When Dempsey’s Burger Pub, an offshoot of a successful Lawrence restaurant, opened in Clifton Square in early December, I was skeptical.
Restaurants that aren’t easily seen from the road, open in spaces where several businesses before have failed and serve burgers that cost more than $5 usually have trouble in Wichita.
But my doubts have been disproved. I’ve been to Dempsey’s several times recently, and it’s been crowded. The restaurant has a fun, college-town atmosphere, and best of all, the burgers and fries are prepared expertly with quality ingredients and a sense of gourmet adventure.
Yes, your meal will cost more than $5, but you’ll get what you pay for.
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The restaurant is owned by Steven Gaudreau, a Wichita native who in 1991 opened one of my old college haunts, Quinton’s Bar & Deli in Lawrence. He also owns a Quinton’s in Topeka and is a partner in Bison Witches Bar & Deli in Norman, Okla.; Lincoln, Neb.; Tucson and Tempe, Ariz.
Six years ago, he opened his first Dempsey’s as an Irish pub at 623 Vermont St. in Lawrence. He now has a Dempsey’s in Lincoln, too.
The Wichita Dempsey’s is set up in the former John Brown’s space, a two-story building in the back corner of the square. The menu includes burgers with gourmet toppings like shallot marmalade, pineapple jalapeno chutney and onion confiture. It also has four kinds of french fries, a few sandwiches and salads and a big selection of house-made sauces, from ranch to truffle cream to sweet chili aioli. Dempsey’s even makes its own ketchup.
The burgers are thick, and the substantial brioche buns are up to the challenge of supporting the beef and all its toppings. We ordered a basic house burger with Swiss cheese and bacon and were impressed by the meat’s fresh-grilled smokiness. The sweet, house-made pickles and crispy bacon were a nice addition.
We were curious about the two Kobe burgers on the menu. Foodies know that Kobe beef is a rare, tender and expensive cut from Japan, and the real thing is rarely served in U.S. restaurants. Kobe beef is made from the Wagyu cattle breed, but real Kobe is raised under strict guidelines in Kobe, Japan. Dempsey’s two premium burgers are made from Kobe-style Wagyu beef and cost $2-$3 more than the rest of the burgers. The “Kobe” burgers were much more tender and fell apart easily inside the bun. There wasn’t a noticeable flavor difference, though.
We did enjoy Dempsey’s “Kobe” burger, though, and the tartness of the shallot marmalade was a nice contrast to the sweetness of the tomato confit. The burger was finished with some fresh watercress, which gave the it an upscale appearance as well as some greenery crunch.
Dempsey’s fries are almost better than the burgers. They’re cut thin with the skin still on, then perfectly fried to a texture that keeps the outside crisp but the inside soft. And the Dempsey’s fry cook has an excellent relationship with his salt shaker, because the fries are perfectly seasoned. How to improve on this perfection? Sample some of the restaurant’s flavored fries. My favorite were the truffle fries, which were tossed in pungent, earthy truffle oil and topped with grated Parmesan cheese and parsley. These truffle fries are on par with the top-rate versions served at The Anchor and Harvest Kitchen/Bar in the Hyatt.
One of my dining companions perpetually craves spicy food but can’t persuade restauranteurs to make it as hot as she wants. She had low expectations for Dempsey’s fire fries, which are tossed in chili-garlic oil and generously topped with red pepper flakes. One fry made my eyes water as I instinctively grabbed my water glass to extinguish the fire in my mouth. My spicy-loving friend was in hot-food heaven.
Our waiter brought us a sampling of all six of the restaurant’s house-made sauces, and it was fun to dip the fries in each one. Our favorite was the truffle cream, though it was overkill served on the side of the truffle fries. That sauce, though, was perfect squeezed under the bun of the “Kobe” burger, and it added another dimension of flavor.
One of our visits was on a recent Friday, and a member of our dining party was abstaining from meat for Lent. Without purposely doing so, we ordered all Lent-friendly dishes that day and were most impressed by the quinoa burger. In my experience, vegetarian burgers fall somewhere between unpleasantly strange and passable on the flavor spectrum. But this one was different. Dempsey’s mixes quinoa with mashed potatoes and fries the patties until the outside is crisp. It’s served on one of Dempsey’s brioche buns with a pickled carrot, jalapeno and cilantro slaw that had a gingery flavor. The patty looked like a giant falafel, but the center was soft, not mealy, and the slaw gave the dish a nice Asian flair.
The only dish we didn’t love was the fish and chips. The chips were house fries, so they were just right. But the large piece of fried cod, though beautifully golden and flaky on the outside was bland and needed seasoning on the inside. The tartar sauce on the side wasn’t tartar sauce at all but rather a creamy herbed sauce. The fish would have been helped by that pickle-y crunch and lemon acid in proper tartar sauce.
We were stuffed at the end of our meal, but after seeing other tables enjoying the restaurant’s only dessert – a salted caramel pie – we had to have a slice. It had a chocolate crumb crust and a firm center that was difficult to drive a fork through. But once we pried a bite away, we found the pie actually was salted – really salted – and wonderfully chewy. It was a shining example of flavor layering done right. Bring us another slice, please.
The Dempsey’s hostess lets you choose, when seating is available, whether you want to be upstairs at wooden tables with stylish metal chairs in view of the kitchen or downstairs, where the bar lives and the seating is at tall tables with somewhat awkward-to-mount stools. We had good service in both spaces.
Ratings reflect the critic’s judgment of the food, service and atmosphere in relation to the price. If you would like to nominate a restaurant to be reviewed, call 316-268-6327.
Dempsey’s Burger Pub
☆☆☆1/2 out of four
Where: 3700 E. Douglas; 316-425-3831
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily
Type of food: Burgers, fries, sandwiches, salads
Cost: Burgers and sandwiches are $8 to $11. Salads are $8 to $9. Chicken wings are $6 for six or $10 for 12.
Alcohol: Full bar; Dempsey’s stops serving food at 10 p.m. on weeknights and 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. But it stays open until 2 a.m. nightly, offering 12 beers on tap, many more in bottles, wine and mixed drinks.