Burger joints

Small burger joints survive, and sometimes thrive, in Wichita

By Joe Stumpe

Bomber Burger, one of the most colorful of the independently-owned burger joints in town.

Bomber Burger, one of the most colorful of the independently-owned burger joints in town.

Even before the food arrives, you know youíre in for a different kind of dining experience at Bomber Burger.

First thereís the sign outside the tiny building on south Clifton, inviting a certain well-known fast-food chain to kiss the proprietorís posterior. Then the proprietor himself, who may casually insult your religion, gender, political affiliation and favorite football team, will be the one taking your order.

But when the burger ó a huge mound of beef, expertly seasoned and cooked within a few feet of where youíre sitting ó arrives with a big basket of hand-cut French fries, other considerations fade into the background. Itís time to chow.

Bomber Burger is just one of many small, independently-owned burger joints that survive in Wichita in an era dominated by homogenized chain restaurants. While itís probably the most colorful of the lot, thanks to owner Chris Rickard, itís not alone in providing a welcome alternative to more standard options on the cityís dining scene.

The Bomber Burger: expertly seasoned beef with hand-cut fries.

The Bomber Burger: expertly seasoned beef with hand-cut fries.

Take Jackís Coffee Shop at 61st and Hydraulic. You could drive by the red shack and not realize that it is a restaurant, since the sign outside comes and goes. But inside, knowledgeable burger fans from all walks of life tuck into burgers that hang way outside the borders of their buns. Since most orders come with an entire paper plate full of grilled onions, and the building itself appears virtually unventilated, you can imagine the sublime aroma therein.

To some extent, south Wichita is the epicenter of the small burger joint. Along with Bomber and Jackís, Busterís on Hydraulic regularly makes the list of favorite spots for burger aficionados. Maybe itís because flashier restaurants and chains havenít penetrated into their neighborhoods. Maybe itís because folks in that end of Wichita prefer substance over flash when it comes to eating out.

But other parts of Wichita boast good burger joints, too, from Billís Charcoal Grill up north on Arkansas to West Street Burgers (on West, naturally) to Timbuktu out east in Andover. You just have to know where to look.

Interestingly, a number of people in Wichita have taken that search to extremes. One is a group of employees at the Martin, Pringle law firm. Each summer for the past 17 years theyíve staged ďBurger Week,Ē during which they eat at a different burger joint for five days straight. Lawyers Mike Jones, Rick Thompson and a few others spend the rest of the year scouting places the group will visit. One criterion is that the restaurant not be part of a chain. Another is that grease soaks through the restaurantís take-out bag within minutes after filling it.

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