Drive anywhere in Kansas and let your taste buds experience the diversity of how the state was settled.
There are Swedes in Lindsborg, Italians near Pittsburg, Croatians near Kansas City and Czechs near Wilson.
German Catholic families settled around Hays; German Mennonite families settled in and around Newton. Still others settled along the route of the Santa Fe Railroad, in part because railroad recruiters in Europe encouraged settlement in Kansas.
There are legendary tales about which restaurants fry up the best chicken, smoke the best barbecue and serve the best breakfasts.
Kansas has many tasty restaurants. If you want to take a culinary tour of the state’s heritage, here are a few places to consider.
Who has the best fried chicken?
Chicken Mary’s, of course, has gained national notoriety because of its fierce rivalry with a next-door chicken establishment, Chicken Annie’s. Both restaurants in Pittsburg offer similarly fine food but have feuded over who has the best chicken ever since 1942, when Chicken Mary’s moved next door to 9-year-old Chicken Annie’s.
Throw in the Chicken Mary’s spaghetti and sauce as a side, and you begin to understand how the southeastern corner of Kansas was nicknamed the “Little Balkans,” because many of the immigrants who settled there to work were from the Balkans in southeastern Europe. The people working the 63 coal mines were a mix of 50 nationalities.
Chicken Annie’s – the original – was established in 1932 by Annie Pichler, whose husband had become disabled in one of the area’s coal mines. Annie, to provide for her family of five, opened her home as a restaurant. Its menu has mozzarella sticks and marinara, German coleslaw and German potato salad to serve alongside the famous fried chicken pieces. For more information, go to www.chickenanniesoriginal.com.
The town of Toronto may sound Canadian, but in Kansas it means good Italian food at Courtney’s Places, which has been open for the past six years. The evening meals offer only four entrees – usually chicken Parmesan, lasagna, pasta Alfredo and one other special, such as prime rib or stuffed pork chops. Then there is candlelight, fresh linens and a nightly offering of five or six rich desserts. http://courtneysplaces.com/
The Hays House in Council Grove serves mouthwatering food and still operates in the original building constructed by Seth Hays in 1857. Hays, Council Grove’s founder, was Daniel Boone’s great-grandson and Kit Carson’s cousin. The restaurant – the oldest in Kansas – opened in 1857. http://hayshouse.com
Named as one of the eight wonders of Kansas cuisine by the Kansas Sampler Foundation, Guy & Mae’s Tavern in Williamsburg off I-35 south of Ottawa is considered some of the best barbecue in Kansas. Ribs are served dry on newspapers and aluminum foil with white bread. On evenings and weekends, you may have to sit by strangers, but by the time the evening is over, you’ll be friends. Good barbecue does that. http://www.kansassampler.org/8wonders/cuisineresults.php?id=174
If it is Swedish food you have a hankering for, try the Swedish Crown in Lindsborg. It is one of the few places in Kansas where you can get lingonberry barbecued pork riblets or potato sausage, Swedish meatballs and dill potatoes. And while you are in Lindsborg, try the Ol Stuga. In 2005, Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet president, stopped at Ol Stuga and had a couple of vodkas mixed with cranberry juice. Swedish vodka? Maybe not. But if the place is good enough for Gorby, who was in Lindsborg for a Chess for Peace tournament, it’s good enough for you. http://www.theswedishcrown.com/
For French-Cajun food, try the St. Joe Store in Cloud County. The town of St. Joe was settled in the late 19th century by French-Canadian immigrants, and some of their descendants remain, although the town has fewer than 20 residents. The store is open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for lunch. Lunch is $6; a slice of pie is $2. Every once in a while, the store hosts a Cajun night, usually on Saturday nights when nothing else is going on in the community. https://www.facebook.com/St.JoeStore
For German food, try Newton’s Bread Basket in Newton. There you can get the real deal: cherry moos, verenika with ham gravy, Yoder German sausage, chicken borscht, green been soup, German chocolate cake and zwieback with homemade apple butter. The buffet on Friday and Saturday nights is open until 8 p.m. For something different, try the Bohne beroggi for dessert, a pastry with sweet pinto bean paste filling and served with a sweet creamy sauce. http://thebreadbas38115724-348797.hibustudio.com/
Between 1875 and 1925, thousands of Arabs left Syria. Looking for economic opportunities and spiritual freedom, these Arab Christians settled in the nation’s midsection. Lebanese families quickly established themselves as some of Wichita’s leading entrepreneurs. Wichita has numerous Lebanese restaurants, including Byblos Restaurant, 3088 W. 13th St., and N & J Cafe and Bakery, 5600 E. Lincoln.
Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and Thai
Who doesn’t like a good bowl of pho and a side order of spring rolls? In Wichita, we have our favorites: Saigon Restaurant and Little Saigon on North Broadway, Thai House on North West Street and the Hana Cafe in Old Town. Travel west to Garden City and try Pho Hoa, named one of the finalists in the Kansas Sampler Foundation’s 8 Wonders of Kansas cuisine.
Breakfasts and more chicken dinners
The Carriage Crossing in Yoder is often a stopping point for many travelers along K-96. But go west a few more miles and merge onto U.S. 50 west of Hutchinson, and there is the Dutch Kitchen. Like the Carriage Crossing, the menu offers big breakfasts that include fried mush and gravy, biscuits and gravy, pancakes and waffles, hashbrowns and more than your doctor would want you to eat. Some of the signature meals include fried-chicken dinners that are enough to give the Crawford County chicken restaurants a run for their money. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dutch-Kitchen-Restaurant-Hutchinson-KS/133575400004106
At the Gathering Place in Stafford, all the ingredients are fresh and foods are made from scratch – that includes the gooey nut cinnamon rolls and breads. The lunch menu offers soups, salads and sandwiches. Appetizers include spinach artichoke dip served with Italian flat bread, thickly sliced deep-fried portobello mushrooms and beer-battered onion rings. Evening meals include steaks, chicken and shrimp dinners. For more information, go to the restaurant’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TGPStafford?fref=nf.
As the diversity in Kansas has changed, more mom-and-pop restaurants are opening in small towns across Kansas. Tapia’s Mexican Restaurant in Belpre off U.S. 50 in Edwards County offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. The restaurant is often crowded as locals from neighboring towns gather at meals and stop by for take-out. Sure, there are some great Wichita Mexican restaurants that are well-established, such as Connie’s Mexico Cafe on North Broadway, and Guitierrez Mexican Restaurants in Salina and Hays, but when it comes to small towns across the state, the small restaurants are often the heartbeats of a community.
In the end, it comes down to where your taste buds take you.
Icee, Slurpy, Slushy
It was an idea born as a fluke. The soda fountain in Omar Knedlik’s Dairy Queen in Coffeyville was old and persnickety. And Kansas summers were invariably hot and dry. Knedlik, a World War II veteran who had invested in a dream and who wasn’t about to quit because his soda fountain was on the brink, knew one thing: His customers expected cold drinks – and quickly.
He developed a machine that could make “the coldest drink in town.”
How do you describe a drink that’s kind of like a snow cone, only with finer ice particles and has a carbonated bite?
He held a contest, and “Icee” was the winning entry. Icee soon became a favorite baby boomer drink as machines began appearing in convenience stores throughout the nation, starting in 1960. In 1965, 7-Eleven began installing the machines in its stores. Corporate officials renamed the drink “Slurpee” because of the sound it made when sipped through a straw.