Dining With Denise Neil

Buddies on 15-year quest to find Wichita’s best burger

They order exactly the same thing at every burger joint they visit: cheeseburger with grilled onions, mustard and pickles.

They look closely for the hallmarks of a good burger: decent size, juicy but not too juicy, a warm bun.

Then, they assign a ranking. Outstanding is best. VB is very bad.

For 15 years, Wichita buddies and burger fans Kent Kruske and Tom Kluge have been getting together every six weeks or so to try a different burger joint in town. Kruske, the computer expert of the duo, keeps a detailed spreadsheet that tracks their findings and assigns a ranking: Outstanding is best, followed by excellent, VG (very good), good, OK, and the dreaded VB. Only one restaurant on the spreadsheet has earned that designation, and it’s no longer in business.

“We don’t do froufrou burgers, and we certainly don’t do chains,” Kruske said.

The spreadsheet also includes comments, and they’re colorful.

Regarding one of the burgers ranked as outstanding, served at a true Wichita hole-in-the-wall: “Keep your vaccinations up-to-date. Very large and juicy.”

Regarding the lone VB burger: “As of 4/16/2012, I give them 30 days before they close. … They closed on 8/30/12.”

The burger quest started in 2001.

Kluge, who is the business manager at First Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, recruited church member Kruske to do some IT work.

“He wouldn’t let me pay him anything,” Kluge said. “So I said, ‘Well, let’s go get some burgers, then.’ That’s how it started, and we’ve been on a quest to find the perfect burger for 15 years. I think we have a pretty good idea where the best burgers are.”

Only five burgers have earned the top rating of outstanding on the spreadsheet.

The buddies agree that Jack’s Coffee Shop at 6754 S. Hydraulic has their favorite burger. Yes, they admit, the building is aged, and it might not be the best spot to take your mother-in-law. But the burgers can’t be topped.

“Truly, it’s an oval,” Kruske said of Jack’s burger. “You can put two squares of cheese point-to-point on it. That’s how big it is.”

Rounding out the outstanding list: Oasis Lounge eat 4121 W. Maple; Timbuktu at 1251 N. Andover Road in Andover; TJs Burger House at 1003 W. Douglas; and Bomber Burger at 4860 S. Clifton Ave.

The spreadsheet includes rankings for 65 burgers. Many of the restaurants that made them have long since closed: Dolce & Joe’s, Takhoma Burger, Yolo Grill, Buck’s.

Many others are new: Southside Burgers (Excellent) Dempsey’s Burger Pub (Excellent) and Blarney Stone (VG). Just this week, the duo visited the new Mr. Bud’s Brothers at 3404 N. Arkansas. The ranking is pending.

Wichita’s most well-known burger places are all on the list. Ty’s Diner, their first ever stop, earned an excellent. Heroes Sports Bar got a VG. Bill’s Charcoal Grill earned a good, as did the Anchor and West Street Burgers.

The VB burger came from Betta Burger, which was at 3090 W. 13th St. in 2012 and closed after just a few months.

Kruske and Kluge made a decision not to include chain restaurants on their quest, but they admit that if they had, Freddy’s Frozen Custard burgers would make the top of the list. Several burgers from around the state, including Salina’s Cozy Inn, also would have a spot, even though on their visit they were blasted by air coming from the to-go window when someone opened a back door, and they smelled of fried goodness so intensely that their dogs followed them around their houses when they got home. Kruske said he had to wipe a film of grease off his glasses.

They’re often asked by friends-in-the-know to recommend burger places, and they’re happy to share what they’ve learned.

But the quest, which will continue, has been more about friendship and the fun of planning the next burger outing, they say.

“The destination is not as important as the journey,” Kruske said.