Politics & Government

Topeka deli a gathering place for the state’s political elite, working class

Charlie Porubsky Jr., the son of the deli’s founder, makes a hoagie for a customer.
Charlie Porubsky Jr., the son of the deli’s founder, makes a hoagie for a customer. The Wichita Eagle

Tucked between a highway overpass and railroad tracks in North Topeka’s Little Russia neighborhood, you’ll find a tiny building with a Budweiser sign.

Walk inside and you’ll find some of best food in Topeka. Go on the right day and you’ll also find a U.S. senator. He’ll be eating a ham salad sandwich.

Welcome to Porubsky’s Grocery & Deli, a place where the state’s political elite and ordinary folk convene over sandwiches, chili and beer.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Hays Republican, has been coming here since 1988.

When he was a member of the Kansas Legislature, he would eat here two or three times a week, but now he has to settle for once a month. When Moran flies from Washington to Kansas City, he’ll stop at Porubsky’s on his way back to Hays.

“I walk in the grocery store and they know exactly what to make without any conversation,” Moran said.

I walk in the grocery store and they know exactly what to make without any conversation.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Hays

Charlie Porubsky Jr., the son of the man who founded the deli in 1947, makes the sandwiches today. He nodded when asked about the senator’s order. “That’s the only thing he’s ever eaten: ham salad on white and three pieces of cheese on the side with crackers.”

There a lot of customers like that, he said. “I can get their sandwich and stuff before they get a seat.”

Cultural landmark

Porubsky’s, which was designated a cultural landmark by the Shawnee County Historical Society this month, serves as the main gathering place for Topeka’s Little Russia, a neighborhood that may seem misnamed when you find out the Porubskys aren’t Russian.

They’re German.

Many of the German-speaking families that settled in the area during the early half of the 20th century were mistaken for Russian because they had migrated to Russia before coming to the United States.

“They all spoke German,” Porusbky said. “I didn’t know any of those old-timers down here who spoke Russian. When they didn’t want us kids to know that they was talking about, they all spoke German, so we didn’t know (what they were saying).”

Charlie Porubsky Sr. died in 1998. The city of Topeka renamed the street you take to enter Little Russia to Porubsky’s Drive in his honor. When his wife, Lydia Porubsky, died10 years later, Moran attended her funeral.

“The community was there en masse. The church was packed and the priest was so reverent toward Lydia and her family,” Moran said. “It was clear to me that these are people who are part of the fabric of that North Topeka, Little Russia community.”

Favorite lunch spot

The deli is three miles north of the state Capitol, on the other side of the Kansas River. Tourists visiting the Capitol rarely make it over here, but it’s been a favorite lunch spot of lawmakers and political staffers for decades.

“It’s kind of a rite of passage,” said Tim Graham, chief of staff to Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. “If you’re going to be in Topeka politics, you have to eat at Porubsky’s.”

Graham said he first tried Porubsky’s during his first year working at the Capitol in 2000. “I’ve been hooked ever since, and I’ve been trying to recreate their chili for years and I just can’t do it,” he said.

The setup at Porubsky’s is simple. There’s a grocery store on one side and an adjacent restaurant with a few booths and a lunch counter.

It’s about a good meal – and probably a beer – and conversation and friendship. And that place has become a gathering place for a community.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Hays

The menu is basically a list of meats, cheeses and breads. You choose what you want in your sandwich. If you don’t want to choose, you can order a sampling for $3.99. The only beer on tap is Budweiser, but there are other options in the fridge.

“These are working class people and there’s no pretension,” Moran said. “It’s about a good meal – and probably a beer – and conversation and friendship. And that place has become a gathering place for a community.”

Photos of well-known on wall

The place has also become a museum of sorts for the state’s recent political history. Moran is one of several political luminaries with his photo on the wall.

Scan the wood panel wall and you’ll find congressmen, a federal judge, a former attorney general and seven consecutive governors, Republicans and Democrats alike, starting with Gov. Robert Docking, who took office in 1967, and continuing through Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who left office in 2009.

It wasn’t really a fall in Topeka unless you had a bowl of chili.

Former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius

“Best chili in town,” Sebelius said. “It wasn’t really a fall in Topeka unless you had a bowl of chili.”

The chili is only available from September through April. Ralph Reichle, a regular customer, called the months between the “rough season.”

I’ve been trying to recreate their chili for years and I just can’t do it.

Tim Graham, top Kansas Senate Democratic staffer

Moran said he brings new staffers to Porubsky’s as an initiation ritual.

“The goal is always to get them to put the pickles in their mouth,” he said, referring to Porubsky’s notoriously spicy, sinus-clearing pickles.

“I’m a fan of the pickles in small doses,” Moran said, jokingly. “I don’t know if there’s any quality control on those pickles because some of them are edible and some of them are impossible to eat.”

Porubsky said the pickles’ powerful kick comes from horseradish.

Talking politics

Cecelia Pierson, the daughter of the deli’s founder, said her father, who became close friends with Docking, loved talking politics, but her mother couldn’t stand it.

The place’s popularity with politicians doesn’t mean they get special treatment. Pierson, who took over running the lunch counter after her mother died, said her parents had strict rules.

My dad always said you treat everybody the same whether they’re in here in jeans and a work shirt or in a suit.

Cecelia Pierson, daughter of Charlie Porubsky Sr.

“My dad always said you treat everybody the same whether they’re in here in jeans and a work shirt or in a suit. I mean, if the governor walked in but you were ahead of him, you’d get waited on before the governor,” she said.

Pierson pointed to a customer sitting at the lunch counter. “Ralph drove a taxicab for years. If Ralph brought his picture over, I’d hang it up,” she said, jokingly.

Ralph Reichle, a Navy veteran who drove a taxi cab in Topeka for 48 years, said he’s been coming to Porubsky’s at least once a week since 1967.

“You really love the atmosphere, the atmosphere of it all. That’s what’s great about coming over, they always know you. They pick on you. That’s what it’s all about,” he said.

Part of that atmosphere is that you might get to chow down with a governor or congressman.

“I’ve eaten with the governors. My favorite was (Democrat) Joan Finney,” Reichle said. “Oh yeah, I always loved old Joan. (Republican Attorney General) Bob Stephan, he came in here several times when I was here. I tried to get Bob to run for governor one time. And Jim Slattery! Jim was always in here. Whatever happened to Jim? He doesn’t come in much (anymore).”

Pierson informed him that the former Democratic congressman has moved to the East Coast, but still stops by when he comes back to Kansas.

One picture Pierson hasn’t hung up is Gov. Sam Brownback’s. But that’s not for any political reason. It’s because Brownback has never been to Porubsky’s. “You have to come over to get your picture up,” she said.

One of the governor’s staff members noticed Brownback’s absence from the wall and offered to bring over his picture a few years ago, but Pierson refused.

“That’s not the rules,” she said.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3

If you go

The deli is cash only.

Where: 508 N.E. Sardou Ave., Topeka, 785-234-5788

Hours: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays; closed Sundays

Favorite menu items

All items listed cost $3.99.

▪ U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran: Ham salad

▪ Former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius: Chili

▪ Capitol press corps: Cold plates

▪ Cecelia Pierson: Hard salami with melted cheese on rye

▪ Charlie Porubsky Jr.: Ham and cheese

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