Jun 032010

Four years in Kansas City, writing about restaurants for most of them, and I never knew this place existed until I saw it while driving around house-hunting a couple months ago. More recently it received a shout-out from no less than the New York Times in the article 36 Hours in Kansas City. Unlike most national coverage of our fair town, this article got most things right, so I knew that a trip to Ortega’s was in the cards.

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Tucked away in an area known as the Westside South between Southwest boulevard and I-35, Ortega’s is not really on the way to or from anywhere and was even overlooked by Google streetview. But it would make for a very worthy digression from the usual Mexican haunts on the Boulevard proper. It certainly has one of the more unusual dining areas in the city and pretty good food from what I can tell.

Ortega interior

Anything you read about Ortega’s (and there isn’t much) will mention breakfast and rightly so. The place is pretty well-known for its menudo, a classic, hangover-curing Mexican stew made with tripe. Apparently there are long lines on Sunday mornings as neighborhood families stumble out of church in search of the stuff. While menudo is certainly the appeal, so are the huevos rancheros and other egg dishes which attract the requisite number of hipsters and urban core whities.

I don’t do breakfast on this blog however, so I’m happy to report that Ortega’s serves up mighty fine lunch fare. At $6.75, the “Dinners” are a great deal as they include a pile of meat, a stack of tortillas, rice and beans. The carne asada platter inexplicably came with some lovely little vegetable matter too.

Carne Asada platter

Al pastor platter

I found the al pastor to be a tad dry with a consistency similar to burnt ends but without the moistening benefits of BBQ sauce. It still had good flavor, though I wish I had some onions and cilantro to top it off with. The carne asada was tender and had clearly been heavily marinated since it had a deep, dark brown color. Both meats were roughly chopped and presented on a platter without fanfare; it felt like eating at someone’s house. The corn tortillas are fantastic, but I have no idea if they are homemade or not. It really doesn’t matter, they are very fresh, supple and fragrant.

The chips and salsa situation is decent if not overwhelming. The pico de gallo appeared a little less than fresh but it still tasted great. The hot salsa carries a serious kick and was a perfect addition to tacos. The chips were probably homemade but seemed a little stale. I still ate them all.

Salsa and pico de gallo

Chips & Salsa

The retail operation at Ortega’s is situated at the front of the place and is restricted to a few coolers and shelves. Most of the building is taken up by a series of well-worn red vinyl booths where you sit to eat. A woman who I can only assume is the owner takes orders, expedites the food and rings up your tab at the front counter when you are finished. While not the most effusive of hosts, she is knowledgeable, efficient and helpful.

Drinks are a self-service affair; grab something out of the cooler up front to enjoy with your meal, otherwise you will be drinking water, and only if you ask for it.

This place is deserving of several more visits. I really want to try the posole, tamales and particularly the mole, which they were out of when I visited. I’ll warrant everything in this joint is made from scratch and I want to eat more of it. One important thing to know is that Ortega’s does not accept credit cards. Yes places like this still exist. If you are in a pinch she will take a personal check but I wouldn’t count on it.

I’d love to hear what others have to say about this place. I have the feeling that there is something very special going on here and I’m eager to work my way through the menu.

Ortega's Mexican Foods on Urbanspoon

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Jan 172010

photo by Adam Kuban.

Hayes Hamburger & Chili is a quaint, sedate and very clean little hamburger shack up at Antioch and Vivion road in the northland. It bears a ton of obvious resemblances to Town Topic. Like that other Kansas City institution, Hayes is very small, open 24 hours, has been around a long time (since 1955), has always been a family business, and specializes in little crumbly, griddle-fried burgers topped with grilled onions.

Hayes Hamburger & Chili

At Town Topic the woman behind the counter typically asks if you want onions, at Hayes they just load ’em up. I like ballsy policies like this–the onions are grilled brown and have a strong flavor that many folks won’t care for. If you don’t like them the onus is on you to order your burger without.

The burger itself is fairly tasty. You will need to order a double or triple if you want a sandwich of any substance. The photo above is a double patty, sufficiently smooshed together on the grill as to resemble a single patty. Next time, a triple for me. And nope, no lettuce, tomato or other vegetable matter. The onion rings and fries are both pretty good but are probably the least interesting fried delicacies on a menu that includes fried cauliflower (Attn: Bull E. Vard), mushrooms and cheese sticks. The menu here is unbelievable huge considering how small the whole place is. As the name implies, food offerings focus on hamburgers and chili and various permutations therein.

Hayes Hamburger & Chili

I like chili well enough but I don’t eat it at restaurants very often (I’m the same way with soup). So I didn’t order it. As I sit here writing this, I wish I had. Perhaps some helpful person will leave a comment below with his/her impression of the chili.

The vibe in here is very interesting and quite a bit different than Town Topic. The staff at Hayes (I believe often Mr. Hayes himself) are sparing with words and very hard-working. I think people mistake this for gruffness or an “attitude,” but it really just seems to be a necessary trait for working in such close proximity to human beings all day (and all night). Personally I don’t need every employee at every restaurant I visit kissing my ass and thanking me profusely for patronizing their goddamn restaurant. The folks at Hayes let the food speak for itself.

This place is also impeccably clean, which can’t be easy in an older restaurant building. The beautiful front windows were spotless, the counters and walls were shiny and the griddle was crystal clean and free of extraneous grease and food bits.

Hayes Hamburger & Chili

Hayes is a place that you should visit on your own, or with one other person. More people than that, and you should skip it. As far as I could tell, all six booths were 2-seaters. The counter has stools for maybe 10 people. There is no table service. When you arrive and sit down, you simply shout your order to the cook from your sea when he’s ready. The menu is posted on the wall and can probably be seen from any seat in the house. I suppose you could also walk up to the counter and order like a respectable person but it’s really not necessary.

Everything is prepared right before your very eyes. Frankly some aspects of food service are better suited to the back of the house, for instance the diarrheic transfer of ketchup from one nearly-empty squeeze bottle to another, but that’s not really an option here. The food arrives steaming and hot, seconds from completion on the grill. There are few frills but that’s okay with me.

Hayes Hamburger & Chili

I enjoyed my meal, as well as the crisp fountain soda that came in a cup chock-full of crushed ice. It’s really the best thing ever. Also Hayes has a full breakfast menu here which is offered 24 hours a day. It is a cash-only establishment so leave the plastic at home.

Hayes Hamburger & Chili on Urbanspoon

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