Restaurants that put small towns on the map.
It’s not surprising that great restaurants dot the landscape of America’s big cities. After all, that’s where the diners are.
Discovering wonderful eateries in small towns is tougher, although some restaurants are so unique that they put their burgs on the map. A few are well known, like The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, and The French Laundry in Yountville, California. But others are among the best-kept dining secrets, in tiny towns off the beaten path like Smithfield, Missouri; Kinston, North Carolina; and La Mesa, New Mexico.
Justus Drugstore | Smithville, Missouri | Population 8,500
Jonathan Justus has made Smithville, Missouri, population 8,500, a destination spot. It’s a half hour north of Kansas City.
His Justus Drugstore features Midwest “country food on steroids.” The menu is replete with local ingredients, ranging from his handpicked morels to pork from nearby Paradise Locker Meats, which supplies meat from small family farms to top eateries nationwide.
“There is so much available here,” says Justus, taking a break one morning from foraging for nettles, feral daylilies, peach blossoms, and other items, which he describes as “cool flavors no one else is using.”
A long and winding road, that included a job repossessing cars and cooking stints in San Francisco and France, finally brought him back to his hometown in 2007, where he and wife, Camille Eklof, transformed his family’s 1950s drugstore into a restaurant.
“It’s ironic, I guess, because when I was growing up I knew I didn’t want to stay here,” the 48-year-old chef says.
Dining at Justus Drugstore takes time and the cooked-to-order menu items are “very tightly strung compositions, so we request people not make changes,” he says.
For instance, the short ribs ($32) are a deconstruction of a perfect Manhattan: House-made sweet vermouth braised ribs; sweet potato purée with chamomile-infused bourbon and smoked honey; pear poached in house-made dry vermouth and orange peel pickled cherries; pickled Brussels sprout leaves for the sour flavor; and broccoli rabe for bitter.
The bourbon is just one of a number of infused liquors created by the chef and his mixologists. All total, they have created about 100 different bitters.
Justus is a particular fan of Paradise’s four-rib-bone country cut, which is served as part of his Duroc Pork 2 Ways ($36), now in its 18th variation.
The citrus-brined pork rib and house-cured shoulder ham are served over two millet cakes, with wild onions, greens, and a sauce that includes distilled wild violet flowers, white wine, and thyme.
A number of items on the restaurant’s menu include pork, and that makes sense because “this area is all about the pig, not cattle,” Justus explains. And, he adds, anyone cooking real food in the Kansas City area can’t go without referencing barbecue—“I do use a lot of smoke at the restaurant.”