I'm not sure what took me so long to get to Jack's Coffee Shop, the legendary hole-in-the-wall burger restaurant that's operated in south Wichita for decades.
In 1997, I moved to Wichita, and in 2000, I started writing about restaurants. Jack's is a place I heard about all the time, both from the more adventuresome foodies I knew like Joe Stumpe and from readers of my dining coverage (mostly male) who had strong opinions about the city's best greasy burger.
On Tuesday, I finally made it to Jack's.
The restaurant has quite a reputation in Wichita, and it's earned. Burgers aside, Jack's is one of the most, uh, memorable restaurants in the city.
First of all, despite the name, Jack's does not serve coffee. (Though the owner told me on Tuesday that she keeps a container of instant coffee grounds behind the counter, just in case.) It also doesn't serve fries. Or onion rings. Or hot dogs. What it does serve is a big, thick, oblong-shaped burger topped with a gooey slice of American cheese. You can have grilled onions if you want. Pickles come on the side. Sodas come in a can. Ketchup and mustard are no-name brands from the bottle, sitting on the table next to your roll of paper towels. And you'll get a bowl of potato chips on your table that everyone must share.
That's all Jack's serves.
If you think the menu is bare bones, you have to see the building itself. Jack's operates out of a tiny, aging red brick structure with no sign, no landscaping and no curb appeal whatsoever. The part of the building that isn't brick needs a paint job, and a couple of decrepit-looking air-conditioning units are hanging out of the front windows.
The flavor of the exterior is continued in the no-frills dining room, which features mismatched chairs with wobbly tables, a cement floor and little piles of stuff sitting against the walls — a broken-down ceiling fan, a retired decrepit-looking air-conditioning window unit. On one side of the restaurant is a dining room table that holds only a giant, new flat screen TV. A trash bag patch is taped to the ceiling.
But despite rumors I'd heard to the contrary, the place is clean. And the lady behind the counter — owner Shirley Coleman's daughter, Carrie — was kind and helpful.
And the burger was great. I'm not usually a thick burger kind of person, but this $8 behemoth was tasty. There was so much beef, we were all compelled to start eating with a fork for fear the bun could not support the heft. I ordered mine with grilled onions, which I recommend, and the cheese was a melty, processed delight. (We even got TWO bowls of chips on our table — one wavy, one not.)
When I left, the smell of grease and onions clinging to my hair and clothes, I felt triumphant. I'd finally tried Jack's, Wichita's most legendary, no-frills hole-in-the-wall, a place only the heartiest of Wichita foodies have tried, and not only had I survived, I'd truly enjoyed myself. When I walked back into the newsroom with my three co-workers who'd accompanied me, everyone stared at us with awe and envy, and I don't think it's just because we smelled like lunch.
Jack's has closed and reopened several times this year while its owner struggled with health issues and a gas leak, but now it's back, and Carrie and her husband have been working on sprucing the place up. They have some big plans for the immediate future, which I hope to share soon.
Jack's Coffee Shop is at 6154 S. Hydraulic. Its hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Take cash because they don't take cards.