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While there is at best one other person presently here who has any practical interest in a report on food in Wichita, I hope all will find the pictures of interest. (So if you're on dial up, let them all load before you read.)

Wichita occupies a little-noted yet unique spot in modern food history, as it gave birth to two seminal fast food chains-- White Castle in the 1920s and Pizza Hut in the 1950s-- and with "Pizza Hut millionaires" still familiar figures on the local scene, it remains a hotbed of chain food experimentation, producing new concepts at a per-capita rate perhaps higher than anywhere else in America, as well as sending its experts to run other chains. (One of them, Jamie Coulter, achieved some notoriety for the way he went after a dissident shareholder of Lone Star Steakhouse-- do a search, it's an amusing story that says a lot about the cowboy-entrepreneur mentality in Wichita.)

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One thing this has meant is that Wichita has become the faux art deco diner capital of America. The city is filled with imitation Rhode Island railcar diners, of a type never actually known in Kansas, as well as Debevicish imitations that belong to no time period at all like the Spangles (another local chain) above. Even genuine chains of the period, like the local Kings-X chain (which dates back to the 30s) or the 50s carhop Sonic chain now build fake diners in this 80s-90s imitation 50s-30s style. Fortunately, I knew where one actual 30s building still served food:

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This is what the 30s really looked like; this is where Lana Turner and John Garfield plotted to kill her Greek short order cook husband in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Up until the late 70s, at least, this original outpost in the local Nu-Way chain (on West Douglas) still had its original menu signboards (announcing chili, but not french fries), antiseptic green paint on the walls, the whole deal. Alas, it's been spiffed up with nostalgic pictures, thus destroying the actual nostalgia from my point of view, but apart from the addition of fries, the food remains pretty much what it was. First, let's serve a hungry boy a frosty root beer in a cold mug:

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And now, here's a Nu-Way, the one dish that everyone who leaves Wichita thinks of as a classic Wichita food:

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Crumbly beef, sauteed in chicken stock I believe, served with the classic 30s-style burger accompaniments of mustard, pickle and onion, plus cheese in this case. Soft, gummable food for the depression era, when a lot of people didn't have money for dentures. Still loved by old folks all over Wichita, but I must admit... they're not really that good. But the root beer's first rate and hey, one must genuflect at our few remaining altars. After all, there's no guarantee that this location won't suffer the same fate of one of my favorite local burgers (and one of the best burger stand names of all time):

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Takhoma Burger, requiescat in pace. UPDATE: Mom emails to report that she saw an ad for Takhoma Burger in its new location, 814 S. Broadway, which apparently even has seating now. 55 years in business, it proudly declares.

Still, the side trip was worth it just for this discovery, painted on a strip mall Bible outreach center called Messiah's Branch:

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Jack T. Chick himself must weep when he sees an icon of such overpowering majesty and power, as the icon-painters of Italy must have wept when they first saw the works of the Flemish masters. Or as Bishop George Carlin said in the movie Dogma, "Jesus didn't come back to give us the willies!"

That night I asked my mom where to get barbecue. She started off on some place with a cute name like Hog Wild near her house and I slapped her. "Not white persons' barbecue," I said, "real barbecue." Finally she gave in and told me about a place called Miller's, on 13th just west of Oliver. As I rounded the drive through (it looks like maybe they gave up on sitdown service after being robbed a few too many times) I wondered, could real barbecue come out of a former Hardee's location, or was I in for some pathetic, evil meat jello monstrosity? Then I saw proof that mom had not steered me wrong:

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Real hickory smoked barbecue. Maybe a little bland when it came to a rub, but made with real pride in getting the technique just right, at least to my eye (I await, nervously, the verdict of the true masters on my pictures). Check out the smoke ring on this brisket:

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Or the simple perfection of these ribs:

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Good beans and sauce, too, nicely spicy and complex. Not that any of that would matter if the meat didn't measure up.

Sunday night turned out to be a bad night for my favorite burger places, or pretty much anything else on my list, so Mom (for whom I had new respect) suggested another new chain concept in a faux art deco building, Freddy's Steakburger and Custard.

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If you think that sounds like a cross between Steak and Shake and Culver's, down to the buttered buns, well, there's a whole department of lawyers who will probably think so one of these days, too.

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But, not bad. Custard was a little softer than Scooter's, but entirely respectable. Interestingly, in a real instant-retro touch, where the standard burger is 30s style (as shown), if you want it with lettuce and tomato, they call that "California style," as if lettuce and tomato on a burger are a wacky innovation that just arrived from the land of fruits and nuts. Try it-- I know it sounds crazy, but you just might like it!

The next morning I went to have country breakfast at my favorite spot for such things, only to find this enigmatic message and a "Closed Monday" sign on the door:

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Clearly the message of some neopagan Celtic cult. Doesn't the Owler declare some omens in Macbeth? Or is it Beowulf? (Mom explained that the Women Bowlers' congress is in town.)

Instead we went to a place called The Breakfast Club on South Seneca, the walls decorated with old movie posters, which instantly brought back nostalgia for the 30s nostalgia of the 1970s instead of today's cheap imitation nostalgia. Here's a study in white on white:

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Good gravy, dry, crumbly biscuits. No Livingston's. Good hash browns, though. But then no respectable place in Wichita would have anything less than textbook-perfect golden-brown hash browns with a crunchy outside and a soft interior.

That left one meal, and I decided to pick up lunch to go at the best of the town's numerous middle-eastern (mainly Lebanese) restaurants. N and J's started as a little strip mall place near Southeast High on Lincoln, but has now taken over most of the strip mall, with a restaurant that probably seats 60 plus an impressive selection of canned goods like this graphic knockout:

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...an olive bar, hookahs, nougat and baklava, pita baked on premise and piled up warm on a table, and so on, a place to rival in scope any of Chicago's middle-eastern. But how's the food? Well, the baba ghanoush and hummus were low on garlic, but freshly made, easy to scarf. Chicken shwarma sandwich pretty good, not great. Donut shaped falafel, surprisingly strong with hot pepper and garlic, fluffy, would rank near thought not at the top here. No wonder N and J's has expanded so over the years, and no wonder this is the one ethnic cuisine that seems to have caught on generally with practically everyone I know in town. Have a falafel, with pickle and pepper, on me:

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Last edited by Mike G on May 27th 2004, 10:22am, edited 1 time in total.
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great post, great photos. And someone knows root beer should be frosty, but never ever served with ice.
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Mike,

You know, for a second, I thought that place was actually a restaurant (is it even legal to call a place Messiah's or God's?).

My favorite pic is the lad with two root beers, though there are so many good shots here...almost makes me wish I were in Wichita.

David
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Great post Mike G - at 10 days, I've now spent more time in wichita than I would ever have predicted 4 years ago - the standing prediction as of 4 years ago on how much time I would spend in Wichita had been steady at zero days for years, only to be demolished by makign the acquaintance of Kerensa. Ain't love grand? I'll lobby hard for a visit to that bbq shop in July, when K and I make the wichita trip next.
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Mike G wrote:Soft, gummable food for the depression era, when a lot of people didn't have money for dentures.


That should be your signature line!

I'm very ready to go to Witchita too.
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Vital Information wrote:I'm very ready to go to Witchita too.


Rob,

Yep, so am I, even the BBQ looks good. Must be Mr. G's pictures. :wink:

Guess that makes three upcoming board road trips, Milwaukee, Ann Arbor and, now, Wichita.

Good god, did I just say I wanted to go to Wichita, can Mike's pictures be that good? :)

Enjoy,
Gary
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Great post, Mike, though I have no plans to go to Wichita. But I might. Are you sure Spangles is a food joint, that name has me thinking.
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Kansas City BBQ is worth a trip. Knowing where the good food is in Wichita is more a matter of self-preservation in an emergency.
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Ann Fisher wrote:root beer should be frosty, but never ever served with ice.


Agreed, unless the ice is forming from the condensation on your icy glass mug. That's when the root beer is going to be really really good.
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#10
Posted December 28th 2005, 5:16pm
Back in Wichita for the first time since my post above, in the very earliest days of LTHForum, I had hopes for post-worthy culinary adventures on a par with my Kansas City stop on the way there. Unfortunately, I had more frustrations than good food:

1) Bionic Burger. I have often talked up the 30s style hamburger* here, enough so that one mention of it a few weeks back in person made Rene G roll his eyes. My hope was to visit the west side location of this fine, if not necessarily very top in town, burger mini-chain, where (10 or 15 years ago) they ground fresh meat on premises, formed it into balls, and stored them on squares of butcher paper before slapping them onto the grill.

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Unfortunately, though the canonical Wichita meal shown here-- burger with mustard pickle and onion, fresh-cut fries and Cherry Limeade-- was perfectly fine, the west side Bionic Burger had moved into a cutesy former chicken restaurant and gone heavy for the faux-50s theme nearly every Wichita burger joint has, and in the process the kitchen had been rendered much less visible, in fact the meat-grinding part was completely out of sight. And to judge by the clean edge on my burger, while I think they're still using fresh meat, some machine seems to be involved in shaping the patties. Later, my brother-in-law suggested trying one on 901 E. Harry, which is really a depressed and derelict part of town, so it holds promise for not having moved into a shiny new building. Next trip, I guess.

2) Though the Italian population in Wichita has always been minimal-- we have Lebanese instead of sub-Alpine Europeans, and I noted while tuned to the public radio station that a young announcer actually called it Mendelssohn's Eyetalian Symphony-- oddly, two of the very oldest restaurants in Wichita are old red gravy places, Angelo's and Savute's. Angelo's must date back to the 1950s at least, though it's moved too many times to have a Sabatini's-like atmospheric location, while Savute's Yellow Pages ad proudly declares it to be the oldest restaurant in town, est. 1944. Neither is going to give Spiaggia any late nights but Angelo's pizza was always well liked by me, much more robust and spicy and, well, Eyetalian than the very American chain pizza that dominated in the town that, after all, launched Pizza Hut. (Weird, isn't it, that the two biggest pizza chains in America, P. Hut and Domino's, were both started by Irish-American Catholic school boys.)

So both were closed during the time that I was in town and could go there for dinner. Next trip, I guess.

3) Instead I ate at a Mexican restaurant recommended by local friends as being the best in town, the outgrowth of a little taqueria, etc. etc. El Paisa, around 21st and Arkansas which does indeed put it in a barrio, in fact, just on the wrong side of the tracks (where a train stopped us). It was... ordinary. Okay, but no better than that. I did see a couple of other spots in that area, not to mention that the one somewhat celebrated road-housey old Mexican place, Connie's Mexico Cafe, is still around up there. (So is Savute's, and possibly Abe's, which in the 80s at least still had its speakeasy window in the door, a relic of the fact that Prohibition survived into the 50s in Kansas. Also nearby was The Forum, which in the late 60s and early 70s was a Communist coffeehouse. And over there, wasn't that the Fahnestock place? And didn't the Gaudreaus live there, by cracky?) Next trip, maybe I'll poke around some more.

4) Only my old reliable truly satisfied. Breakfast at Livingston's Diner, the same waitress still there since I was a kid (now 60ish, she seemed 57 then). Biscuits and Gravy and hash browns, all perfect. They've actually opened one in the snooty new malls at the east edge of town, but trust me, this is where you go for breakfast in Wichita.

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Bionic Burger Hamburgers
660 N Ridge Rd
Wichita, KS 67212
316-945-3838
other locations

Angelo's
1930 S Oliver
Wichita, KS 67218
316-682-1473

Savute's Italian Ristorante
3303 N. Broadway
Wichita, KS 67219
316-838-0455

El Paisa
2227 Arkansas Ave
Wichita, KS 67204
316-838-0337

Connie's Mexico Cafe
2227 N Broadway St
Wichita, KS 67219
316-832-9636

Livingston's Cafe
924 S Woodlawn St
Wichita, KS 67218
316-682-9265

* My mother says that there's actually a local fan club for the 30s style hamburger place, The Highlander, that her father owned in the late 40s and early 50s; one of the first carhop places in town, it was very popular with a certain set of teenager then (ultimately its downfall as it became associated with JD's and hoodlums). Alas, she has no memorabilia or photos whatsoever.
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#11
Posted December 29th 2005, 6:50pm
Mike G wrote:Image.


Atkins :?: :roll: :)
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#12
Posted January 15th 2006, 1:08am
Hey thanks for all the info on Wichita - I have to head down there in a couple of days. I want some BBQ and I'm not sure if I should head for Jet BBQ or Miller's. Any idea which would be better?

I've also got Takhoma Burger and Livingston Diner on my list. I'll keep my eye out for anything that looks good but unfortunately I'm there for about 24 hours.
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#13
Posted January 15th 2006, 10:50am
R&S is the place everybody always said was THE best for bar b-q (I don't trust my 20-year-old memories to say for sure). It also had (as noted in the Kansas City thread) the very shortest hours, which is not unrelated to its quality-- lunchtime Tuesday to Friday, or something like that. So if you can hit R&S, I'd go for that, though since they often don't even have a phone, you may have trouble even locating them (sorry, I can't remember either). I always liked Jet, not that I think it's superfantastic but it's reliably good and most recently (it's moved a lot over the years) it was located in a wonderfully incongruous old fake-chalet building which had once been a roadhouse (now well within town, of course; Wichitans will mostly know it as The Fife & Drum). Alas, as of my visit at the top of this thread, the building was gone and they were only doing catering (did I mention that above?), but my mom said she thought they were back to having a restaurant now. So check the Yellow Pages when they get there. Miller's was quite good, though, so whichever you succeed at eating at, I think you'll be happy.

By the way, if for some reason Takhoma doesn't work out (and please report back on the new location), Livingston's does a first-rate Wichita burger with grilled onions, too.

UPDATE: Found a 6-year-old article which gives R&S's location here. I don't promise that either location even exists now, but it's the 13th street one you'd want. Not to deter you from Jet or Miller's, either of which would be fine too.
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#14
Posted January 15th 2006, 2:28pm
I'm not absolutely sure but I heard that Millers BBQ is no longer open.
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#15
Posted March 30th 2007, 10:17pm
Just found this site, live in Wichita, thought I'd give prospective visitors an update.
First: bad news. Miller barbecue, R&S barbecue and Angelo's Italian foods -- all gone. Wichita is still home to many good barbecue restaurants. Jet BBQ at 3rd & Cleveland, just east of downtown, in a converted firehouse, only open lunches M-F I believe. Pig In, Pig Out, 13th and Hydraulic, a rather industrial area, also lunch only. My favorite (in my neighborhood) Delano Barbecue, 710 W Douglas 11-7 M-F, 11-3 Saturday (got some great pulled pork and brisket, smoked chicken)
Angelo's regretfully succumbed to the oversaturation of chain Italian food in Wichita, and some financial difficulties. The son who was running the restaurant is still hopeful that once he gets his finances in order and finds a smaller location, he'll try to reopen. However, a remarkably similar menu is still being served at DeFazio's (29th North and Amidon).
Good news -- Takhoma Burger's back at 9th St. N and West Street, in a more spacious location with what I still believe to be the best burger in Wichita. They always leave a smile plastered on my face, and my house reeks of onions for days.
And it's hard to recommend just one Mexican restaurant in Wichita, because we have so many, from the walk-up taco and torta stands throughout north-central wichita, to the sit-down family run restaurants like Connies, Bills El Mexico, Felipes, La Chinita, Cholitas. I've always been partial to Felipes (3434 W Central), but I've known them since I was a little kid, and 40 years later they're still serving the same menu.
And then there's the Vietnamese restaurants on Broadway north of downtown, the Lebanese cuisine all over east Wichita, several sushi/hibachi Japanese grills, Chinese buffets...I could go on...
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#16
Posted March 30th 2007, 10:30pm
Podunkboy (how did Wichita get that name, anyway?),

That's too bad about Angelo's. A lot of things, I'd hesitate to try them again after having seen the world for fear of spoiling the memory, but Angelo's pizza seems like the rare one that would hold up-- unusual for heartland pizza, it had more gusto than many pizzas I've had here (of course, ordering salami and green olive as standard toppings might have had something to do with that). A real pity if people gave that up for Papa John's and Olive Garden. (Wasn't DeFazio the family name? It sounds like that's an Angelo's in all but name. So maybe it isn't gone after all.)

Felipe's is what kept me from liking Mexican food for many years, but Connie's El Mexico I'd happily try again-- greasy spoon diner Mexican on a strip of honky tonks and roadhouses, colorfully depicted in my buddy Scott Phillips' book The Walkaway. Given immigration patterns I think there has to be good Mexican tucked away in many parts of Wichita (and Kansas), though I didn't find it last time I visited.

What other burgers are you fond of? My mom recommends one of the Walt's restaurants, though she says they vary wildly (apparently different members of the family run different ones with very different results). I think it's the one near Towne West she says is good.

Anyway, thanks for the report from good old Podunk.
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#17
Posted March 31st 2007, 9:30am
Well, Wichita's actually more colorfully known as "Doodah". I think someone from the local paper dubbed us Doodah, and it still comes up rather regularly in the local culture. I grew up in a small town south of Wichita, and dubbed myself "podunkboy" long before there was an internet or usernames. That's right, I had to give myself a nickname, and podunkboy was all I could come up with.
The "Angelo's" family name was Fasciano, but it's possible that there's a family or former worker connection. The DeFazio's restaurant is actually in a former Angelo's location, and their salads still feature the same pickled eggplant strips. At one point, there were 3 Angelos restaurants, before they finally consolidated in their final location on south Oliver. I was always partial to the first location, in a little strip mall on Harry Street that had a basement dining room. My Mom preferred dining upstairs, but us kids liked going downstairs for a thin-crust pizza or plate of spaghetti and meatball with the matching paper bib. Back then, EVERYONE got a paper bib, to keep the sauce off your shirts.
Regarding the Mexican food situation: although most of the "old school" restaurants are similar in their culinary origin (mostly Sonoran), there's enough variety that everyone can find something to eat in Wichita. There are worse things than to have to eat at multiple restaurants trying to find one you like. :lol:
The "Walt's" near Towne West is now "West Street Burgers". Same burgers, same menu, it's just that there are so many Walt's I think they reached a breaking point. There are still two Walts Bar and Grills in east and west Wichita, and two Walt's Hamburgers (on south West Street and south Tyler Road, both by different owners). I'd probably just stick with the West Street Burgers of all those locations. I'd also selfishly recommend my Delano neighborhood neighbors in http://www.tysdiner.com/(928 W. 2nd St.). They're just across the river from downtown, and they do a very good lunch business.
Oh, and I of course still have to endorse our NuWays (I live a couple blocks from the original one) and the Spangles burgers. They're better than the major chains, bigger burgers with some interesting original sandwiches, and they're home-grown and local.
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#18
Posted March 31st 2007, 11:07am
Yeah, I guess "Doodah" is probably more specific to Wichita... I think it was the Sun, the funky free weekly in the 70s that popularized that name. I suppose lots of places probably call themselves "podunk." It's better than your Internet name being "Peerless Princess of the Plains," I guess.

I forgot about the pickled eggplant strips at Angelo's. There was a great debate in my office one time whether they were anchovies or eggplant, either one being wildly exotic to us. I'll tell you, I've had a lot less authentic Italian-American throughout the midwest than Angelo's, it was a good place and even if it's gone, had a good 50-year run.

I know a lot of people liked Ty's, it was never one of my favorites though. It had a little more supper club feel, as I recall-- at least black vinyl booths, that sort of thing. Main thing I recall was that you ordered a quarter order of fries, and even that was enormous. If anyone had ever ordered a whole order, it probably would have caused a spike in the commodities market for potatoes.

Alas, the best burger joint name ever, "Dead Cow," is long gone...
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#19
Posted April 18th 2008, 2:07pm
ok so I'm late to the party. I found this site while looking for something else and really liked the OP. I figured I'd add some 2008 info.

R&S BBQ is back under new owership and supposedly with all the original recipes....but.....to me I'd rather eat at a national chain like Colters (ok, that hurt actually typing that out) than soil my memories of R&S over on 13th. The new one is beside Kellogg in Downtown between Broadway and Market, north side. I'd say pass and move on, its not worth it.

For me, my BBQ fix gets scratched with Jet BBQ (1 block east of 3rd and Washinton, Old Firestation #3), the Jetman will fix you up right and at a price that wont break the bank (most meat by the pound less than 9 bucks), I perfer his ribs and brisket as both have a great bark and the smokyness I perfer. For pulled pork and a good sit down and the BEST onion rings in town...its Delano BBQ, on Douglass just west of the traffic circle (south of Seneca). Prices there are also not too bad. Both places you wont leave hungry....thats for sure.

If you perfer mass quanity...B&C creations is a hot spot, It's been a while but they are serving Q part of the week and its buffet style IIRC, oh and feel free to peruse the attached antique store for your furniture needs. There is a whole story about a husband and wife who started a antique store (well she did) and the husband started cooking for the delivery guys and then started competing on the "Q" circuit and then started serving over lunch...then they divorced, he moved is BBQ stand and now they are back in the same building....or something like that....anyway its a big hit with the Boeing/Spirt crowd.

Chain wise we have a Red Hot and Blue and a Famous Daves but frankly I have never been to them, why go for all the shiny when there are good small joints with paper napkins?

Pig in Pig Out moved way up on 13th and Washington and is tough to get to from downtown on a lunch break...so i have not been there in a few years. They won a couple of state titles and moved and got expensive.

If your down Derby way, there is a Rib Crib that while not great Q, it fills a gaping hole in the Derby eats scene, and dang it they have fried okra on the menu....as a Texan, BBQ is missing something without okra around someplace.

Oh and if your out here in flyover country, and dieing for a Chi-dog, the lady with the hotdog stand in front of Lowes west, has a Chicago style that reminded me of the ones I had in my 1 trip to Chicago....lol

Hope that helps.....and come on down anytime
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Seth, is the Kerensa you speak of Kerensa Peterson (have to ask, when to college with said girl and she was from the Wichita area).

As to BBQ in Wichita: Jet, last I recall is pretty good. He was out of business for awhile (was originally on Central or 21st - it is a blur to me). Had a horrible auto accident that almost killed the owner and has only been open a 2-3 years now at the current location.

I'm glad somebody noted Ty's Diner. It is a classic burger dive. High traffic open for lunch. Great burgers (must get bacon on the burger - they do the bacon cheese burger than anyone, perfectly cooked), hand cut fries. Tons of fond memories (and bad ones when I'd be travelling across the state, plan the trip to stop there for lunch, and they'd be on vacation or I'd forget they were closed on Monday - no worse way to crush one's spirit that plan on a Ty's burger and fries, travel 200+ and be denied and then have to drive 100-200 more miles with an empty feeling inside).

Ty's was introduced by a college friend that went on to be a VP with Pizza Hut. We used to skip classes about every 2 weeks to make a 100 mile drive for a burger, and the trip was always worth it.

Later,
Sam S.
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#21
Posted June 28th 2010, 11:52am
How the Cheeseburger Won the Cold War, or: Wichita Vostok Sutra

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Two ideologies, one American and individualist, the other rooted in a pitiless foreign dogma, challenging one another not via arms, but through a peaceful competition, to achieve a dream that mankind had known since its earliest days...

...I refer, of course, to online debates as to whether plain American road food made by democratic ordinary joe cooks can be considered fine cuisine, or if that honor is to be reserved for the products of severe, hierarchical French kitchens.  Not long ago Steve Plotnicki fired a Sputnik of absolutism across the night sky of LTHForum by stating:

Fact. Hamburgers and steaks aren't art. The closest you can get to a hamburger being art is the DB Burger as it is a composed dish. Toppings on a hamburger just don't rise to the level of being an actual culinary composition.


In short, a hamburger can't be art unless it’s so Frenchified that it’s no longer recognizable as itself.  On the contrary, I believe that a well-made hamburger and fries is as perfectly constructed and balanced a peasant meal as any product of rustic French tradition— combining the rich pagan satisfactions of beef over fire with a delicate combination of sweetness (ketchup), salty vinegariness (mustard, pickle), umami (ketchup again), onion bite and dairy lushness (cheese).  Add potatoes (more saltiness, more friedness, more ketchup) and you have the meal which rightly defines America.

Which is not to say that its virtues aren’t often observed in the breach.  Last year we drove the Family Truckster to Wyoming, a state where lunch could be summed up with the single phrase “Where are we going to eat a hamburger today?”  Without exception, the hamburgers were as indistinguishably functional as the gas we bought at the gas stations, sheer fuel made with frozen patties and served with a side of pale blond foodservice potato-stubs.

The first three days we were in Kansas, we also ate hamburgers— but this time it was by choice, and what a difference it was to be in a state where frying a hamburger is a noble calling.  Kansas and Wyoming are both cattle country, but for whatever reason, it’s the beef states of the midwest which take the hamburger most seriously.  60 years of fast food has taken its toll; you wouldn’t say that every small town still has a drive-in where the meat is ground fresh and patted by hand.  But a lot of them do.

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When I was growing up in Wichita, my two favorites, arrived at by a long process of sampling, were Bill’s Big 6 and Livingston’s Diner.  Bill was a survivor of the Bataan Death March, which earned him indulgence for whatever racist or crackpot stuff came out of his mouth in later years, not to mention the unbelievable jet black toupee perched atop his head; it was his place and if you didn’t like it, you were free to go somewhere else.  Bill and Mary Lamb retired some time back and, in all likelihood, Bill has joined his band of brothers in Valhalla; Livingston’s is still around, but I didn’t make it there and, if I did, it would probably be for a chicken fried steak anyway (for me, the standard by which every one in the 30 years since has fallen short).  Instead, my first visit was to a mini-chain which first appeared while I was in high school, Bionic Burger, and quickly formed the third of the great burger triumvirate of my youth.

Bionic Burger actually had its origins in Oklahoma, the rude and untutored wilderness to civilized Kansas’ south, and its Okie origins showed in those days in the sketchily ramshackle restaurant on the dirt-road south side of town where the fat, overalled cook would sit rolling balls of meat and setting them on squares of paper.  When a burger was ordered, he would slap the paper onto the grill with his hand, and peel it back to reveal a jagged-edge patty on the grill.

Bionic Burger has cleaned things up a bit since then; the one I went to, besides being located in an old Long John Silver’s on the tonier northeast side, now puts the burger-making process out of sight (and to judge by the results, uses some kind of patty-forming device).  Still, this is an exemplary burger by every standard, fresh-ground meat with a bright taste of salt and pepper. the right kind of white bun (springy top but not so much bread that it interferes with the meat; few bakeries seem to get this right in Chicago), and thick fresh-cut fries which came out with a little too much vegetable oil sticking to them, and in much too big a quantity (word of advice: almost anywhere in Wichita, a regular order for one is enough fries for two), but still better than a Five Guys’ franchise’s best day.  Though Kansas and Oklahoma may be distinct political ecosystems (Kansas is libertarian Great Plains, Oklahoma Bible-belt Southern), on burgers they are of one mind.

The next day we went to Hutchinson, about 45 minutes to Wichita’s north.  For being the closest town of any consequence, it’s surprising how rarely I ever went to Hutch in my childhood, but it didn’t take long to see why: it’s a pretty depressed place, dusty and out-of-date looking like a lot of Rust Belt towns in Indiana or Michigan.  But then you’re driving in a neighborhood of modest houses and beatup cars, and suddenly come upon this:

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Believe it or not, obscure and rather down-at-heel Hutchinson is home to the second or third best collection of space stuff in the world, ranking with the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  How, you ask?  Well, back in the 60s the director of the local planetarium started collecting stuff that NASA had discarded, and consulting for space movies and TV programs (often in exchange for the props after they were done with them), and later, as the Soviet Union crumbled, he began wheeler-dealing with the Soviet space program, too.  Sadly, he eventually went to jail for mixing his official and personal space junk dealings, but the result is a museum you've never heard of that has both a genuine German V-1 and V-2, the exact replica of Chuck Yeager’s Glamorous Glennis from The Right Stuff, a full size lunar lander they helped build for NBC’s space coverage, spacesuit and camera replicas from Apollo 13, a Soviet Vostok space capsule (used), Gus Grissom's Mercury capsule that sank when the hatch blew and was recovered 30 years later, and much more, a surprisingly comprehensive tribute to the greatest battlefield of the Cold War.  Really, it's astonishing how good a museum this is for being in the middle of nowhere (quite literally, given that we're talking central Kansas), I can't recommend a detour here highly enough for anyone crossing the US on I-70, say.

Along the way, Hutch decided to make an attraction out of its only other point of note, the massive salt mines located 650 feet below the surface which, besides providing road salt to Chicago for decades, are also used for safe underground storage by Hollywood of treasures like the negatives of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.  The only thing more improbable than finding a Vostok space capsule in Hutchinson, then, is to find the Batman suit with nipples from the George Clooney Batman movie 650 feet below it:

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The kids, frankly, loved the subterranean creepiness of the salt mine even more than the space stuff. Anyway, back to burgers.  In between Bruce Wayne and Yuri Gagarin, we came into town along an industrial strip, and were immediately smitten by a place called Oliver’s Burger and Bait:

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This was no cutesy cracker-humor name, either; the actual bait shop is located in a shed out back, and at one point during service the waitress had to go open it for a customer.

I wouldn’t say Oliver’s was a great burger (I actually had a chili burger, for variety; the chili was canned), but it was a perfectly decent one, and more than that, it was a demonstration of what is so appealing about the midwest.  From the moment we walked in, city slickers all, and found the staff and the regulars joking good-naturedly, we were made at home, inquired after (“Didn’t think I’d seen y’all in here before”) and quickly included in the friendly joshing by which they pass the day.  In the end, we walked out not only cheerfully fed, but in possession of the gift of a T-shirt for my 8-year-old (“Burger and Bait: If we’re not cookin’ we’re hookin’”), last one in stock, on the house.  Thanks, guys, for making us feel at home.

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The last burger I tried while in the greater Wichita-Hutch area was one that apparently has been around for decades, but which I had never heard of.  As the name suggests, Bomber Burger is located way down south in the heart of Wichita’s military-industrial complex, near the Boeing military plant that’s the city’s largest employer, and McConnell Air Force Base, no doubt serving burgers and brewskis to the crews who literally built and flew the bombers that were the other side of the aeronautical struggle with the Russkies.  Well, someone growing up on the white collar east side of town had little enough reason to ever go to that part of town, though I might have recognized one or two of the old roadhouses (the kind with dancers) down on K-15.  (For more information see my friend Scott Phillips’ crime novel set in the 70s Wichita demimonde, The Ice Harvest.) If the Cold War comes dressed in noble aspirations at the Cosmosphere, here’s the Kansas blue collar democratic ethos in its most raucously independent-minded mode:

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Spangles, incidentally, is a local burger chain of no particular distinction.  Not sure why Bomber Burger should have chosen them as an enemy to replace the Soviets, but it's so typical of the redneck-libertarian Kansas spirit to do something like that, and if you were going to be offended by Bill's Big 6, you really don't want to go to Bomber Burger and start reading the walls, where ex-wives, non-Phillies fans (maybe the owner's from there originally?) and President Obama come in for equally sardonic treatment. Me, I had a great old time, not least because I dragged my sons and their girl cousin there and sat them at the bar ("Now children, this is what we call a 'shitkicker' bar").  Much of the conversation, rougher (note the "no guns" symbol above my son's head there) but still in its own way as welcoming as at Oliver's, had to do with how the fellow seated next to me had acquired the nickname "Dirty Amish Hippie."  (Somebody called him that in a fight in a bar, and he laughed for ten minutes straight, ending the fight.)

Ah, to be back among my people.

Anyway, the Bomber Burger is a real bomber, a fat 1/2 pound or so compared to the thin patties typically served in the area, but it was made with the same automatic, why-would-you-do-it-any-other-way freshness and handmadeness of the other burgers we ate, and the burger and fries were every bit as good as the atmosphere.  After three days of burgers, there wasn't time or stomach to try Walt's or Takhoma Burger or Ty's or Livingston's or West Street, here's a guy with a whole list of burger joints which I mostly haven't tried yet, but at least I was certain that the iconic American meal continued to be in very good hands in my hometown— and, whether or not it was art, to certainly represent a high level of craft.

Thanks for the burgers, and the welcome.  Dos vedanya until next time, y'all.

Bionic Burger
6121 East 21st Street
Wichita, KS 67208
other locations

Oliver's Carry Out: Burgers and Bait
228 E 4th Ave
Hutchinson, KS 67501

Bomber Burger
4860 South Clifton Avenue
Wichita, KS 67216-3066
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#22
Posted April 30th 2012, 7:20pm
I will be taking my son to see his father's birthplace on Memorial Day and was curious if anyone had any current recs for breakfast or lunch in Wichita. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated. Location or type of food not important as long as it's in Wichita or in between Wichita and scenic Winfield.
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Imbiss Grille, in Old Town, is a decent German place. But I'd check first, I saw at least one web listing of it as "Closed".

Geo
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Sooo, you like wine and are looking for something good to read? Maybe *this* will do the trick! :)
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Mike G,

In '94 I was at a meeting of astronomers, cosmologists, etc. at the Vatican Observatory. I got to know the then Director of Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum. One night, after a few glasses of local vino, I made so bold as to ask him "How did the Hutch cosmo museum get so GOOD?" His jaw literally clenched, and he shot out "They can move much faster than we can, they have some money, and that means that they beat us to a lot of good stuff." He was *really* angry about how Hutch had stolen Air & Space's thunder, most esp. with Soviet stuff.

And that gorgeous Blackbird featured outside is awfully impressive, too.

Geo
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Sooo, you like wine and are looking for something good to read? Maybe *this* will do the trick! :)
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I love that people posts pictures with their out-of-Chicago food posts. I'm big on visuals, so it helps me pick the places I want to eat! :) Anyway, I'm headed to Wichita for a wedding in June. I'm going to write down the names of some of these suggestions. Thank you to everyone who contributed.
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