Story by Dave Eckert
In producing and hosting my PBS and cable television show, “Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert,” I had the good fortune to visit many countries around the world. Meeting the people, learning of their customs and traditions, and dining on the local cuisine made the trips memorable and delicious. My time abroad has since significantly reduced, but my desire to partake in a wide variety of culinary delights has not. To that effect, I dedicate this article to the search for authentic, delightful ethnic cuisine here in Kansas City. I’ve selected three restaurants that meet the criteria, all of which offer cuisine some of us may be unfamiliar with.
All three eateries are in southern Overland Park. Let’s begin at A Taste of Africa, which features the cuisine of owner Doreen Muhoro’s native Kenya. “Honestly, the first thing we have to tell new customers is that we don’t have wild game on the menu. They expect that we will have items like water buffalo and impala, but I always tell them we serve normal food,” Muhoro told me during a recent visit. That is, if you consider six goat dishes “normal!” I did, and I can highly recommend the Goat Stir Fry, featuring tender, marinated pieces of goat with fresh ginger, garlic cilantro, red and green peppers, and Muhoro’s signature sauce, which has just the right level of spice for my palate. Start with some samosas, either beef, vegetarian, or both, and finish with the sweet banana dessert- fried plantain slices drizzled with cinnamon sugar and topped with vanilla ice cream and a chocolate and strawberry syrup. Muhoro says it’s a house favorite. It sure sent me home happy.
I asked Muhoro to describe Kenyan cuisine in broad terms. “The food in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, or East African cuisine, is very similar. You’ll find a lot of beef and goat dishes along with seafood and vegetarian offerings. The spices we use are similar to some of the spices you find in Indian cuisine because of the trade routes. But the dishes don’t taste like Indian food as they are unique to East Africa,” Muhoro shared.
A Taste of Africa is great for families as there are a number of familiar choices for kids and the platters are easily big enough to share. Muhoro runs a scratch kitchen and does the food to order, so when your dish arrives you know it’s as fresh as possible. This was a great discovery for me thanks to one of my best foodie friends. I will definitely be back.
One of my favorite places I visited for Culinary Travels was Thailand. I was blown away by the freshness and spicing of the food. I’ve been a regular at Waldo Thai since its opening a little over a year ago, but I wanted to try something new. Both my foodie friend and a contact at Visit Overland Park suggested Pad Thai. Boy, am I glad they did. My wife and I had the good future of dining and chatting with Pad Thai’s owner, Niramol Riensin, who goes by Ann. “The restaurant has been here seven years, but we took over four years ago and redid everything from the décor, to the menu, to the chef,” Riensin said.
The menu is extensive and features both traditional Thai cuisine and some dishes that blend Thai food with other Asian cuisines. That was the case with Riensin’s current favorite offering, Sushi Salmon, which blends two curries, steamed vegetables, and a piece of grilled salmon on top. It was fantastic and the curry combo is among the tastiest I’ve had!
Although we begged for smaller portions, Riensin insisted on sending out what appeared to be half the menu: spicy garlic shrimp, marinated pork, Tiger Cried beef, the Sushi Salmon, and a duck and vegetable curry combination. Riensin takes a different approach than many ethnic restaurants, using her native cuisine as a base, but with plenty of discretion to please diners. “I talk to every one of my customers and ask them what they like. I then discuss their preferences with the chef who comes up with the recipes. We have something new coming out of the kitchen all the time,” Riensin stated.
We had so much good food at Pad Thai that it’s hard to pick a favorite, but the beef with the Tiger Cried sauce and the garlicy, spicy shrimp were tough to top. Oh, and don’t forget to drop by the I Am Café, Riensin’s dessert venture, after your meal for a sweet treat. Even though I was beyond full, I honestly could not stop eating the dessert Reinsin picked for us, which had caramel, vanilla ice cream, and a base of crispy, sweet bread (brioche?). As with A Taste of Africa, I will return to Pad Thai, hopefully with a bigger appetite.
Porto do Sul
My final ethnic venture brings me to Porto do Sul, Leonice and Edson Ludwig’s Brazilian Steakhouse. Having dined at many Churrascarias in the United States and in South America, I can say without hesitation that Porto do Sul is by far my favorite. From the Harvest Table, which Leonice stocks with dozens of fresh items every day, to the expertly grilled steak, lamb, ribs, pork, sausage, and chicken, to the warm and inviting atmosphere, you are made to feel at home at Porto do Sul. And, there is no bigger factor in that than the Ludwigs themselves. “When you dine with us, we want you to feel like we’re having you as our dinner guests in our own home,” the Ludwigs told me during a recent visit. “We have so many customers who dine with us two or three times a week. They are like family and friends to us.”
The Ludwigs are both from small farming communities in Southern Brazil, so they grew up around fresh, wholesome food. Edson told me he grew up cooking next to his mother, father, and grandfather. “We used to dig a pit, make a fire in the ground, and cook large pieces of meat. Cooking has always been a passion of mine,” Ludwig said. After coming to the states and working for a well-known national Churrascaria chain for more than a decade, the Ludwigs went out on their own. We are all the richer, if a bit heavier, for that decision.
While Kansas City Barbecue features “low and slow” cooking, the Brazilian method is “hot and fast,” with only coarse sea salt used to season the meat. Porto do Sul is more famous for its picanha, the cut of the top sirloin that includes the fat cap. It is undeniably tender and delicious. Porto do Sul features some 15 different grilled items daily along with the dishes on the Harvest Table, which can be purchased along with the Churrascaria experience or separately. The Ludwigs have also added “by the pound” pricing for those who prefer to focus on one or two items. That sounds appealing to me, but honestly, I can’t imagine missing out on the entire sensory and palate experience the Ludwigs provide!
Well, that’s the end of this man’s ethnic experience. Time to get on the treadmill!