The holiday season is exhausting. Too many decisions and expectations, too many parties with too many extravagant foods and cocktails—not to mention the financial stress of all that overindulgence. Simplicity is the remedy for the season, and that remedy can be found at the latest gustatory installation in the Crossroads Arts District—Howard’s Grocery, Café and Catering.
Located at 1708 Oak Street, this is a café in its simplest form, including the fact that everything is organic and made from scratch. The menu is tiny but sufficient. Remember, we’re practicing simplicity.
I first heard about idealist and chef Craig Howard when he opened his seemingly fantastical market Howard’s Organic Fare and Vegetable Patch in 2012. It was an incredibly trusting utopian outlet for local produce and products based on the honor system in a store open 24 hours a day—without a staff. And it worked. But after two-and-a-half years, the landlords of his grocery decided to demolish the building and Howard had to find a new space. His new business, Howard’s Grocery, Café and Catering, began with a Kickstarter campaign and has finally become a reality. Business partner and girlfriend Cory Imig shares his vision, and the couple is assisted by general manager Allison Muller, who Howard says is “a big part of our company.”
The new space is comfy—obviously a great amount of artsy-cool DIY and help from friends and family. The warm and inviting tables made of reclaimed wood were constructed by Howard’s father using wood from their old deck. Pushed together to form one long communal table, they sit in the center of a space filled with sunlight. The walls are decorated with black-and-white photos of produce by photographer and friend Arielle Zarr. The open kitchen is a study in minimalism, allowing you to view preparation of your food should you so desire. The west side of the room is reserved for the local and organic grocery store. At time of this review, the grocery was not yet open, but the shelves and cases were there, awaiting the final approval of the health department.
As for the ingredients used at Howard’s, they are organic. Howard doesn’t require the local producers to be certified organic, but confirms that they do follow organic practices. (Certification is a very expensive and time-consuming endeavor—two qualities that make the process very difficult for small producers.) And although our Midwestern growing seasons can be a challenge, the chef’s purchasing practices follow a model that draws from approximately 90 percent local sources. He uses the Kansas City Food Circle as a resource for linking up with local farms.
In keeping with the theme, the café menu is a model of simplicity. Approximately seven dishes provide the foundation for year-round dining. Most of the choices are some version of a sandwich, one of the simplest and most perfect of foods. Howard proudly features a burger made with grass-fed beef from Golden Rule Meats in Walker, Missouri, and from Windhaven Farms, a small Missouri farm collective which functions as an outlet for farmers of beef, chicken and eggs, rabbit, pork and lamb. The burger consists of two beef patties topped with his own velvety house-made American cheese, pea shoots, a secret burger sauce, pickled vegetables and organic tomatoes, all sandwiched between a Farm to Market potato bun. I suggest the crispy house-made fried potatoes to accompany the burger, but if you’re looking for something a little lighter after the holidays, local organic greens are always a good alternative.
I was intrigued by the house-made American cheese which also played the starring role in the Grilled Cheese Sandwich. Melt-ability (my word) and richness are signature qualities of American cheese (not technically cheese but a cheese product), and Howard’s certainly meets those requirements. But unlike many versions of homemade American cheese, chef Howard doesn’t use gelatin. He gives the cheese stability with potato starch, which keeps it vegetarian. The flavor is reinforced with a little Parmesan. Pickled vegetables, which change throughout the season, provide a counterpoint to the richness of the cheese, and everything is packed between golden-brown slices of bread from a Pullman loaf. (The Pullman loaf, in case you were curious, is what we think of as “square” bread, or a sandwich loaf that is baked in a pan that gives it an efficient shape and reduces the thickness and quantity of crust. Although in use for centuries—the French pain de mie—it earned its name from its use in the tiny kitchens of Pullman railway cars because it was possible to fit three Pullman loaves into the space occupied by two normal round-topped loaves, an important attribute in such limited space.) Fans of American cheese, especially children, are probably going to love this sandwich, although I found it a bit on the mild side. Also notable is the generous portion—easily enough for two children, two ladies who lunch, or one construction worker.
Other standards from the menu include a veggie burger, which one of us ordered served over mixed greens (without the bun) for a lighter lunch. Without the American cheese, it could even be vegan. The standout sandwich for us was the composition of free-range fried chicken, fire-roasted bell pepper, fresh pea shoots, basil and barbecue mayonnaise on ciabatta. I don’t know if it was intentional or happenstance, but the chicken on the sandwich was half delicious dark meat and half breast meat (which I admit does fry remarkably well). It shows the chef’s conscientious use of the whole animal, which is the way we should all cook and eat. Chickens aren’t solely composed of boneless-skinless chicken breast, cows aren’t made of just steaks, and pigs aren’t one giant piece of bacon. All of those animals have other parts of high quality protein that need to be respectfully utilized. Kudos to Howard.
The week of our visits the delicious featured sandwich was filled with extraordinarily crisp slow-roasted pork. It was layered with the last of the heirloom tomatoes, balsamic, basil and ricotta on a ciabatta-style roll. After our visits, I asked the chef about some of the other dishes they rotate through the menu and how often they change the selections. He explained that he likes to keep a consistent set of dishes but with seasonal changes. For example, the pickled vegetables on various dishes will change based on what is locally available, the roasted peppers on the chicken sandwich will be replaced with butternut squash, etc., but the sandwich will remain pretty much the same. His goal is to have a concise menu that his customers will come back to experience again and again. Some of the upcoming specials include lamb chili with pumpkin seed crackers, fresh cheese and pea shoots; house-made penne baked with meatballs and tomato sauce; and a sweet-potato biscuit sandwich with house-made Canadian bacon, ricotta, microgreens and pickled veggies.
If your post-holiday diet needs something lighter, try their mixed-greens salad. Our composed salad was dressed with a light apple-cider vinaigrette, and included a hard-boiled farm-fresh egg, slices of deep crimson tomatoes, crunchy croutons, thin shavings of aged Swiss cheese, and eggplant “bacon” (thin slices of incredibly savory eggplant marinated in a mixture of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then cured in a dehydrator). This salad could easily make a meal.
Beverage selections at Howard’s include a brisk, black iced tea, San Pellegrino, coffee, bottled sodas, and being community minded, Howard’s Grocery, Café and Catering features an invigorating house-made berry soda that was free on our first visit because the Royals were playing. And although I never saw a dessert menu, on all of our visits some version of a gooey chocolate chip cookie, sometimes alone, sometimes with a dollop of house-made ricotta, magically appeared on the table. A perfectly simple and sweet little ending.
Howard’s is open 11 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, with the possible addition of a weekend brunch later this year. Special event dinners are in the works as well. Because it’s in the Crossroads, he’ll stay open until 9 p.m. on First Fridays and feature his signature burger at that time. Howard also runs a thriving catering business where the simplicity of his concept translates into stress-free events. “It must be something of the nature of our food, but I’ve never had a Bridezilla or Monster-in-Law to deal with in our catering operation,” he says. Carry-out is another option for those short on time or for those who find the limited seating a bit of a challenge. A quick phone call or email is all that’s necessary to place your order for a satisfying lunch, something great to take back to the office or perhaps to an impromptu picnic. His grocery concept, based on the same idea as his original trust-based employee-free honor system is set to open any day now (possibly already open by the time of printing). He is also in the process of creating outdoor seating and a rooftop garden for salad greens. What could be more simple? howardskc.com