Dining With Denise Neil

Review: The Hungry Heart is hard to find but worth the effort

The Hungry Heart’s pulled-pork sandwich has a mustard-based barbecue sauce and is served on a pretzel bun.
The Hungry Heart’s pulled-pork sandwich has a mustard-based barbecue sauce and is served on a pretzel bun. The Wichita Eagle

I worry about the restaurants that are tucked away on Commerce Street, in the shadow of Intrust Bank Arena’s northeast corner.

In theory, both Lou’s Charcuteria and its next-door neighbor, The Hungry Heart, are sitting on an ideal location for entrepreneurs hoping to draw crowds of hungry and thirsty concertgoers before and after shows.

But in reality, the restaurants are difficult to find, and if you do find them, good luck finding a place to park.

That’s too bad because both restaurants are gems – and vast improvements on their predecessors. Walkers Bar & Venue and Jettys Pizza opened in December 2013 in the renovated warehouse spaces, which share a wall, and both were closed within eight months. Lou’s took over the Walkers space, and Hungry Heart followed in the Jettys space. Both of the new businesses have been open about a year. (Wichita Eagle Dining Panel member Jocelyn Clonts reviewed Lou’s in March.)

After The Hungry Heart won the People’s Choice award at Intrust Bank Arena’s Wingapalooza event in August, I was reminded that I still needed to check it out. I’d seen – and smelled – Hungry Heart, which often has a smoker cooking away on its front porch, every time I visited Lou’s, a wonderful charcuterie. I just kept forgetting about it. Out of sight, out of mind.

Now that I’ve eaten there, though, The Hungry Heart has been impossible to forget.

John David Payne and Cody Hibarger opened the restaurant a year ago and serve a streamlined menu of Asian-inspired pub food and upscale barbecue dishes produced on that aromatic front-porch smoker. The other part of the business, an on-site brewery, has taken a year to get up and running. But a few weeks ago, Hungry Heart tapped the first two of what will eventually be a lineup of house-brewed beers.

The owners did a minor remodel, but it made all the difference. They removed the ocean-themed decor, gave the two-story dining room a paint job and replaced the bright red booths with simple tables and chairs. Now, the airy space has the look and feel of a classy Denver brew pub.

The biggest surprise at The Hungry Heart was the menu, an interesting mash-up of Asian and barbecue flavors. There’s hardly a miss on the menu, which consists of five appetizers, seven entrees and a few salads. I tried almost everything.

My favorite dish, by far, was the Korean short ribs, served with a side of sticky rice and spicy cucumber pickles. The tiny bites of on-the-bone beef had been doused with a sweet marinade before they were grilled, and the result was a big serving of chewy, sweet meat candy with a nice soy sauce tang and crunchy, charred edges. They made me full and happy.

The Hungry Heart’s pulled pork sandwich was my kind of barbecue sandwich. The meat was full of smoke flavor, and it had been shredded and drenched in a tangy, mustard-based barbecue sauce. The drippy mess of meat was served on a hearty pretzel bun, which was great thinking because the meat doesn’t disintegrate it. The sandwich comes with a side of coleslaw, which can be ordered on the side or inside the sandwich. The slaw, for the record, should most definitely go inside the sandwich, even though there wasn’t nearly enough of it. The sandwich also came with a side of crisp, thinly cut fries that still had some potato skin and were perfectly salted.

From the appetizer menu, I loved the ahi wonton nachos, made with chunks of cured ahi tuna, white and green onions, garlic aioli and a Worcestershire teriyaki glaze artfully arranged on top of a big, fried wonton chip. The chewy texture of the tuna contrasted well with the crunchy wonton, and the sauces added flavor as well as visual appeal. A serving includes three large nachos.

We also sampled an interesting take on the egg roll, which The Hungry Heart calls “Three Little Pigs.” They stuff egg roll wrappers with smoked pulled pork and cabbage, deep-fry them and serve with a side of their mustard-y barbecue sauce for dipping. I still prefer a classic egg roll, but this version was sweet and salty and offbeat. It worked.

The Hungry Heart’s award-winning wings also are Asian-inspired and worthy of the prize they won. JD’s Asian Wings are fried, tossed in a glaze made of white pepper, soy and honey and topped with a sprinkling of white sesame seeds. They’re sweet and crunchy and a nice change of pace from Buffalo. (But they have those, too.) A serving includes eight wings.

So far, Hungry Heart has only two of its own beers ready to serve. One is a coffee stout, and the other is a blackberry jasmine tea ale. I tried the latter, and although it was thick and pretty sweet, it went down smooth. I look forward to sipping more as more beers roll out.

Hungry Heart seems to run on a pretty slim staff, and servers can get overwhelmed. But they hustle, and waits for food aren’t outrageous.

Parking is an issue at the restaurant. If you can’t snag one of the limited spaces in front, you’ll have to find a spot on William or in the old Spaghetti Works parking lot and walk, which will be extra difficult on concert nights. Also, the exterior signage is spray-painted right on to the building, and it isn’t attractive.

The biggest problem, though, is that The Hungry Heart is hard to find. I recently asked a friend to meet me there for lunch, and she was 20 minutes late just trying to find the place. The best bet is to head west on Waterman from Washington then turn north just after the railroad tracks and just before Intrust Bank Arena. The curvy street will land you just in front of the restaurant.

If you’re on Douglas, turn south on St. Francis, east on William, then south on Commerce. The restaurant will be on your left.

The Hungry Heart

Three and a half stars out of four

Where: 222 S. Commerce, 316-440-7542

Type of food: Gastropub/brewery serving barbecue and Asian-inspired fare

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Sundays and Mondays

Alcohol: House-made craft beers plus a full bar

Price range: Entrees are $11 to $14; appetizers are $8 to $10. House-brewed beer is $4.54.

Website: www.hungryheartwichita.com