I believe two contradictory things. I believe there can never be one capitol of hamburgers in America, one best, and I believe Calvin Trillin was right when he said "Anyone who doesn’t think their hometown has the best hamburger place in the world is a sissy."
So I wouldn't say Kansas, where I grew up, has the best burgers in the world; that is, I might say it as an expression of pride, but not as a verifiable fact I expect others to pay any attention to. But I would absolutely say that Kansas and Oklahoma are important hamburger states which have been largely overlooked— especially surprising when you consider that the first hamburger chain, White Castle, started in Wichita in 1921, and that the reason that California is one of the great hamburger states is almost certainly due to the influx of Okies in the 30s and 40s. Yet look at nationwide surveys of burgerdom and they'll nibble at the country as far as Wisconsin, perhaps (and it is certainly a great burger state), but rarely reach the center. They almost never— the admirable Sterns included— reach Wichita. Having spent half my life there, I can think of many reasons not
to go to Wichita, but a lack of good burgers isn't one of them.
Part of the reason is that they are cattle country— but Wyoming is cattle country too, yet on a week-long trip there, I never had a burger that was more than functional fuel. Where you can hardly eat a non-chain hamburger in Wichita that isn't bursting with pride and artisanal care. The fact is, I can reel off more first-rate modestly-priced burgers (I set aside the $10 bar burger of Angus beef and blue cheese) in Wichita, population under half a million, than in all of Chicago where I live now. Walt's, Ty's, Takhoma, Livingston's— to the Wichitan these are merely the start of the list.
And I suspect the same is true for the Tulsan, the Topekan, the Ponca Citian. I call upon my fellow Kansans and Oklahomans to call more attention to their native burgermakers. Let the world know of the excellence of fresh-patted burgers, fried crisp, on a cushy white bun with pickle, onion, ketchup mustard and cheese, served with fresh-cut fries and cherry limeade. Here are three I had recently in Kansas: Bionic Burger
actually had its origins in Oklahoma, and its Okie origins showed in my high school 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 of Wichita, 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.
The next was in Hutchinson, most of an hour northwest of Wichita, after a visit to the nearby salt mine tour:
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.
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. And Bomber Burger is that culture in a nutshell:
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 if that's going to offend you, 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 the current president come in for equally sardonic treatment. 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.
6121 East 21st Street
Wichita, KS 67208
Oliver's Carry Out: Burgers and Bait
228 E 4th Ave
Hutchinson, KS 67501
4860 South Clifton Avenue
Wichita, KS 67216-3066
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