Photos by Myles Gebert, unless he’s in them.
Myles and Liam with Satchel Paige, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Kansas City.
Here’s what I had with friends over Christmas in Wichita, at a bar called The Anchor close to downtown: a couple of West Coast Belgian-style saison ales, and a pastrami sandwich made with housecured pastrami. No, this is not the Wichita I grew up in, clearly. At least some of the food world’s trends have reached the onetime chain food capitol (birthplace to both White Castle and Pizza Hut!) But as I’ve chronicled in past posts like this one and this one, when I go back to the state of Dorothy I want the old school stuff— barbecue in Kansas City, diner burgers in Wichita. This last trip was not one of my most dedicated ones to that goal— I settled for second tier spots (including a bowling alley with a burger special that was just ok, but you can’t argue with burger and two hours of bowling for $8, not when you’re entertaining a bunch of kids). But here are a couple-three* data points, anyway, if you should ever find yourself there, like Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
* That’s a Kansasism. Or maybe just something my mom says.
I had one plan for barbecue at each end of trip in Kansas City: to finally visit Oklahoma Joe’s, one of the city’s most popular newer chains, in its original gas station location. Everybody said it’s the place to go now. But I have to admit to a little inner doubt. I suspected that like, say, Rendezvous in Memphis, this was white yuppie barbecue (despite the gas station location) with more reputation than smoke flavor, and there was better to be found elsewhere. So when I came across a couple of recommendations for a place called Woodyard BBQ, in a middle of nowhere industrial zone (home to this western store, too, added bonus), I was seduced.
Woodyard has a great story— the place supplied wood to a lot of the barbecue spots for close to a century before a later generation decided to get in the business themselves— and they couldn’t have been nicer as we walked in fresh off our flight from Chicago, and they were putting turkeys in the smoker for Christmas take-out business. The ramshackle place with its handpainted signs— calculated downhominess, but still kind of authentic to the place— had a good time vibe that was welcome to weary travelers.
So I wish I’d loved it. Part of the issue is that I think we got some rewarmed leftovers— hey, it wasn’t even noon yet, I understand— but it also didn’t have as much smoke flavor as I’d have wished. I’d put it in the second tier and give it another try, but the atmosphere promised more.
We stopped in Lawrence to see an old friend and to show my kids Where Dad Went to College; they were mainly impressed by the hills that we would go traying on in the snow (that is, sledding on a stolen cafeteria tray). Then on to Wichita, and one thing that finally happened. I grew up listening to people say that the rolling plains were one of the most satisfying landscapes on earth. Uh uh, never bought it. Always wanted mountains or skyscrapers or something, anything else. But at long last, after being far away from them for many years… they do roll like the ocean, and coated with a little snow, they glistened like white gold, and they really were beautiful, mysterious and hypnotizing in their serene emptiness, like the sea. Well, they beat corn fields up here, for sure, which really are monotonous.
If you recall my Indy-Louisville post from earlier this year you heard about Valentine Buildings, a style of prefab burger joint designed to fit onto a semi for shipping anywhere. They were made in Wichita, and what amazes me is that I never knew about them till now; it’s exactly the sort of thing I’d have been all over when I lived there. I think a lot of times they’re hard to recognize because they get added onto; compare Sport Burger above, in Wichita, with the preserved one at the museum in Auburn, Indiana:
Anyway, we’d have gone to Sport Burger just for the experience (alas, you can’t sit inside the very compact interior) but in the words of Samuel L. Jackson, damn, these are some tasty burgers! Amusingly, I thought they’d be slider size— it was kind of hard to see them being made— and cheap enough that we wound up ordering three each, only to find that they were more like McDonald’s cheeseburger-sized. Two was plenty, three way too much.
But they had a good crispy edge (not quite Schoop’s lacy, but nice and crunchy), grilled onions, wrapped in white paper so the bun steamed— as good a 30s-style burger as I can remember having lately.
Here’s a list of surviving Valentine diners in Wichita, though many have not survived since then (but may have other businesses in them now); it seems likely that Sport Burger is the only one still serving burgers. Another fact I gleaned there: at a Valentine diner called Brint’s (know it well, used to hang out and drink beer at the nearby Mile-High Club and play George Jones songs on the jukebox), in 2007, one of the segments for the pilot for a TV show about old school places was shot there. The name of the show was “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Yes, that one.
Smoke rising from L.C.’s BBQ In Kansas City. Wait, you say, what happened to Oklahoma Joe’s? Well, after hitting Moon Marble Co. to see a marble-making demo, followed by the jazz museum and the Negro League Baseball Museum*, very timely as the kids have watched the movie 42 (about Jackie Robinson) a bunch lately, we were right at prime time lunchtime on Saturday at Oklahoma Joe’s. And so were about 200 other people; I swore we took a cell phone pic of the long, long line, but I can’t find it. Anyway, we stayed in it long enough to see how fast it was moving, which was pretty glacial, and I decided, no way this is worth a Franklin BBQ level wait in the cold. Another time, we can hit at a non-peak hour and get in much faster. So instead we went back to L.C.’s, my current favorite in K.C., for the third time. And for the third time, it still was.
Despite the apparent expression, he liked it.
As we were coming out, I suddenly heard a voice say “Mike!” Took me a second to recognize him but it was, believe it or not… no, not Guy Fieri or even Steve Dolinsky (who we had run into at Tortas Fronteras on our flight out, incidentally). It was Jeff Sanders, better known as Buddy Roadhouse, BBQ sauce maker and all-round BBQ guy from DesPlaines and frequent helper-outer at Burt’s Pizza.
We both said “What are you doing here?” which is, in retrospect, kind of a stupid thing to ask a BBQ guy coming out of a BBQ place. Anyway, I told him how we wound up at L.C.’s after scratching Oklahoma Joe’s and he endorsed our decision, saying Oklahoma Joe’s was exactly the kind of yuppie BBQ I suspected and that L.C.’s remains the best in Kansas City. Someday I’ll verify or refute that for myself, but for now, I was happy to have gotten back to L.C.’s and happy to have that choice validated.
* Sad irony to note: the museums are right by Arthur Bryant’s, but where that once would have been the point of visiting Kansas City in itself, everyone seems to agree that it has slipped enough that we zipped right past it.
Waiting for our plane on the plains, at Kansas City International.