Where's the Beef, Kansas?

wtb_kansas.jpgOver on Serious Eats site A Hamburger Today, we started an ambitious multipart series dedicated to sussing out the best burgers in each of our fine states. We got as far as "the First State," Delaware, before pooping out. Today we're resurrecting the feature, which we call "Where's the Beef, America?" This week's installment turns its meaty eye on Kansas. Why? Because it's my home state and I'm heading there in less than a week. What better way to combine personal research with work?

You can thank the great state of Kansas for that burger you ate last night or the one you're going to eat for lunch today. For it was here, in the Sunflower State, that the notion of fast-food burgers took root.

Though the hamburger sandwich as we know it was created in the late 19th–early 20th century in Wisconsin, or Ohio, or Connecticut, depending on which origin story you subscribe to, it was viewed as an unsavory and unsanitary dish made from inferior, questionable materials. It was found most often at county fairs and ramshackle country stands.

20061219Castle.jpgThen, in 1921, Billy Ingram and Walt Anderson opened the first White Castle in Wichita with the notion that, if they bought fresh meat, made it in view of their customers in sanitary conditions (white porcelain and stainless steel structures), and served it at an affordable price, they could turn around the product's image. And they did. As David Gerard Hogan's book Selling 'Em by the Sack argues, it was Ingram and Anderson's novel business practices, attention to detail, and clever gimmicks that created the market for fast-food burgers that the Castle dominated until the 1950s.

Although White Castle corporate HQ left Wichita for Columbus, Ohio, in 1934, and despite the fact that the chain left the state altogether in the late 1990s, many great burgers still remain. (And, yes, A Hamburger Today will stand behind the White Castle Slyder as a great burger, if unusual and of acquired taste.)

BILL BUNYAN, Burger Explorer Extraordinaire
20061219Bunyan.jpgIf anyone knows the Kansas burger scene, it's Bill Bunyan, of Dodge City. In 2003, the retired school teacher completed his three-year quest to eat a hamburger in each of the state's 105 counties. According to an article in the Topeka Capital-Journal, Mr. Bunyan chose "locally owned 'mom and pop' establishments on his way to achieving the goals of the Kansas Explorers Club -- inspiring, educating, and encouraging the exploration and appreciation of Kansas."

Mr. Bunyan's favorite burger was that at the Seabrook Tavern in Topeka, where the house burger is topped with Swiss and American cheeses and ham.

Other Bunyan favorites included the Crazy R. in Goodland, the Wagon Wheel in Marysville, Fritz's in Kansas City, Peppercorn's in Dodge City, and the Cozy Inn in Salina. [More on Bill Bunyan's hamburger tour]

THE COZY INN, 108 North 7th Street, Salina KS 67401 [map]
If the Cozy Inn, located about three hours west of Kansas City in Salina, is one of Mr. Bunyan's favorites, it's one of A Hamburger Today's as well. The Cozy Inn is one of the many White Castle imitators that sprang up in the 1920s as the chain's success spread, and the Cozy still makes its diminutive burgers on the same small cast-iron grill it was founded with in 1922. In fact, the original grill was replaced at some point in the 1940s but was quickly reinstated when demanding clientele had a fit, saying the sliders didn't taste the same. Burgers at the Cozy are juicy, super oniony, and do not come with cheese—don't even ask. Oh, and if you eat at the counter there, you will smell like onions the rest of the day. [A Hamburger Today on The Cozy Inn]

BOBO'S DRIVE-IN, 2300 SW 10th Ave., Topeka KS 66604 [map]
Bobo's is exactly what I think about when I think "Kansas burger": fresh beef coarsely ground and packed loosely into a thin patty which is then grilled on an ultrahot griddle for a crunchy crust. Slap a slice of American cheese on it, and tuck it into a soft, squishy no-nonsense bun. The single here is a little wimpy; the double is absolute perfection. [A Hamburger Today on Bobo's Drive-In]

WINSTEAD'S, various locations around Kansas City
20061219winsteads.jpgThough technically a Kansas City, Missouri, hamburger, Winstead's straddles the state line, with six locations in suburban Johnson County, Kansas. Ask where to get a good burger in the KC metro area, and you'll be told to go to Winstead's. As A Hamburger Today West Coast editor Hamburglar Hadley said upon visiting, "the Winstead burger's all-steak patty is paper-thin. It is lightly crisp and spreads itself over the generic bun. Almost resembling some sort of hash brown, this coarsely ground patty looks like a sandwich with thinly sliced meat resting between the breaded sheets." Like Bobo's, the thinness of the Winstead's patty practically calls for ordering a double.

White Castle photograph from whitecastle.com; Bill Bunyan photograph from the Topeka Capital-Journal

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