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.)
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:
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:
And now, here's a Nu-Way, the one dish that everyone who leaves Wichita thinks of as a classic Wichita food:
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):
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:
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:
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:
Or the simple perfection of these ribs:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
...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: