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Hidden chow gems in Wichita, Kansas

Mike G | Dec 29, 200204:05 PM

Having bequeathed the world no less than two epochal fast food chains-- the arguable granddaddy of them all, White Castle, way back in the 20s, and the original globally-franchised pizza place, Pizza Hut-- Wichita, Kansas may seem like Plastic Food Central. The fortunes made in Pizza Hut have made Wichita a hotbed of restaurant "concept" experimentation (as distinct from chefs opening good restaurants because they want to serve good food), the major arteries (especially in the suburban sprawl of the northeast end) are dotted with every chain known to man, from Applebee's to Outback, and in a stunning demonstration of the way chains have set the standard, the "faux diner" concept has become so ubiquitous for American food that authentic diners like the 30s Nu Way and Kings-X chains and the 50s Sonic Drive-In chain have had to reinvent themselves as faux diners in order to survive, in some cases actually covering genuine 50s exteriors with fake 90s 50s exteriors.

Yet, if you think Wichita is only home to plastic food... well, you're almost right, and yet I was more encouraged than I have been in some years by my Christmas trip there from Chicago. For most people, the good news would be how healthy the downtown area is at long last, with a host of cute yuppie soup 'n' sandwich places and brewpubs. That's all true, I'm sure, but sorry, I never got downtown this time. Amazingly, in the very belly of the sprawling east side (or as they'd no doubt call it, The Sprawle at SUV Pointe), I managed to have a number of good chow experiences.

NU WAY-- Every city seems to have a local specialty that seems inexplicable, not to mention deeply mediocre, to those who didn't grow up on it. Illinoisians love Steak and Shake, Calvin Trillin retains a fondness for the utterly ordinary Winstead's in Kansas City, Philadelphians eat that damn cheese steak, and then there's Wichita's bizarre Nu-Way, crumbled hamburger steamed in a broth of chicken stock or something and piled on a bun. I admit, its appeal is mainly to the denture-wearing, but hey, once a year I'll give in-- and the root beer is terrific and could teach A&W a thing or two. I didn't eat at the authentic 30s location on West Douglas, which is straight out of It Happened One Night (and if it's not still there I DON'T WANT TO KNOW), but I did at the faux-diner Normandie Center location, Central and Woodlawn, and it was... what it always is.

LIVINGSTON'S DINER-- When even the ratty Kings-X chain morphs into the fauxly yuppie Jimmie's Diner, you may think that the authentic road house meal is dead in Chicago. But Livingston's-- which at one point operated in a Kings-X location until an expressway obliterated it, incidentally-- lives on at Lincoln and Woodlawn, serving The Perfect American Breakfast in a country kitsch atmosphere untouched by a marketing degree. It's not just the biscuits and gravy-- actually some might find them too tame, compared to the spicy, more-sausage-than-gravy versions you find these days at places like Cracker Barrel or Bob Evans, although that's why I say they're authentic to the dish's poor folks roots as a way to stretch a little meat flavor over the maximum amount of flour and filler. What really distinguishes Livingston's is how perfect the hash browns are. I have eaten approximately one metric ton of hash browns in Chicago over the years, and they're always lightly brown on the outside and a squishy lukewarm mass of half-cooked potato in the middle. At Livingston's, EVERY single individual strand of potato was a crispy medium brown. God bless them.

HOG WILD-- Another place I always try to go on a visit is Jet Bar-B-Q, which like Livingston's has moved all over town over the years, and which to my mind has always been at least a little better than the more famous R&S for food and infinitely better for hours, since it's open more than two hours a month. Alas, snow prevented me from making the trek there and I was persuaded to settle for white people's BBQ at a strip mall place called Hog Wild along Rock just north of Harry.

You know-- it was pretty good. Slightly dry but flavorful and tender pulled pork and brisket, and a decent classic-style sauce. Good beans, too (I was told they're actually an improvement over what they opened with). I would recommend it, though not to the degree that I'd make a special trip for Jet. From Borneo or Baluchistan.

MALAYSIA CAFE-- I think that was the name of the place, on 21st just south of Rock Road. The most interesting change on the restaurant scene in Wichita, which would have been well worth exploring on a longer trip, is how the non-Chinese Asian population has sort of "come out." A lot of Vietnamese came to Wichita in the 70s but Vietnamese restaurants were still something you had to go to obscure ends of town to find even a few years ago, Suddenly not only are there Vietnamese restaurants and pool halls and coffee houses proudly all over town, but there are a pair of Malaysian restaurants, this one and a sibling in the same mall as my Nu-Way.

Actually, it advertises Chinese and Malaysian, but the Chinese dishes were pretty obvious and easy to avoid. What turned out not to be easy for my wife to avoid was Thai food, since a dish named something like Kwar Teoy turned out to be for all the world what we normally eat as Pad Woon Sen or one of those things (broad noodles, brown fish sauce). A good rendition but a tad disappointing on the novelty scale. My choice was authentic enough that it had a pile of those little silver fish on it; otherwise it was just chicken pieces in a pretty standard and rather greasy curry. Our friend had the best choice of the three, a dish of angelhair-thin curry-scented noodles that seemed identical to the version served at Hi Ricky in Chicago except that it positively perfumed the table with fresh curry scent.

Overall, not a perfect experience, but still, impressively authentic considering the suburban mall locale, and well worth further exploration, I'd say.

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