A more perfect Union

Union Station brings Wichita together again



Wichita's new sweet spot for food and drink has been over a hundred years in the making.

Union Station, opened in 1914, served as the city's hub during the glory days of the railroad. The grand old Beaux-Arts building at 701 E. Douglas declined along with railroad traffic, bidding its last passenger train goodbye in 1979.

Today it's surrounded by a half-dozen new places to eat and drink none taking themselves too seriously. There's 8 Below, where customers see ice cream made before their eyes at sub-zero temperatures. And The Rail, where happy hour specials run from 4-9 p.m. daily.

It's not a happy hour, it's a happy shift, jokes Rail partner Mikel Bowyer.

Things started coming together three years ago when Occidental Management began redeveloping the area through an agreement with the city. The Union Station development includes the former Rock Island passenger depot a late Victorian building that dates to 1887 just to the north of Union Station, as well as the adjacent Rock Island baggage depot. The first step was a handsome brick plaza linking all three depot buildings together. The second was a bank of kitchen-equipped food kiosks at the plaza's south end.

This summer and fall, it's been common to see throngs of Wichitans strolling the plaza, lounging on the station's steps or relaxing on the restaurants patios. From a dining and drinking standpoint, the best thing about Union Station plaza is the sheer diversity it offers. Within a stone's throw await street tacos, Indian food, bar food, ice cream, liqueur-infused shaved ice, lunch, dinner and more.

All of us do something different, said Natasha Gandhi-Rue, who owns The Kitchen at Union Station with her husband, Scott. I think that makes it very exciting for people that are downtown. If you're out after midnight, there's Douglas Street Tacos. If you want to have a lunch date, we're like the perfect place. I think we provide something for everybody.

If you haven't experienced the new Union Station yet, here's a look at how it rolls:

The Kitchen, 725 E. Douglas

The Kitchen occupies the same space as the original Tanya's Soup Kitchen. On a recent day the lunch crowd resembled the same eclectic mix old and young, business and artsy that much-loved eatery attracted.

My goal is to provide good, fresh cuisine, not fancy or fussy food, Gandhi-Rue said. I want to do food that's good for you and that makes you feel good.

That means making everything possible from scratch and using ingredients without nitrates, starch modifiers or other additives. Appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches, burgers and pasta are available for lunch and dinner, bolstered by entrees such as an apple cider-brined pork chop and house-cut beef tenderloin filet for the evening meal.

Customer favorites include the Southwest Quinoa Salad, featuring heirloom quinoa, grilled vegetables, goat cheese and a cilantro-lime dressing; the Italian panini, stuffed with applewood smoked ham, salami and fresh mozzarella topped by a roasted tomato tapenade; and Disco Fries. Gandhi-Rue says the latter is her native New Jersey's version of poutine, the famous gravy-and-cheese-curd-covered fries. This one features fries topped with fried chicken chunks, mozzarella cheese and a light chicken gravy.

The Disco Fries and select other shared plates are half-off during the daily 3-6 p.m. happy hour. The Kitchen staff spent quite a bit of time coming up with a cocktail menu that complements the food, with a variety of mojitas, mules and other drinks to choose from. There's a cozy patio, too.

Funky Monkeys Shaved Ice 21+ and Douglas Street Tacos, 701 E. Douglas

J.D. Young may be skinny, but he's a food guy who successfully follows his gut. Young was operating a shaved ice stand in east Wichita when he started adding liquor to the frosty mix for himself and friends.

Probably the best decision I ever made, he said. People loved it.

Think snow cones with the flavor and kick of an Amaretto Sour, Bahama Mama, Hurricane, Peach Daiquiri and Strawberry Margaritas. Or you can create your own combination (the Arnold Palmer with vodka comes highly recommended). The daily happy hour is 2-4 p.m. and it's not unusual to see every table full. It's just something new for Wichita," Young said. It's not the bar crowd. They just want to have a drink with friends.

However, the bar crowd has discovered Young's other Union Station business, Douglas Street Tacos, located a few feet away. By staying open until 3 a.m. on weekends and offering quick street tacos, the place has become a magnet for people who want a late-night bite in Old Town. Douglas Street Tacos was the result of another hunch by Young. As soon as he heard about a call center employing 400 people going into Union Station, he called Occidental Management and said he wanted the last vacant kiosk space. The recipes for tacos, gorditas, carnitas, pico de gallo and more are ones he picked up on trips to Mexico. One taste actually, one whiff and you'll know they're authentic.

Young is following one more hunch: to keep Funky Monkeys busy during winter, he's working up coffee drinks featuring liquor that should debut by the time this article appears, if not before. Stop by for a hot shot.

8 Below Rolled Ice Cream, 701 E. Douglas

8 Below offers dessert with a show the hand-making of each order as it comes in. Sweet cream is poured onto a surface kept at eight degrees below zero, where it immediately starts freezing. Employees add strawberry, coffee, green tea or vanilla, then use spatulas to roll up the mixture, place it in cups and add toppings and drizzles. You can create your own concoction or choose from signature combinations such as the Thanks-A-Latte (coffee ice cream mixed with chocolate chips and a condensed milk drizzle) or the Gimme Smore! (vanilla ice cream mixed with graham cracker, chocolate sauce and roasted fluffy marshmallow).

The Rail Scratch Cocktails and Smoothie King, 711 E. Douglas

Neil Bhakta opened both of these establishments and has brought in Wichita restaurant scene veteran Bowyer as a partner in The Rail. In addition to the languorous happy hour mentioned earlier there's an unusual but tasty mix of Indian and American food. The appetizer menu offers wings with mango salsa, Tater Chunks" with curry aioli and "lamb pops with tandoori cream. Burgers with the choice of bleu cheese and Buffalo sauce or Kansas City BBQ and sweet onion are other options.

Inside, Bhakta has kept the depot's original mosaic tile floor, opened up blocked windows to let natural light flood in and installed a custom-built bar equipped with that latest necessity power cords to recharge cell phones. On the roomy patio outside, he's put up a small stage for entertainment and built comfortable all-weather furniture. Upstairs is a space for private events.

Bhakta, who owns four other Smoothie Kings in the area, said it was a love of the old Rock Island depot building that drew him downtown, plus everything else that's happening in the immediate vicinity. That includes Cargill relocating it's Wichita headquarters, and some 850 employees, just a block east of Union Station.

It creates a vibe down here, he said. People come to see the train station and the historical elements of the building. We're creating a downtown culture.


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