and smelling the smoke from a BBQ joint in Shawnee, Kansas, they decided to smoke and sell ribs along with beer, and their ribs were so popular that they decided to go into selling BBQ full time as well as beer (hence, dropping the hot dogs from their menu). 82 years later, though the original owners have passed on (the grandchildren of the original owners still apparently have a stake in the place), Rosedale BBQ still sells BBQ and still offers beer by the bucket (though they do sell individual bottles as well), and remain standing in the Rosedale neighborhood and KCK as a pillar of stability despite major changes in the economic and cultural demographics of those respective communities.
And that is a good thing. We hear all this rhetoric about “Making America Great Again” from all kinds of “conservative” Americans, and places like Rosedale not only stand the changes of the times, but embrace and welcome it. These businesses prove how asinine those civic statements are. We don’t need to make our communities “great again” as if we need to recapture some lost magic from 30-40 years ago when America was supposedly “better”. America is already great, our communities are great, and we just need to adjust through minor setbacks and issues to continue to make it great. Take in the new, and mix it with the old and make something fresh, but timeless. Rosedale’s certainly accomplishes that in my opinion in the BBQ industry not just in the KCK area.
A couple of months ago, I volunteered at a nursing home right off the Plaza through work. I met with an African-American lady named Alice in her early 80’s and as she sat down, I took a knee next to her since there were no more seats available. As I asked her about where she was from and where she grew up in Kansas City, she told me she was born in Kansas City, Kansas and grew up in the Rosedale neighborhood and went to school all the way through high school there (when apparently there was a Rosedale High School). As we talked a bit more about the Rosedale neighborhood, I asked her if her and her family had ever gone to Rosedale BBQ.
She laughed and paused for a few seconds before she answered my question:
I seriously think the “arcade” bar has to be one of the best inventions in the past decade or so. With nearly every kid in America having a video game system of some sort, or utilizing their IPad or phone for mobile gaming, the days of the arcade machine seem to be going the way of the Dodo. After all, why go to a bowling alley arcade and spend 25 cents or more a pop when you can play Call of Duty for hours on end with your mom serving you philly cheesesteak hot pockets at your beckoning? Kids just don’t know the joys these days or the sacrifices us 20-40 year olds had to go through in our teen and pre-teen years to play video game. They don’t know the effort and payoff of keeping your spot against random opponents in Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat or NBA Jam. Not to sound like a Goose Gossage, but things just aren’t the same with teenagers when it comes to the world of gaming. The complex beauty of the arcade machine is lost on this generation. (As well as the art of having to call a girl’s house and talk to their mom or dad and explain who you are before you got to talk to her. Mobile phones and texting ruined that agonizing but character-building process.)
But, as this current generation of youngster passes on the amusement machines of yore, retro arcade bars are starting to pop up around the nation, much to the satisfaction of 21-40 year olds’ cravings of nostalgic entertainment and beer. In Kansas City, there are two places for arcade attractions as well as craft beer selections: Up-Down and Tapcade. While both are located in the Crossroads District and both offer 80 and 90’s arcade fare along with multiple sundry selections, they are much different venues that offer distinct benefits as well as drawbacks from one another.
Let’s take a look at each place individually and what they have to offer to the video game-loving and beer-drinking crowd of Kansas City.
Address: 101 Southwest Boulevard, Kansas City, MO 64108
Why you should go to Up-Down:
Up-Down, located in the heart of the Crossroads right across from Arts KC, has gotten a lot of publicity after replacing Hamburger Mary’s a little over a year ago. The arcade bar is in prime real estate in the Crossroads, as it is a perfect meet up spot, and not just for First Friday’s either. There are a plethora of different restaurants surrounding the Up-Down area (Manny’s, LuLu’s, Pizzabella, etc.), and Up-Down is the perfect place for a group of people to hang out at after a meal and is within walking distance.
Up-Down’s arcade fare is impeccable as well as diverse. Yes, you have all the 80 and 90’s arcade diversions one would expect from a retro Arcade bar. All selections are only 25 cents a game (which are in the form of neat little Up-Down tokens) and include Pac Man, Galaga, X-Men, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat 2, NBA Jam, etc. (But no Final Fight? Why the hell do we not have Final Fight? I lived off the game in bowling alleys in Spokane during my youth. Haggar for Mayor!) However, Up-Down has a surprising pinball selection (the Indiana Jones and South Park selections are clutch) as well as some big multiplayer arcade games. (Updated 4-way Pac Man and Killer Queen…which I guess is a big thing?) In the front of house, a projector screen connected to a N64 allows people, token-free, to play four-way battles of Mario Kart or Super Smash Brothers (though the waits on this can be long). In addition, they also have four skee ball lanes, which is a nice active outlet for people that don’t like to stare at a pixelated screen for hours on end. And lastly, they have a few huge television screens (you know, like eight of them put together to make one screen like some cool 80’s night club) which they will play 80’s retro movies (like Back to the Future and Bloodsport) or old-school WWF (and I say WWF because that is when it was great) on loop. It is a nice distraction for moments when you’re waiting for your favorite arcade game to be free or if you’re in the midst of a boring conversation with a bad date or group.
Speaking of those who need breaks from the “bings and dings” of the arcade environment, the Up-Down venue itself is massive: it’s two floors and there is plenty of outdoor space and entertainment. The upstairs and downstairs patios are nice features that are perfect for sightseeing downtown KC or people-watching on the Crossroads streets (which can be a sight on First Friday) as well as engaging in conversation away from all the blaring sounds and lights inside. But, if talking isn’t you’re thing, then there are diversions such as “big” Jenga (you know with like wood blocks instead of jenga pieces; people have left their mark with all kinds of inappropriate phrases written on them; I wonder what KU frat donated them) and a massive Connect Four.
The beer selection is also pretty solid at Up-Down with the typical variety of craft IPAs as well as “hipster” cheap selections such as tall-boy PBR, Rolling Rock, Schlitz (a personal favorite) and even Modelo (one that may become my favorite; seriously, Modelo already is fire in their cool bottles; putting it in a tall boy one-ups that and then some). Up-Down also has a full bar, should you not be the “beer” kind of person, and they usually serve pretty quickly, even in the midst of big crowds, which is typical on the weekends. And though they do not have much food selection, they added a pizza shack in the corner a few months ago to sterling results. The pizza is the classic “New York-style by-the-slice” mold and is actually a pretty good slice. The crust has nice texture and chew and it is well worth the $3.50 price tag. Their slices are perfect when you get a sudden hunger craving and you need a break from all the “Time Crisis 2” play, and you want to watch some people play some crappy skee ball.
Some drawbacks to Up-Down:
Up-Down is a great place, but it can get crowded. And I mean like “Donald Trump rally in Southern Indiana” crowded. There are times when I found myself walking around for massive minute periods because a.) all the games were occupied and b.) I couldn’t get through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. And not only has taken away from valuable video game time, but it has also made me witness a lot of “accidents” in the mold of beer glasses breaking because somebody got pushed or shoved incidentally due to the massive crowd. Give it to bar staff at Up-Down: they work their asses off on the weekends.
And a big crowd is one thing, but the popularity has drawn a peculiar mix of people. The Up-Down crowd, thanks to its popularity, has drawn the “overly bro” or “young professional” types who seem to think it’s cool to get in pissing contests with people who just want to play their damn arcade games. For example, being a Giants fan, I wore my Giants World Series sweater to Up-Down on Friday night (which was from 2010, their first championship since 1954…I haven’t bought any of the other title stuff because to be honest, the 2010 championship was more than enough for me, and all the subsequent titles brought on a whole bunch of bandwagon Giants fans…to prove my fandom look here and here). As I was playing “Kiss” pinball and in the midst of a multi-ball round some guy taps me on the shoulder and says “you have a lot of balls man”. At first, I thought he was talking about my pinball round (because yeah, when you have a multi-ball round, predictably a lot of balls will be present), but then he told me I had “balls” to wear my sweater in public. I just laughed him off, but it’s that kind of obnoxiousness that Up-Down has been attracting as of late that has been putting me off the place, which is hard to say because the place really is one my favorite bars in KC. As stated before, I’m there to play arcade games and enjoy myself and some cheap tall boys, not grovel in your Royals “fandom” (yeah, because you loved them in the Jimmy Gobble era) or your KU or K State “bro”fests.
And while this is minor, the token thing can be frustrating. Often I find myself having too many tokens and see them building up in my apartment. To make matters worse, I always seem to forget them whenever I go to Up-Down and I have to buy more tokens to play (hence continuing my hopeless cycle). Yes, they are only 25 cents, but it can add up, and I think Up-Down knows the “pay for token” method is a sneaky way to get some extra coin from their clientele.
Address: 1701 McGee Street Suite 200 Kansas City, MO 64108
Why you should go to Tapcade
I went to Tapcade for the first time on Saturday night and I was blown away that I had not gone there earlier. Unlike the crowded, unsavory base (obnoxious frat and sorority types as well as nose in the air young professionals) that Up-Down has been attracting as of late (hopefully it’s just a weekend thing, because I have been there other times where it’s much more chill), Tapcade’s crowd is more diverse as well as more chill. While it was a down night, there is plenty of room to roam and people tend to leave others to themselves, which is nice and refreshing considering Up-Down’s “chickens in a feed lot” atmosphere at times.
Much like Up-Down, Tapcade has the 80’s and 90’s arcade fare with games that are also available at Up-Down (X Men, NBA Jam, Street Fighter), but they also have selections that are distinct to Tapcade (NARC and NHL Open Ice). Tapcade also utilizes the “gaming system” option much better than Up-Down as they have 3 gaming systems on 3 different screens. You can play Playstation or Genesis on one screen (I played Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 and manual’d for days with Rodney Mullen), N64 on the big projector or Super NES on another smaller screen. Considering I grew up with these older systems, it was refreshing to play video games on systems that have been passed over in the video game community as of late thanks to Father Time.
But the best part of all the arcade games? Free play! No tokens! That’s right. All you do is pay five bucks for a wristband and it’s all you can play for the remainder of the night. If I die in “House of the Dead 2”, no putting in another token, just hit the start button and it’s more shooting Zombies for me. I am surprised that more people don’t come to Tapcade from Up-Down on their busy nights because of this: not only do you avoid the crowd and go to a chiller place (Tapcade is more “Road House” to Up-Down’s “Modern Girls”…if you don’t get it, brush up on your 80’s films buddy), but you don’t have to wait in line at the bar to exchange tokens either. Considering my disdain for acquiring useless tokens in my apartment as well as having to scramble for some after a “game over”, this free play feature is a definite check in the plus column for Tapcade.
One of the unique features of Tapcade though is that the arcade is just a complementary feature to what is a unique bar that offers a variety of special amenities. First off, they have a movie theater where they show a variety of different films from current selections (like Batman v Superman) to indie fare (High Rises) to nostalgic classics (Enter the Dragon) to special themed movie showings (apparently they have a “Mystery Monday” where they show different mystery movies and discuss it afterward). On Thursdays, “Geeks who Drink” host a trivia night (you can bet i’ll be there) and they also have a pretty comprehensive craft beer selection (it really rivals Up-Down’s own selection, though I think they don’t have as many Tall Boy selections) as well a wide food menu that offers a lot of different specials as well typical bar food fare (burgers, fries, wings, etc.).
And that is what makes Tapcade cool: it’s not just about the arcade. Yes, the arcade machines are cool as well as the video game systems, but it seems like there is more to offer than just that (unlike Up-Down, which is all about the arcade). I have only been to Tapcade once, but it’s chill vibe and variety of different attractions make it warrant multiple visits in the future.
Some drawbacks to Tapcade:
I have to admit, I was a little disappointed in the game selection at Tapcade, but not because it wasn’t plentiful, because there was a wide selection despite its much smaller space than Up-Down. However, they has so many of the same games as Up-Down. I would say probably 80 to 85 percent of the games were the same ones you could find at Up-Down. Now, while I understand you’re catering to a crowd that may not want to go to Up-Down because of its crowd, and you have to have similar games to appease those defectors, I wish there were more unique games that you could only get at Tapcade. I still don’t understand why neither place has Dance Dance Revolution. Seriously. That would draw all kinds of good attention to their place as well as prime Snapchat material.
Another drawback to Tapcade is it’s location as it is sort of in an area in the Crossroads that is more business oriented (it’s next to a trucking garage or something…whatever is, you’ll see a lot of semi trucks next to Tapcade). There aren’t a lot of restaurants within close walking distance and I think this is a major reason why people prefer to go to Up-Down over Tapcade: it’s just a hell of a lot more convenient to throw Up-Down in your plans last minute. Tapcade is really the only attraction on the street, and unfortunately, that makes Tapcade a “one stop” destination on a night, rather than a multiple one, which you can do with Up-Down considering its close proximity to so many other different places.
And also, this is minor, but there is no pinball or other kinds of “non video game” attractions at Tapcade either. While they maybe are trying to avoid it just to focus on the arcade games, I feel like the pinball options are a nice attraction of Up-Down that gives it some good game variety, along with the Skee Ball. At Tapcade, it’s video game only, and while that is nice, it’s tough to keep people there on a normal night if they tire of arcade game easily.
So who’s better?
To be honest, both Up-Down and Tapcade are great bars and should be priority for anyone in their 20’s or 30’s that wants a different bar experience from the normal “drink and hang out” or “drink and club” vibe. Up-Down is great for nights in the Crossroads where you want to hop multiple places or find a place to settle down after checking out exhibits at First Fridays. Tapcade is great if you want to experience different themes or options and want a chiller, more laid back vibe.
Whatever your preference, check these places out. They definitely are two of the more unique and better nightlife establishments in the city.
And for goddsakes, please start requesting Final Fight and DDR on their web sites!
If you had a chance to attend the 2nd Annual “Carnaval” at Knuckleheads Saloon on Saturday, September 19th, you were presented with quite a treat. Over the past year, I have been to quite a number of live shows at a variety of venues in Kansas City (Grinder’s, the Uptown, Midland, etc, the Riot Room, etc.). And I have seen some great indie and slightly bigger acts that have put out incredible performances, with Sean Rowe, Madison Ward and the Mama Bear and Iron and Wine at the Middle of the Map headline venue at the Uptown Theater combining to produce one of the best shows I have seen up until Saturday.
But with apologies to those indie folk bands and singers I listed with reverence above, last night’s Carnaval topped that and all the other shows I have seen in the past year considerably.
First of all, Knuckleheads is simply an incredible venue. Located on the outskirts of historic Northeast, the venue doesn’t have the local attractions of Grinder’s (which is in the Crossroads, and makes it a great venue for First Friday concerts) or Midland (Power and Light) or Uptown and the Riot Room (Westport). But the dual inside-outside stage set up made it ideal to host a musical showcase like Carnaval. There was plenty of room to roam, bars were plentiful and didn’t require long waits (and they had Schlitz! Bonus points!), and the sound projected throughout the venue, making it easy to hear the bands playing no matter where you sat. Without a doubt, Knuckleheads is a place I definitely will be paying attention to when it comes to scoping out potential shows.
But back to the event, a great venue is nice and all (though the location by the train tracks makes it not ideal when trains are making late night runs, as they did last night), but without good acts, it can ring hollow and simply not make it much better than the typical P&L bar on a Friday night in July (i.e. not my style). Fortunately, for everyone in attendance, the show was entertaining from start to finish and worth more than the $20 price of admission. Coinciding with the middle of Hispanic Heritage Month and organized by the Latino rock band Making Movies (whose members sport a mix of Panamanian and Mexican-American heritage), the 2nd Annual Carnaval was a bountiful and diverse showcase of eclectic musical styles and the progression of Latin-American culture and music in this millennial generation. As a 2nd generation Filipino-American, it made me jealous a Filipino counterpart of “Carnaval” doesn’t exist in Kansas City. The energy of the crowd, bands and music was so intoxicating and gravitating that I felt a tad sad when it was over. I wished that it could have gone hours longer and it bummed me out that I would have to wait a whole year for a similar event to occur again. (Come on Kansas City! Let’s get some Filipino-American acts here! Or another Carnaval-esque event in the Spring at least. As long as we get Making Movies to perform!)
That’s how great and impacting “Carnaval” was for me. Just when I think “Man, I don’t fit here. Kansas City just seems so distant and unfamiliar to what I know from being in the West Coast all my life in terms of culture and attractions,” something like “Carnaval” comes along, pumps me full of energy and gives me hope in this damn city all over again. It’s a dreadful cycle, this love-hate-love again relationship with this city, but I am willing to go through this to attend events like “Carnaval” and watch acts like Making Movies, etc. The aura of the moment of those performances simply outweigh any funky misery I go through time to time with my experience with this city.
As I got home, being the basketball junkie that I am, I got to thinking: if you could describe “Carnaval” as any NBA team in any period of history, which team would it be? After a minute or two, I came to an easy answer: the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. Like Carnaval, the Suns were a distinct but enjoyable contrast to the current atmosphere in the NBA at the time (mid-2000’s). The team consisted of a unique cast of NBA characters who brought a bevy of unique talents and capabilities to form a team that performed well, but went under-appreciated because they did not win a title. Carnaval proved to be the same: unique acts and styles of music, blending into a show that probably will go under-appreciated in the retrospect of shows in 2015 from magazines like The Pitch or Ink because the bands don’t have the mainstream appeal or the hook that will attract most KC music scene people (i.e. they’re not Madison Ward or traditional Indie Folk…that is not a knock on Ward…love them, but they’re sound and style will attract a majority of the young live-music-attending public here in KC).
So, to review each act, I am going to compare each band to a member of the 2006-2007 Phoenix Suns, which arguably was the best of the SSOL bunch (and could’ve gone far if not for Robert Horry “hip check” moment). The only act I will not review is Heart of Darkness, as I only caught the last couple of songs of their act. Thankfully, the band is Kansas City-based, so hopefully I will be able to check them out at another venue sometime in the near future (if anybody has an inside track on where they’re playing in the future, it would be much appreciated).
So here it goes, act by act reviews and Suns player comps from Carnaval!
Migrant Kids: The Shawn Marion
I witnessed Sports a couple of weeks ago at the Riot Room. A electro/pop/rock band from Tulsa, Oklahoma, I enjoyed Sports for their 80’s-esque sound that made me feel as if I was listening to the soundtrack of an early Bret Easton Ellis novel like “Less than Zero” or “The Rules of Attraction.” Migrant Kids, a trio from Austin, Texas, sported the same kind of sound: rock, but with an electronic tinge that made you hark back to the 80’s.
To be honest, I wonder if this is some kind of new trend emerging, as I find it surprising that Sports and Migrant Kids would be sporting the same kind of sound. Last time I checked, I don’t recall a lot of people in the scene these days clamoring for homages to “Huey Lewis and the News” and Phil Collins, and yet Sports and Migrant Kids are producing that kind of sound (though more obvious in Sports than Migrant Kids) much to my surprise and enjoyment. That is why I compare Migrant Kids to Shawn Marion: a tweener of a player with long arms and probably the worst looking jump shot in the history of the NBA. There certainly wasn’t a lot of clamoring for his skill set, but despite the eccentric package, he put up a memorable and productive career with the Suns that defined and highlighted his playing legacy. The electronic sound of Migrant Kids may not be familiar or in huge demand with the typical indie music person, but damn it, they do it extremely well and are extremely enjoyable to listen to.
Playing inside, three songs stood out for Migrant Kids: ‘Thread”, “Canvas of Me” and “Primordial Soup”. “Soup” stood out as the strongest song of their set, the haunting sounds and lyrics and heartfelt passion of the performers on stage capturing the audience over the six-minute span. I liked Migrant Kids’ act so much that I bought their album off of ITunes the next day. However, I was a bit disappointed, as “Primordial Soup” was not on it, and neither was “Thread” (only “Canvas of Me” was the song I recalled). Furthermore, the album was filled of ambient sounds that seemed like a waste of album space. Migrant Kids live is like Marion in Phoenix: unique, vibrant and entertaining. Migrant Kids on their album though is like Marion everywhere else: underwhelming and not exactly what we hoped or were expecting (though certainly not poor in any means).
Maybe Migrant Kids is building up to their next album and it will really rock the house, similar to their live performances. But for now, I will just enjoy them mostly for their act, which they performed incredibly well at Carnaval.
Hurray for the Riff Raff: the Boris Diaw
Hurray for the Riff Raff, led by Alynda Lee Segarra, was probably one of the more unique acts at Carnaval. Based out of New Orleans, her act is more American Folk than the Latino-inspired fusion acts typical of Carnaval. And that is what makes her the Diaw of the bunch: a 6’8 big man who plays more like a guard? They have Steve Nash, Leandro Barbosa, Raja Bell and in a pinch Marion. How does Diaw fit in, especially with Amare Stoudamire in the post? You could be saying the same thing about Riff Raff? How does her Folkish-style fit in with the other acts at Carnaval?
Surprisingly, like Diaw, amazingly well. Without a doubt, Riff Raff was the most mellow act of the night, as the crew I attended the event with had remarked that they didn’t dig her sound in compared to some of the others. But, I appreciated Segarra’s heartfelt passion and skills on stage. On a handful of songs, Segarra went solo with just an acoustic guitar and killed with songs like “Blue Ridge Mountain.” But songs that incorporated the use of the fiddle is when Hurray for the Riff Raff really stood out: it was Lumineers meeting Mumford and Sons meeting First Aid Kit in one unique blend similar to the uniqueness of Diaw’s ballhandling, passing and three-point shooting in a 6’8, Croissant-loving frame. There is no questioning Segarra and Riff Raff’s talent. It will be interesting to see if Riff Raff will continue to grow in Folk circles and break through in a crowded scene.
But furthermore, one thing that was also endearing about Segarra and Riff Raff is her passion for music. Earlier in the day at Carnaval, Segarra worked with young musicians in helping them with the process for creating songs. That kind of generosity is endearing in an industry that seems at times so cutthroat. And that’s what makes Riff Raff like Diaw: much like Diaw seems to be a good teammate and good dude on the court who really has a profound respect for the game, Segarra and Riff Raff seem like genuinely awesome people off stage who really care about people and music.
Gio Chamba: the Raja Bell
I’m not going to lie: the group I hung out with kind of took it easy when Gio Chamba played inside after Hurray for the Riff Raff. With good seats, it didn’t make sense for us to move and put our great seats at risk, especially with the headliners (Las Cafeteras and Making Movies) both playing back-to-back on the outside stage. So, we just watched them on the projector screen, their music still clearly audible from where we were sitting.
Raja Bell typically got the same kind of treatment. When it comes to game-planning, opposing teams are thinking about Nash. They’re planning to stop Amare and Marion on the pick and roll. But Bell? Forget it. To other teams, he’s the fifth guy, a supporting role player at best that is there to just fill up a spot because they don’t have anyone else on the bench better equipped to be the starter at the shooting guard.
And then Bell starts making 3’s. And then Bell starts locking up your scorers on defense. And before you know it, teams are like “Crap! How come we didn’t account for Raja Bell damn it!”
Gio Chamba had the same kind of effect on me. The energy was incredible. They switched between instruments seemingly on the fly. They went on and off the screen, on and off the stage, head banging, bongo drumming, going to the turntables, going away from the turntables for a bit, going absolutely insane, loving every second of what they were playing and the crowd that was there to listen and support them. It seemed from where I was sitting they were having so…much…fun.
And when I went to the bathroom and then tried to debate whether or not to buy a seven-dollar pack of Camel menthols from the cigarette vending machine outside the bathroom, I was able to swing by the stage and see them in action. The crowd was absolutely into it, jamming as hard as Gio Chamba was on that stage. They didn’t play long. Hell, I can’t even remember what any of their songs sounded like or if they were even a band (I think technically Gio Chamba is a DJ). But they were an act filled with energy and reckless abandon and you gotta love that.
Next time Gio Chamba is performing I won’t sleep on them. Just like opposing teams won’t sleep on Raja sitting in the corner ready for the catch and shoot 3-pointer.
Las Cafeteras: the Amare Stoudamire
Amare will always be one of the more special players in the history of the NBA. Not only did he have a unique and dominating skill set as a big, but he was also one of the more unique players in the league. He was one of the forefathers of dressing like a “Hipster” post game, and he had some weird habits to help with his health (like bathing in red wine...HOW IS THIS A THING? HOW RICH DO YOU HAVE TO BE TO FLUSH GALLONS OF RED WINE LIKE THAT!??)
Las Cafeteras is a unique band that really goes against the grain when it comes to Latin music. Yes, they have a unique Latin rock sound, but at the core they are more activists than musicians. They have only produced one official album, but their impact in social rights issues in California as well as nationally also has helped Las Cafeteras gain so attention in music circles. And yes, their passion for human rights is inspiring. But they aren’t activists masquerading as musicians. This is a talented and diverse musical bunch and it was on full display Saturday night.
Despite being quite large in number (the band features seven members: four men and three women), their sound and energy captured the audience from the start of their set. With high energy numbers like “Ya Me Voy”, “La Zapateado” and “La Bamba Rebelde”, they had the crowd dancing and singing along, even if we weren’t totally sure what the lyrics were. Like “La Bamba Rebelde” for example. I knew it wasn’t technically “La Bamba”. But the way they invited the crowd…it didn’t matter if their version of “La Bamba” was a little different in the band’s eyes. They made their act feel less like a performance and more like a drunken New Year’s celebration in your Filipino uncle’s backyard. They just wanted the crowd to have fun and they certainly were immensely successful in doing that.
However, they certainly are fantastic performers, and that shouldn’t be minimized. The lead singer’s voice had a scratchy/raspy tone that enhanced the songs and the lyrics. One of the female singers, a redhead in a black flower dress, displayed her tap dancing skills on frequent occasion (sometimes with help from Making Movies’ own dancing band member). Las Cafeteras may be about the crowd experience during their act, but musically, they are incredibly diverse and talented in their skill set.
And that is why Las Cafeteras may go under the radar, like Amare goes under the radar as one of the better big men of all time. We focus on what they are not. Las Cafeteras is too big in the number of members in their band. Amare doesn’t play defense all that well. Las Cafeteras doesn’t produce enough songs. Amare doesn’t have a great history of playoff success.
But like Amare, we should quit trying to figure out what Las Cafeteras ought to be or should be doing to make it big and more maintream, and simply appreciate what they are: a talented group of diverse musicians who have a fantastic sound and are incredible, energetic performers on the stage. If they are performing anywhere close to you, you should make it a priority to see them.
Making Movies: the Steve Nash
I could go on for days about Making Movies. I have seen them perform three times, including Carnaval. I dropped 45 bucks solely because they were the opening act for Rodrigo y Gabriela at the Uptown (and I left midway through Rodrigo y Gabriela…talented duo, just a terrible set up for a concert). I can listen to their album A La Deriva on loop for hours on end like I could watch Steve Nash work the Pick and Roll on tape for hours on end as well. Making Movies killed it, like they always do. Every time I see them, they seem to get better and better, even if the songs are the same. “Pendulum Swing”, “Chase your Tail”, “La Cuna de Vida” it doesn’t matter. They all shone as they have at every previous show I have been to, but in a slightly different way from each performance. That’s the sign of talented musicians: they make the same songs seem unique and distinct with each and every performance.
But, I compare Making Movies to Nash not because they were the headliner of Carnaval similar to Nash being the headliner of the Suns. But like Nash, there is an endearing quality to Making Movies that goes beyond their music. One of the great things about Nash is how candid he is when it comes to his career and basketball issues. If you ever have seen the Finish Line series by Grantland, it’s amazing how open and insightful he is in describing the end of his career as a NBA player. But furthermore, Nash always seemed to be concerned with more than just basketball and more than just his own personal future and legacy. He helped fund documentaries. He is helping build the Canadian Men’s National team into a more competitive team in FIBA circles (and with Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson and Kelly Olynyk, they could be; they are one of the youngest national teams in the World, with no one on their roster over 30). Nash has such a profound respect for his background and his country, that he seemingly puts his own personal ambitions aside for the long-term benefit of his country and the game in his country. That kind of “give back” is unique and refreshing in a professional athlete.
Making Movies has the same kind of vibe. They could be worrying about their own act, making more songs, performing more in hopes of becoming more maisntream, but instead they’re hosting an event like Carnaval. Their singers and band care about Kansas City. They care about their Latin American culture. They care about Latinos in Kansas City. For an industry that can be so insular and self-absorbed, they truly give back. And not just with their performances or events like Carnaval, but in the way they demonstrate their passion with music and young musicians in Kansas City, especially young Latino musicians. Just like Nash, there is something incredibly genuine about the members of Making Movies and that makes you as a music fan root for them, and hope they get more recognition, not just for their personal fame, but so their genuineness can reach and impact a greater number of people outside of Kansas City.
Carnaval in my mind is one of the Top-5 Music Events in Kansas City and should be going forward. I hope Making Movies continues to put this on. I hope Knuckleheads continues to host it. I hope more and more unique Millenial Latin-American bands continue to grace the event.
Because events like Carnaval make transplants like myself truly appreciate the diversity Kansas City has to offer that may not be obvious at first glance or a lot of the time. There is more to Kansas City than Royals, Chiefs, BBQ, P&L, Westport, and KU and K-State alums and Wichita and St. Louis transplants.
Thank you Making Movies and Carnaval for helping us see Kansas City in amazing and refreshing new ways. I look forward to 2016.
I love the NBA. However, I still do appreciate college basketball. While I feel the NBA is head and shoulders a better product than the college game these days, I still enjoy a lot of the nuances of the college game as well as the diversity of teams across the nation. In the Midwest, the college game remains supreme with the number of established programs (Kansas, Indiana, etc.) and lack of big-time NBA franchises (the major ones reside in the coast with the exception of Chicago; Milwaukee, Indiana, Minnesota are small-town Midwest NBA franchises).
So, it is important to focus on the college game every now and then here at Flannel, PBR and PER. And it’s also important to impart some of the college game into Kansas City culture, especially craft brewery culture, which continues its boom and recognition on a national basis. One of the best craft breweries in the nation has to be Boulevard, which resides here in the heart of Kansas City, near the Liberty Memorial and World War I Museum. Founded in 1989, Boulevard has grown to not only be a major player in the crowded Kansas City and Midwest brewery scene, but on a national level as well. In fact, it seems Boulevard is on its way to becoming the Midwestern “Samuel Adams”, a boon for Midwesterners who have typically been thought of as the “American Light Lager”-drinking community (typical because Budweiser was founded in St. Louis and Miller in Milwaukee). But with Boulevard’s excellent variety of quality craft selections (their Smokestack Series really is phenomenal), they are proving that you don’t need to resort to the coasts for great, quality beer.
I could spend this whole post just talking about every single Boulevard Beer from the Year-Round collection to the Smokestack Series. That being said, that post would be like 10,000 words, so I’ll keep it short and just focus on the Year-Round selection. So, let’s take a look at Boulevard seven-beer collection as Midwestern College Basketball teams.
(Also, I’ll be ranking them in order of preference, so the first listed will be my favorite and the last one will be my least-favorite.)
80-Acre Hoppy Wheat Beer: Butler Bulldogs
80-Acre Hoppy Wheat Beer is Boulevard’s most complete beer out of their year-round selection. The beer is an innovative mix between an IPA and a Wheat and is a classic Midwest (known for Wheat Beers) meets Coastal (which is known for IPAs, especially on the West Coast). The result is a beverage that will satisfy IPA fans while also catering to those who typically don’t have the palate for the Hoppy-ness of IPAs and Pale Ales. When beers go hybrid and try to satisfy multiple tastes, it can fall flat on its face. 80-Acre not only avoids such a pitfall, but actually rises to the top as the brewery’s best-tasting year-round beer.
I compare 80-Acre to the Butler Bulldogs because the Bulldogs have been one of the best basketball teams in the Midwest the past decade. Since 2007, they have only missed the NCAA Tournament twice and have been to the National Title game twice (2010 and 2011). They are also one of the more innovative teams in basketball (much like 80-Acre is one of the more innovative beers of the year-rounds and at Boulevard in general) as former coach Brad Stevens eschewed traditional coaching techniques (i.e. always yelling at refs or players) and employed advanced statistics in helping develop game strategies and player development. Though Butler certainly has had their share of moments against my alma mater (i.e. Gonzaga), the Bulldogs have been one of my favorite college basketball teams to follow in the Midwest as of late.
80-Acre doesn’t seem to get the distribution or publicity like other Boulevard selections such as Boulevard Wheat, Pale Ale or even Tank 7, and Butler may not roll across the tongues of Midwest college basketball fans like Kansas, Indiana or Iowa State. However, both have proven that they are quality and are probably the better in their respective venues than most people would give them credit for.
Boulevard Wheat: Kansas Jayhawks
Boulevard’s best-selling and most popular is exactly what you would expect from a Midwestern beer. It is refreshing, light, with a cool finish and hints of citrus and it is the perfect beer to drink with barbecue either at a restaurant, a festival or just your own backyard. Wheat beer, in my opinion, exemplifies Midwest living and flavor (easy, laid back and not fancy, but still of strong quality), and Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat proves to be the epitome of what Wheat Beer should be from the Midwest.
(I know some people are on the fence with this one, as many say a lot of imported Wheat or “Wit” beers are better or other craft breweries have produced better quality Wheats; I think Boulevard deserves some credit for being the first to really push Wheat beer’s popularity in a primarily Pilsner or Lager territory, and while it may not have the “flash” or “boldness” of some modern Wheats or Imported Wheats, it’s contribution to Wheat beer popularity in the Midwest and its still strong flavor after all these years to me merit the high praise.)
When I think of Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat, I think of the best qualities of the Midwest. Kansas Jayhawks basketball represents the best qualities of Midwest college basketball: consistency, success, strong history of talent, dedicated talent, and all kinds of strong roots in tradition (i.e Allen Fieldhouse, James Naismith, etc.). With the exception of perhaps Indiana, the Jayhawks seem to be the “Midwest’s Team” and this has earned them all kinds of praise and derision from people all over the nation (much like the mixed feelings I spoke of about Unfiltered Wheat in comparison to Wheat beers above). As a newer resident of the Midwest, I can appreciate what Kansas (and Unfiltered Wheat) has to offer, but they are a little bit too-mainstream and “traditional” for my tastes. I can appreciate quality and history, but I will take the more innovative flavors (in both beer and basketball) in the end, and that is why Kansas and Unfiltered Wheat don’t match 80-Acre and Butler.
Single-Wide IPA: Marquette Golden Eagles
When you think of the Midwest, you don’t think of IPAs. Maybe that is just me growing up in California and the Pacific Northwest, where there are many breweries that specialize in crafting hoppy India Pale Ale varieties (such as Sierra Nevada in Chico and Bridgeport in Portland), so I am a little hesitant to think that the Midwest can produce quality IPAs like the ones that I have been exposed to back in my original home states. While I jumped on board on the 80-Acre and Unfiltered Wheat’s immediately, it took me some time to warm up to Boulevard’s Single Wide IPA, out of fear that I would be disappointed.
Surprisingly though, Single Wide is a great representation of what a “Midwest” IPA should beer. There’s a great hoppy flavor to it, thought it is not as strong as the more traditional IPAs that I have had before. There is a lot to admire in the boldness of what Boulevard tried to do here with Single Wide. They knew it would be tough to cater to the “IPA Crowd” (especially transplants like myself coming from more “IPA-Heavy” states) but they created one anyways in a fashion that pays tribute to the traditional IPA, while still maintaining that “easy drink-ability” that caters more to Midwestern beer drinkers’ tastes. It’s not quite the balanced hybrid that 80-Acre is, but Single Wide is a surprising tribute to the IPA created by Boulevard.
Single Wide is ambitious, different (for the Midwest) and of pretty solid (though a shade below the 80-Acre excellent) quality. Marquette echoes a lot of similar characteristics in the college basketball world. They are in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is as Midwest as it can get (Liberal Midwest, but Midwest nonetheless). And yet, Marquette feels more like an East Coast team with their bold uniforms (I have always loved their racing stripes down the sides and they are a Jordan-Brand team, which always is a nice little honor in basketball style circles), history of producing NBA players (Dewayne Wade, Jae Crowder, Steve Novak, Jimmy Butler, just to name most recent…I could go on forever with the ones who played for Al McGuire), and tough, physical play which has resulted in frequent NCAA Tournament appearances (though last year was an off-year in Wojo’s rookie campaign as head coach). Marquette doesn’t rank up there with the Midwest blue bloods, but they certainly are a shade below and have the kind of “cool” factor that one normally doesn’t associate with Midwest traditional Blue Blood programs.
Much like Single Wide won’t make people forget about Sierra Nevada IPA anytime soon, Marquette will not be replacing the elite of Midwest College basketball any time soon. They still are overshadowed by Kansas, Indiana and even in-state neighbor Wisconsin as of late. However, much like Single Wide IPA with beers, they get fan points and respect for their boldness in bucking the trend of what is expected from a Midwest college basketball team, even if they don’t completely succeed compared to the other “established” programs in the Midwest.
Pale Ale: Missouri Tigers
Boulevard Pale Ale is one of the other major-selling year-round beers next to Unfiltered Wheat. In fact, it is quite common to see the Pale Ale variety always tagging along with Wheat in some way. Farmland has Boulevard flavored Brats in Wheat and Pale Ale varieties. Unfiltered Wheat and Pale Ale are the only Boulevard varieties that come in 20 bottle packs. It seems like Pale Ale is always attached to the hip of Unfiltered Wheat, and for good reason. Pale Ale is a quality beer. It’s quality crafted, English style ale with a nice balance of hoppyness and deep, dark flavor and it really is a good complement to the lighter, crisper Unfiltered Wheat.
But, I just can’t help but feel that Pale Ale is the “little brother” to Unfiltered Wheat, much like Mizzou basketball is to Kansas. I’m not trying to knock Mizzou or the university itself by any means, but it’s obvious football matters more at Mizzou and basketball means more at KU. And no matter what Missouri tries to do, even during years where there teams are competitive (not last year that’s for sure), they still seem to always pale (another PUN!) in comparison to their neighbors west of the Kansas border in Lawrence. There were some great seasons under Norm Stewart, and I enjoyed the Mike Anderson/Demarre Carroll era quite a bit. But in terms of basketball, relevance? The Tigers just cannot match what the Jayhawks do on an annual basis.
I know that’s tough to stomach for a lot of Mizzou fans. But, just like Pale Ale will always be in the shadow of Unfiltered Wheat, the Tigers just seems to always be the “little brother” to KU Hoops. That is not to say that Mizzou or Pale Ale aren’t good. However, that stigma of unfortunate attachment prevents either from being taken more seriously in their respective circles.
Pop-Up Session IPA: Iowa State Cyclones
Session IPA’s seem to be the new “Big Thing” in craft brewery fandom circles. And, it makes sense, as Session IPAs seems to be a nice introduction for those who don’t like the bitterness of traditional IPAs. That is an understandable and completely fine thing. But, I don’t know. I just can’t get into Session IPA’s, despite their boldness in trying to cater to their target of beer drinking palates (i.e. traditional pilsner beer drinkers who think hoppyness is bitterness). It obviously tastes better than a traditional lager, but it surprises me that they categorize them as IPAs, since to me it just doesn’t have that taste or finish of what makes IPAs so enjoyable to consume.
Pop-Up is Boulevard’s bold take on it, and while I appreciate it’s ambitiousness in taking on crafting a Session IPA for Midwest beer drinkers, it falls flat with me in comparison to other Pop-Up Session IPAs. It’s got kitsch factor, and some nice colors and some interesting flavors, but it just really pales (PUN ALERT) in comparison to the other beers Boulevard offers from their year-round lineup. I want to like it. Logic tells me I should like Boulevard’s take on the Session IPA. But in the end, I just end up disappointed (though not completely dissatisfied; after all, it’s still comes in 5 out of 7).
Iowa State, at least under Fred Hoiberg, were the “hip” team to like in the Midwest and college basketball the past few seasons. Hoiberg ran an “NBA” offense. He got the most out of transfers looking for a second chance. The Cyclones became a relevant team again in the Big 12 and the best team in the state of Iowa (any chance to better the Hawkeyes was welcome in Ames). Hoiberg’s nickname was “The Mayor” for chrissakes! That’s the best nickname for a college player/coach in all of college basketball!
And yet, the Cyclones never seemed to grasp with me as much as other Midwest basketball fans. Their squads never really endeared to me, even though I liked the freedom Hoiberg gave his team. They always underachieved in the Tournament, and they seemed to be a hard team to predict, as they had periods of inconsistency during the year where they would beat Kansas, but then lose to a Texas Tech or TCU.
The Cyclones and Session IPA have garnered a lot of bandwagoners as of late. In fact, when I go to concerts, it’s common to see Session IPA on tap, which displays the surge in the popularity of Session IPAs in KC. But, for both ISU and Boulevard, I just can’t swing on either of those bandwagons with any kind of eagerness.
Bully Porter: Kansas State Wildcats
Bully Porter probably has the coolest label of all the Boulevard Year-Round varieties. I mean, it’s a Bulldog, in a tuxedo, with a monacle. How there isn’t a gold medal on the bottle saying “Bottle Design of the Year” to me is one of the great mysteries of our time. If the beer was just average, I would think it would be the greatest beer ever just because of the label. In fact, if I could have a poster of that and put it on my wall, I would.
(This is a bad habit of mine, as sometimes I will be swayed a beer is good simply by labeling. This is especially true with lager varieties; for example, I enoyed Sol simply because I loved their “peeking” Sun logo. However, once they changed the logo, and I had it again, I somehow liked it a lot less. Amazing how things like graphic design can actually change your palate in mysterious ways.)
Despite my affinity for the label art, I struggle liking porters in general. Unless a porter really has a special something, it’s difficult for me to really enjoy one. Porters simply toe that line between beer and coffee too much, and not in a way I find satisfying or appetizing. Unfortunately, Boulevard’s Bully Porter doesn’t really excel in the taste department. It lacks that special “boldness” that separates it from the typical porter, and hence, this one simply fall flat and remains a forgettable selection of the Year-Round varieties.
Kansas State basketball falls in the same kind of boat. They have good looking uniforms and colors, a cool arena nickname (“The Octagon of Doom”) and had Frank Martin screaming up and down the sideline for a good while (great entertainment on its own, though he hasn’t been as good or angry in South Carolina). They had Michael Beasley put up one amazing season that got him drafted No. 2 overall in the NBA Draft. Unfortunately, everything else about Kansas State, especially in terms of their on-court success, is forgettable. They have had good teams in the past, but if you think about it, to the college basketball fans nationally, Kansas State simply doesn’t stick out or really burn in anyone’s psyche. It’s too bad because they have had some good teams, just like the Porter isn’t bad by Porter standards. It’s just that there is nothing that stands out about either except the gaudy appearances.
KC Pils: Nebraska Cornhuskers
Formerly “Boulevard Pilsner“, KC Pils is Boulevard’s take on the American Domestic Lager. This beer caters to what is typically liked by most Midwest Beer Drinker’s tastes: a refreshing, crisp beer in the mold of traditional domestics like Miller, Budweiser and Coors. Unfortunately, KC Pils, re-branding and all, suffers from two major issues that prevent it from escaping the basement of the Boulevard year-rounds.
First, while KC Pils isn’t bad by any means, it doesn’t really distinguish itself from the typical American Lager varieties. There’s a little bit more body to it than a Budweiser or Bud Light, but it’s not considerably fuller tasting or crisper than anything you generally would get on the market. Second, KC Pils is priced as high as any other Boulevard Year-Round, which makes it difficult when you’re competing with bigger Breweries who can offer the same kind of beer for a lot cheaper. So, Boulevard’s Pilsner variety ends up falling in “No-Man’s” land of sorts, with the price and market (i.e. crowded) being a huge factor in preventing it from being more successful. And to be honest, I really don’t think of Boulevard when it comes to American Lagers. If I want one, I would rather go Coors or PBR, High Life or Rolling Rock if I wanted to save a couple of bucks.
Nebraska Cornhusker basketball suffers from many of the same issues as KC Pils. The product is not very good and hasn’t been traditionally that good in their history (sans a couple of years ago when they made the NCAA Tournament). But worse than that, there is a lukewarm attitude about Cornhusker basketball with Cornhusker and Midwest fans. While Nebraska football is religion, basketball is a side-attraction when the local high school team is not playing. Basketball is just not a priority in the state of Nebraska (heck, high school and college wrestling is more attended than college basketball). Considering that they play in a conference that is a major player in the basketball scene (i.e. Big 10) and in a geographic area near the premiere program of the Midwest (i.e. Kansas), and it makes sense, like KC Pils, how Nebraska basketball gets lost in the shuffle in its relevance.
KC Pils isn’t bad tasting. Nebraska basketball has gotten better under Tim Miles. But, there are just a whole lot of better American Lager and Midwest Basketball options out there than those two…and considerably so.
So that’s the list and the ratings. Agree? Disagree? Think I picked the wrong team? Think I was too hard on K-State? Think Session IPAs are the greatest thing in the history of craft brewing?
Craft breweries are becoming a bigger and bigger thing in the psyches of warm-blood, alcohol-consuming Americans. Samuel Adams started the trend of the “popular” craft brewery, but across the nation, craft breweries are growing in popularity and name recognition. Many breweries are doing well that they are rightfully representing the cities they brew in, even amidst the “major breweries” that brew nearby. New Belgium and Blue Moon Brewing Company are well-known nationally despite being in Coors territory (New Belgium and Blue Moon brew in Denver while Coors brews in Golden, which is not too far). And despite Anheuser-Busch being across the state in St. Louis, a pretty solid craft brewing culture is developing here in Kansas City. In fact, while it may be lacking in years of tradition or presidential visits, the craft brewing culture here is so strong that it is giving Kansas City another thing to be known for other than BBQ (though BBQ is pretty damn good here).
The most major craft brewery is Boulevard and rightfully so. Created in 1987, Boulevard has really done an excellent job bringing different varieties of quality beers to the mainstream here in Kansas City. Whether it’s the popular year-rounds such as Boulevard Wheat, KC Pilsner, Bully Porter, the Single-Wide IPA or the 80-Acre Wheat (their best year-round beer; it combines the best aspects of a Wheat and IPA beer and the result is really refreshing) or their Smokestack series beers such as The Calling, Tank 7 or variety of limited edition seasonal beers (their Chocolate Ale was so popular that people would buy it in bulk from bars because it was so difficult to find in liquor stores), Boulevard has the variety and taste to be mentioned in the best craft breweries in America discussions. I most likely will do a whole post on Boulevard and their beers, but I figure any Kansas City beer discussion merits the mention of Boulevard to start off.
But one of the best, most underrated and slowly gaining steam craft breweries has to be Cinder Block in North Kansas City. I am not going to lie: most of my life in Kansas City has been in Kansas City, Kansas. I love KCK and Wyandotte county and for my first two years living here, I was hesitant to really frequent a drinking establishment beyond the Strawberry Hill area (much love to 403 and Chicago’s). But when I moved north of the river, one of the reasons I have enjoyed my migration to the Missouri side has been because of this place.
First and foremost, this is not a bar, but a brewery with a taproom. I know it sounds really “ticky-tack” when I describe it like that, but it’s important to know. They do not serve wine or hard alcohol drinks. Hell, they don’t always have every beer available every day. But the amount of variety they offer will suit even the most discriminating of beer drinkers. So if they don’t have a variety you want? Well, they got enough on tap to give you the diversity you would want from any craft brewery tap-room.
Cinder Block wins one over with their charming, relaxing decor, which is designed with a bar, a variety of high and low tables and stools, and a couple of couches in the corner with a coffee table between them (there are some board games like Jenga if you come with a crowd and want to go beyond just talking about the beer). There are only two televisions, but believe me, this is a place where you won’t notice the lack of viewing spectacles. With the quality of the beer, as well as the dozens of barrels racked in the far end of the taproom, there is plenty to observe that missing an inning or two of the Royals game will be hardly noticed. Some breweries try to go over the top in really giving off that “brewery” feel. Cinder Block does a good job of making the place welcoming but authentic: in fact, the brewery really speaks to the industrial demographic of North Kansas City in general, as gray and brown stands out the most in the taproom area, giving it a blue-collar but chic feel.
Thursday through Saturday the Back Rack BBQ food truck sits in front of the brewery and serves food to customers who are looking for a bite to eat amidst tastings. Kansas City is known for BBQ, but Back Rack can compete with the best, with a simple, tasty but affordable menu. Back Rack offers everything from BBQ staples (ribs, pulled pork, brisket, beans, slaw) to BBQ Pub Food hybrids (Brisket nachos, Smoked Salmon sandwich) and the crew doesn’t just serve quality, filling dishes, but they do so quickly and actually deliver to you in the bar (you don’t have to pick it up from the truck). While everything on the menu rates as above average for BBQ fare, the burnt ends and onion rings stand out as Back Rack’s signatures items.
Burnt Ends are common in BBQ places here in Kansas City, but they vary in consistency from place to place, ranging from good to bad depending where you go. Candidly speaking, Back Rack’s Burnt Ends rate as some of the best I have had from any BBQ place in Kansas City. Unlike some of the major places, these ends aren’t sauced ahead of time or chopped up, but are juicy, cubes of BBQ beef goodness served on white bread with sauce on the side. These burnt ends offer a nice balance of lean and fat, important since burnt ends needs to stand out from their brisket counterpart (after all, burnt ends traditionally were saved for the pitmaster and his crew while the brisket went to the guests…that’s right, Burnt Ends were bogarted by the cooks, which shows you how good they are). The sauce is a tangy, sweet, not as thick or tomato-based as a traditional Kansas City sauce, but closer to a Carolina-style considering its tangier and more liquidey consistency. The sauce, burnt ends and white bread make a perfect trio that will satisfy even the most peculiar of BBQ enthusiasts.
The onion rings though probably stand out though as Back Rack’s best item. Battered in Northtown Native beer, the onion rings are crisp and fresh and will go quickly whether consumed in a group or solo. Onion rings tend to be a difficult dish for me to enjoy. Way too often I found out that the onion rings come from the frozen, Sysco-produced variety, and they often feel like a waste of money. The onion is too soggy. The batter is not crispy enough. There is no flavor but bland, watery onion, and halfway through you end up regretting not just sticking with the fries. But these onion rings buck that trend, and made a fan out of a guy who normally would rather just save the buck or two on french fries. If you want to get a side for yourself or to share, get the onion rings. In the words of James Lipton from Inside the Actors Studio, “It is a delight!”
That being said, while Back Rack is a nice benefit of visiting Cinder Block on the weekend, the reason to go there is for the beer. Cinder Block offers a variety of what is expected from a craft brewery: Pale Ale (Prime Extra), IPA (Block), Porter (Pavers) and a Wheat (Weathered Wit). Of their year-round selection, the Northtown Native is my favorite, a California Common that is a delicious hybrid of an Ale and Lager. It goes down smooth, but it has a distinct taste that is usually missing in the common American Lager. If I were going to compare the Native to anything, it reminds me of the Boston Lager from Samuel Adams (which I like, but not as much as the Native).
Another plus of Cinder Block is they offer growlers, which I think is secretly my favorite aspect of craft breweries. There is something special about going into a brewery with an empty jug and asking for it to get refilled. I mean, in what other forum could you carry in a big jug of something that could also be used as an instrument in a how down and see it filled with the refreshing nectar of the Roman gods? (I say Roman because we always use the Greeks in this kind of analogy; it’s pretty much the same thing and the Roman gods need their due too; go Mars!) Craft breweries…and yeah I am done at that. I mean, I know Shatto Milk offers milk refills with their milk jugs, but getting my milk refilled in a Whole Foods makes me feel like a 38-year-old husband who works at Sprint and lives in Overland Park and sends their kids to the Olathe Public School System. That isn’t for me.
To get back to the point, yes they have growlers, which are all kinds of wonderful and great because I can take my beer home, in a massive quantity and in a cool-looking jug. They offer three kinds of growlers: the traditional glass, a plastic and some kind of hybrid plastic, graphite-ish…thing (I don’t know, it looks like it used to store plutonium, not beer). Go with the traditional glass. You’ll bring out your inner logger inside and that will have all kinds of benefits down the road.
And lastly, one of the phenomenons Cinder Block turned me onto was the existence of sour beers. I had never had a sour beer until a couple of days ago, where I tried the KC Weiss. A lot of their sour beers are brewed in chardonnay barrels, which I believe contributes to some of the sour flavor of the beer brewed (I base this on no research or Googling of sour beers prior to this post). The KC Weiss was unbelievable beyond measure. I had to take a look at it every couple of sips to just bask in what the hell I was drinking. It was as if a great wheat beer and a top-shelf chardonnay made love to Keith Sweat’s “Twisted” and their baby was delivered into my glass. Constantly I was in flux with every sip (“Is it a beer masking as a chardonnay? Or a chardonnay masking as a beer?”) slowly appreciating the sour beer more and more until its completion. For a person who loves beer and appreciates chardonnay, the Weiss sour beer hit on all cylinders for me. (I know that statement will elicit all kinds of comments considering not many men drink chardonnay but keep in mind this: it’s cold and it doesn’t stain your teeth, an important thing to remember if you are at a function of some sort that only serves wine; last thing you need is for people to not just see you sloshed, but looking like Hannibal Lecter after he surprises the cops when he gets out of his handcuffs to escape his cell in “Silence of the Lambs” and bites into one of the cops…yes gross, just like red wine stained teeth). Today, I had the Peach Sour Beer (can’t remember the name, started with a “V”, which I will update soon), which also shared the same sour but refreshing qualities of the KC Weiss. I do plan on making sour beers a more regular staple of my beer rotation. They are pretty much like the Shannyn Sossamon‘s of beers (hat tip if you understand my reference; if not just enjoy the picture).
Cinder Block is a mecca for beer enthusiasts and a pretty damn good place to go to for anyone else who likes beer and likes cool places in different areas of Kansas City. For Northlanders, Cinder Block requires visiting on a regular basis, and if you are not in the Northland, it is worth the trek for their venue, their beer and Back Rack BBQ if you happen to be there on a weekend. Kansas City is becoming home to a great beer scene. And Cinder Block, both its brewery and tap room, are a testament and shining representation of that scene that is growing on a national basis.