Our food critic tried every food stall at Strang Hall and documented it
Variety is the spice of life.
At least, that’s the idea behind the modern food halls that have been springing up all over the country for the past five years. They’re mall food courts reimagined for millennial palates, with artisan food from celebrated chefs replacing the Sbarros and Subways. The formula seems to be working. In 2015, there were just seventy food halls nationwide; by 2017, there were one hundred and eighteen. Commercial real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield estimates there will be around three hundred by the end of 2020.
Food hall owners provide the infrastructure (utilities, dining space, a bar, front-of-house staff) and invite chefs in to set up shop at built-in counters, giving them a chance to operate their own restaurant without fronting the cost.
Investor Tim Barton and his board of directors hand-picked local up-and-coming chefs to come and set up shop within downtown Overland Park’s Strang Hall. Strang boasts seven unique concepts, including a coffee counter serving new local artisan roaster Marcell Coffee. They’re lined up along the interior wall of Strang’s thirteen thousand square feet, with the names of each food stall engraved in light wood. Each stall has the same uniform look and color scheme. Once you’re inside Strang, you’re choosing your kitchen based on the menu alone.
To order, you’ll have to line up at each individual restaurant and pay with a card, then wait for a text letting you know your food is ready to be picked up. You can make your selection from the full menus at each stall, or you can grab Strang’s master menu, which highlights five dishes and two sides from each chef. We decided to eat our way through the hall by ordering every single featured dish over three visits. Here are our picks.
Jonathan Ponzer has been cooking professionally for nearly a decade. He’s perhaps most well-known for his tenure as the head chef at Columbus Park Ramen Shop, which he opened with chef-owner Josh Eans in 2015. At Basabasa, he dishes up Japanese-influenced fried chicken dishes.
His take on karaage (pronounced kah-rah-geh) finds the lightest, juiciest bites of sake-marinated chicken enveloped in a feathery spiced potato starch breading.
There’s a satisfyingly crispy chicken breast served with sweet pickled cucumbers between crustless white bread, but you’d do better with the hot chicken sandwich—same presentation but with zesty chili mayo and peppery kimchi. Both of these sandwiches are on the small side, but they pack a big punch. On the other hand, the togarashi fries—covered with a zigzag pattern of hot sauce and mayo—can feed a small army, and they disappeared far quicker than the ho-hum blistered shishito peppers.
On one occasion, when I sat down at Strang Hall’s bar with my khao poon, the bartender glanced at my bowl enviously. “Anousone is the best,” he said, “and that dish is my all-time favorite.” Chef Anourom Thomson pays homage to his native Laos with traditional dishes that are difficult to find in these parts, among them the khao poon, a vermicelli noodle soup with a rich red curry coconut broth and pulled pork. This hefty bowl is as pretty as it is tasty, with rainbow layers of shredded purple cabbage, green lime leaves, pale yellow strips of banana blossoms, spindly long beans and plenty other fresh herbs. It’s impossible to pick out all the flavors in this heart-warming dish—there’s definitely ginger, probably garlic—and it’s entirely too easy to form an acute addiction.
Anousone’s banh mi is excellent. It’s one of the few items at Strang with customizable protein—pork, beef, chicken or tofu—and it is served on a fresh toasted baguette with all the usual fixings, but the highlight is the foie gras spread. I was less in love with the sticky rice plate, where the titular ingredient was neither sticky nor sweet, though the grilled hanger steak it came with was robustly seasoned. I liked the way the St. Louis ribs fell off the bone, but the liquid they were braised in muddled all those beautiful flavors together into something unrecognizable and strangely muted.
The two featured sides from Anousone are well worth ordering multiples of. The crispy coconut rice with cubes of cured pork can be wrapped into lettuce leaves and could serve as another person’s light entree. And my table fought over the brussels sprouts fried in a sweet and spicy chili sauce.
Everybody loves a good taco, and you’ll find several to choose from at Nida, helmed by chef Remy Ayesh. Over the years, Ayesh has dipped her toes in a variety of cuisines (she’s held titles of executive chef at upscale Italian restaurant Lazia and the Kemper’s contemporary American bistro Café Sebastienne). With Nida (Spanish for nest), Ayesh adds Mexican food to her repertoire.
Nida has the most pared-down menu at Strang, with five different tacos to choose from. There’s the reliable pulled chicken with a mild tomato-garlic sauce; disappointingly dry pork carnitas with a lackluster pineapple salsa; excellent grilled eggplant with pickled chiles; succulent brisket with chimichurri; and crispy tempura-battered shrimp with a tart slaw.
The deconstructed elotes—a cast-iron skillet full of cheesy corn—needed salt, but it was plenty shareable. The chorizo fried eggs were also served in a skillet with warm tortillas and were arguably a more substantial dish than Nida’s taco platter.
The sandwiches at Norcini are not for the faint of heart—or those with heart conditions. Chad Tillman’s pizza, sandwich and charcuterie concept draws on his two decades’ worth of butchering and industry experience.
You can see how seriously he takes his meat in the gargantuan subs he serves at Norcini. The Goodfella stacks a glorious Chianti-braised chuck roast with a savory-sweet Italian relish, and the similar Jersey boasts thick chunks of pulled pork shoulder with garlicky braised greens. Both of these bad boys require two firm fists, and they each come with a lovely au jus for dipping, but good luck with that. Tillman uses impressively crusty, fluffy Italian rolls, and you’d have an easier time getting an elephant through a hula hoop than fitting one of those sandwiches into a sauce ramekin. The Hogfather sounds intimidating—a triple-threat of ham, prosciutto and mortadella with mozzarella and Italian vinaigrette—but it’s a little easier to handle without any au jus to contend with.
Tillman’s pizzas are excellent. The toppings are traditional—his featured Incendio pizza is just mozzarella, fresh basil, garlic and a rustic tomato sauce—and the dough is the star of the show. Tillman’s recipe allows for a twenty-four-hour rise and a forty-eight-hour cold fermentation period, which makes for a perfectly chewy crust that takes on a beautiful char.
Where Norcini disappoints is in the antipasti. The marinated olive salad was small for the price ($7) and was no more sophisticated than what you can get at the Whole Foods olive bar. The charcuterie portion of the chef’s board was on point, but the cheese—cheese curds, some blue cheese crumbles, slices of what could have been cheddar—was not well curated.
On the three occasions I dined at Strang Hall, Solstice seemed to be one of the loneliest food stalls. I get it: Healthy super foods (Solstice’s tagline) doesn’t quite hold the same appeal as a beastly sandwich or fried chicken. But chef Erin Bassett’s menu is full of sleeper hits. Her dishes are vibrantly colored, like the grilled citrus salmon filet, which was perhaps the best item I had at any of Strang Hall’s food stalls. Served atop a warm ancient grain and arugula salad with sliced avocado and fennel and garnished with grapefruit slices and pomegranate seeds, this was a substantial entree that I plan on returning for.
Cauliflower steak is a hard sell even if you are on board the healthy food train, but Bassett’s version—spiced with za’atar and served with rice, pistachio crumbles, a red-hued root vegetable slaw and tahini sauce—will satisfy the skeptics. Her apple crunch salad with spinach, sliced apples, blue cheese and walnut brittle in a bright cider vinaigrette was simple, but the textures and flavors were so pleasant together. The chickpea chop salad mix of cucumber, tomato and sweet peppers was also good. Neither of these salads are likely to satisfy as entrees, though.
Fond has me a bit bewildered. The first time I was at Strang Hall, I didn’t realize that the food counter touting “thoughtful, inspired, familiar” dishes was actually another concept. I thought it was a bar, tucked away into the rear of the building. It has a few counter seats with handsome place settings, which have gone overlooked upon every one of my visits to Strang. This space would perhaps have been better served by the coffee counter, which is instead oddly situated between Basabasa and Anousone.
Perhaps the reason those bar seats are empty has to do with the food. Fond leans Italian (there are three pasta dishes and a side of arancini) but there are also Spanish-inspired papas bravas, a Southwestern pork stew and a patty melt. The signature dishes are the ones chef Mark Dandurand, previously the chef at SoT and the sous chef at Stock Hill, wants you to try from his eclectic menu. I wonder at his choices. The arancini was filled with a mushy risotto that had beets in it at one point, but it resembled fibrotic liver and tasted nothing of beet. The smoked chili grits overpowered all other flavors in the salmon entree, including the salmon.
Only the pork stew delivered on Fond’s thoughtful and inspired tagline. Hunky braised shoulder sat in a rich tomatillo broth and was topped with corn kernels, poblano creme and toasted tortilla strips. Every spoonful delivered new flavors.
There are a few classic cocktails on the menu at Strang’s bar—a negroni, a good Manhattan, a spicy margarita that lives up to its name—but it’s the signature cocktails that will get your attention first. There are eight of them, each with innocuous names (Gold, Pink, Purple, Brown) that let you know, at least, what color the drink you’re going to get is. I can’t decide if this is clever or gimmicky, but I can tell you that the Orange cocktail (rum, aperol, lime juice) tastes like boozy orange soda; the Blue drink (rosemary-infused gin, blue curaçao, pineapple) tastes like something a twenty-one-year-old college girl would order at a TGI Friday’s; and the Chartreuse—which does not contain chartreuse liqueur but does have tequila, Thai basil-infused coconut cream and coconut water—tastes like a new hangover cure. And I thoroughly enjoyed them all.