Wichita has a bazillion burger joints. It has a million Mexican restaurants. And we could eat hummus and fattoush in a different restaurant every night of the week if we wanted to.
But Wichita has one – and only one – Cajun restaurant, and it’s a family-owned place that has operated quietly at the corner of 21st and Woodlawn since 2005.
Da Cajun Shak, which has outlasted its few Cajun competitors over the past decade plus, will celebrate the 12th anniversary of its existing location next week. The Granger family – true Cajun transplants from Breaux Bridge, La., – opened the restaurant at 6249 E. 21st St. on Nov. 1, 2005.
It’s not the flashiest restaurant in Wichita, but it’s the only place Wichitans can get fried gator bites, authentic gumbo with a roux base and bread puddin’ made from the recipe that head cook Patty Granger’s grandma Lena used to make on the bayou.
“I don’t think it’s just the food people like,” Patty said. “It’s the atmosphere. It’s the environment and the perception they have when they come that they’re with family and friends.”
Chris and Patty Granger grew up in Louisiana and started their family there. Chris had been working in food service since he was a teenager, and in the early 1990s, he was offered a job heading the cafeteria at Newman University, then called Kansas Newman.
Patty went to work for the company that employed her husband and headed up food service at Kapaun Mt. Carmel High School. Both left their jobs about five years later to become managing partners in Sonic restaurants around town.
But Chris Granger had dreams of opening his own business, and he was envisioning a butcher shop that specialized in stuffed meats.
That’s when his youngest of three sons, Tim, approached him with an idea.
“One day, Tim came up and said, ‘Dad, I want to open up a Cajun restaurant,’” Chris remembered.
He’d specialize in the family recipes his mother had grown up learning from her Grandmother Lena, Tim said, and he’d found a spot. It was a tiny place at 31st and Oliver that had once held a Greek restaurant called Lakis. Tim figured he could draw a lunch crowd from nearby Boeing.
“But we found out real quick Boeing only gets a half hour for lunch, and 90 percent of them bring their own food,” Chris said.
Not long after it opened, business was slow. Then, a Wichita Eagle reporter called expressing interest in a writing a story about the restaurant. It was published on a Sunday, and the next day, people were lined up outside and crammed into every space inside the tiny restaurant.
Tim made a desperate call to his father at Sonic telling him to drop what he was doing and come help.
Eventually, though, the Boeing machinists went on strike. Business dried up almost entirely. The family had seen that Wichita liked Cajun food, but they knew they needed to move.
“We got to talking about it and knew we couldn’t make a go of it in a little 10 seater,” Chris said. “So we decided to open this one up.”
A family affair
The family found a space in the corner of a strip center at 21st and Woodlawn where a Felipe’s had once operated and where short-lived Mediterranean restaurant Cafe La Vie had recently closed.
Patty and Chris sold their Sonic restaurants and devoted themselves to Da Cajun Shak. Patty cooked, Tim ran the front of the house and the other two Granger sons – Billy and Chris II – also helped.
They served gumbo and fried gator bites and specialized in fried catfish. Until about three years ago, they sold all-you-can-eat catfish, ending the offer once waste became too big of an issue.
The restaurant grew steadily enough that the family was able to open several offshoots over the years. At one time, they were operating four Da Cajun Shak restaurants: the one at 21st and Woodlawn, one in El Dorado, one in Newton, and a short-lived catfish-only restaurant on Hydraulic. (Later, Tim would open then close Da 'Lil Cajun Shak in at 1227 S. Seneca.)
But when Chris suffered back-to-back heart attacks about six years ago and his doctor advised him that he needed to retire, the family decided to close all their businesses except the one they have now. The extended family all stepped up.
“You want to talk about a mom-and-pop family operation,” Chris said. “You got mom and dad, all three sons, 10 grandchildren and a great grandchild that have been involved in the restaurant at one time or another. We have a 5-year-old great grandson who works as a greeter sometimes.”
Catfish, gator and Mardis Gras
Today, the restaurant’s core crew is Patty in the kitchen with her 22-year-old grandson Zach, filling in on the fryer. Granddaughter Candice, 25, runs the front of the restaurant with Tim.
The customer base is solid, the family says. About 85 percent of their customers are repeat visitors, they said, and their loyal fans include members of the military, first responders and Cajun transplants.
For a big part of their existence, they had one Cajun competitor: Red Beans Bayou Grill, which operated from 2008 to 2014 at 7447 W. 21st St. N.
Now, it’s just them.
Their most popular dishes, the Grangers say, are fried catfish and fried gator bites. They get their gator, a tastes-like-chicken specialty, from a dealer in Louisiana, and customers say they can’t get it any better in Louisiana.
Da Cajun Shak doesn’t serve alcohol, but it gets a steady year-round crowd. Their busiest night of the year is always Mardis Gras, and they’re busiest time of the year is Lent, when people avoiding meat flock in.
People who crave the spicy Cajun flavors they specialize in often seek the restaurant out, the Grangers said. Some are out-of-town visitors. Some drive all the way from the west side or Hutchinson on a regular basis.
Tim laughs as he speaks of a frequent occurrence at Da Cajun Shak. Someone sticks a head in the door and asks where the family is from. Tim answers “Breaux Bridge,” and the questioner motions to the people in the car to come on it. It’s safe.
Though they still consider themselves Cajuns –and have the tell-tale Louisiana drawl to prove it – the Granger family says it now calls Wichita home.
“Let me tell you something about Wichita,” said Patti, better known as “Mama.” “They’re nice people. They really are. They’ve just taken us in and loved us. They’re good to us. We’re very thankful and grateful to everyone in Wichita.”
Da Cajun Shak
Where: 6249 E. 21st St N., 316-260-1486
Type of food: Cajun
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Sundays