Monday, December 28, 2009

Wichita Is A Burger Town

In advance of an official word that the revised edition of Hamburger America is in the works I took it upon myself to start poking around in some uncharted territory (at least by me). A filming job had me on a plane to Wichita last weekend so the research began. What I found shocked me. Small town, small burger culture right? Wrong. I had my work cut out for me.

Wichita, Kansas, the birthplace of the fast-food burger model through White Castle, is a burger town. I was totally overwhelmed by the options that Wichita had to offer. And worse, I'm embarrassed that not a single joint in the town made it into the first edition of my book.

At first glance Wichita had at least 10 good lookin' roadside burger spots but as I dug deeper the number was more like 25 or more. The 2 days I had for research would clearly not be enough. With a need to prioritize I selected 2 obvious winners (in taste and character) and one other that seemed to fit the Hamburger America criteria (fresh ground beef, 20 year+ burger on the menu, and a great place to visit).

Our first stop (Expert Burger Taster Kris B was along for the trip) was a Wichita classic - the Nu-Way Cafe. Just when I thought the loosemeat phenomenon was limited to Iowa along comes this gem. Since this 'burger' is a Wichita tradition anyone in town I mentioned my visit to said, "Oh, you have to have a Nu-Way." And that's exactly what what they called it, the NuWay, as in, "I'll have a Nu-Way." While in town I also heard it referred to as a "crumbly burger." There are 5 locations around town but we opted for the original 1930 diner on West Douglas.

At Nu-Way the options were strange and plentiful. Ask for the "original" and get the classic - a large scoop of crumbly, moist beef on a soft white bun with mustard and pickle. An "original deluxe" adds cheese. Other sizes were available like the "medium" which is served on a smaller bun and a "medium double meat" which adds more crumbly goodness (but wouldn't you just order an original at that point instead?). The beef is prepared the exact same way as their doppelganger in Marshalltown regardless of what you've read - it's just crumbled, steamed beef with nothing added.

After our stop at Nu-Way we stumbled up another great find, Jack's North Hi. Perfectly situated directly across the street from a huge high school Jack's has been serving up thin patty wonders since 1951. I had the most popular burger on the menu - the tasty double with cheese. Onions are standard, chopped and pressed into the patty. Unlike Town Topic in Kansas City or the great onion-fried burgers of El Reno, Oklahoma the onions are chopped square, not sliced thin. The result is a pile of grilled onion bits that don't really make it into the patty but add to the burger's overall oniony flavor.

We made it to one other burger joint before leaving, Bionic Burger. The kitchy old-timey interior was a turn-off but the tater tots a major turn-on. Bionic served up larger patties (below) than Jack's but used the same chopped-kinda-pressed-into-the-patty onions. A toasted white squishy was the prefect vehicle and the fresh beef sealed the deal. Damn tasty. We were the last customers of the day at Bionic and were accidentally locked into the restaurant, nearly a dream come true, then someone found the key.

A repeat trip to Wichita is imminent because we missed a few talked about greats like Ty's and Walt's. As I stood on the spot where Walt Anderson opened his first burger stand on Douglas Ave (which is now a parking lot) I felt the weight of hamburger history. I can guarantee that Wichita will be well represented in the revised edition of the book.