As Wichita continues to evolve, we’ve lost many of the simple, American restaurants that used to define us. Some of those legacy locations continue to exist because they can change with the times and the tastes of increasingly knowledgeable diners. Then there are other stalwarts who turn a blind eye to all of that and keep doing things as they’ve been doing them for decades. The Grinder Man is one of the latter.
If the building looks like it’s from the 1970’s, that’s because it is. One of the three remaining restaurants in Wichita serving from a Valentine diner, Grinder Man enjoys quite a bit more space than the nonexistent interior of Sport Burger and the modified booth space of Brint’s.
Sometime after 1970, there were several Grinder Mans around the city, including one on West Street and one on South Mead. The Pawnee location is all that remains. (Ark City still has a Grinder Man with the same red-and-white-striped awning and knife-wielding Italian man, though there’s no overt association with the Wichita location).
What makes it a grinder, as opposed to a submarine sandwich? That depends on who you ask, though the consensus seems to be that there’s an Italian influence and the sandwiches are often served warm. The difference between grinders and heroes is even more nebulous, though at Grinder Man, it comes down to a few different toppings.
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For my money, the hero is the best way to experience Grinder Man, with genoa salami, capocollo salami, ham, provolone, mozzarella, onions, banana peppers and Italian dressing doing a complex dance between the salty umami of the cured meats, the sharp onions, the sour brightness of the banana peppers and the sweet dressing. The Grinder sandwich drops the ham, banana peppers and provolone in lieu of the addition of tomato and pickles. Either sandwich is a sure bet.
Exploring the rest of the menu leads to mixed results. The Reuben is kept juicy thanks to the abundant sauerkraut and mustard, overall presenting a reasonable interpretation of the popular sandwich. The pastrami doesn’t fare as well; the unremarkable beef doesn’t get much help from the cheese or mustard, getting overwhelmed by the bread.
The tuna salad is served “our way,” which in this case means that’s it’s tinted pink from what appears to be a dash of ketchup. It doesn’t taste appreciably different than tuna salad that isn’t served their way, but with the addition of fresh chopped celery, there’s a nice crunch that works in the sandwich.
The sauced sandwiches, such as the pepperoni and cheese, are good bets thanks to the tasty tomato sauce and an abundance of pepperoni slices. There is a small selection of standard picnic sides – potato salad, baked beans, salad and deviled eggs – but the sandwiches pair best with the bags of Frito Lays by the register.
Sandwiches come hot or cold, and the answer should usually be hot: The heat softens the bread, melts the cheese and renders the fat just a little bit in a way that makes the very act of eating it warm and pleasure-inducing.
Sitting in the uncomfortable wooden booths in this restaurant, everything coalesces into a nostalgia for a simpler bygone era, even if I wasn’t here to experience it the first time around. Comfort food should make you feel good, drop your guard and fill you up; Grinder Man does all of these things. For many years The Grinder Man’s soft, warm, and comfortable offerings have held a special place in the hearts of locals, and I suspect they’ll continue to do so for years to come.
The Grinder Man
Where: 510 E Pawnee, 316-264-3462
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays
Payment: Cash only