Burger joints

Small burger joints survive, and sometimes thrive, in Wichita

By Joe Stumpe

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

First there's the sign outside the tiny building on south Clifton, inviting a certain well-known fast-food chain to kiss the proprietor's 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  a huge mound of beef, expertly seasoned and cooked within a few feet of where you're sitting  arrives with a big basket of hand-cut French fries, other considerations fade into the background. It's 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 it's probably the most colorful of the lot, thanks to owner Chris Rickard, it's not alone in providing a welcome alternative to more standard options on the city's dining scene.

Take Jack's 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 Jack's, Buster's on Hydraulic regularly makes the list of favorite spots for burger aficionados. Maybe it's because flashier restaurants and chains haven't penetrated into their neighborhoods. Maybe it's 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 Bill's 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 they've staged Burger Week, 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 restaurant's take-out bag within minutes after filling it.

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