Anyone who has driven through America’s Heartland, specifically Kansas along I-70, knows that the long, flat stretch of road with nothing but prairie and farmland along both sides can be somewhat monotonous. But, lurking just outside the highway boundaries is a world of culinary diversity that will put a satisfied smile on the face of most foodies. Here are five cities that will more than fit the bill for good eats.
Located about halfway between Denver and Kansas City, WaKeeney is known as the Christmas City of the High Plains. For 67 years, yuletide enthusiasts flock to the town, which is transformed into something out of Currier and Ives, and each November, the North Pole and Santa come to the town center.
Enjoy a hearty breakfast at Jake and Chet’s Café on S. First Street. Generous portions of eggs, bacon, hash browns, and biscuits with gravy make this a favorite spot for locals.
For lunch, the Brazen Bull is known for their steaks and unique sandwiches. Their cheesesteak has tender strips of Angus beef with sautéed onions and peppers and a creamy Swiss sauce for $10.95.
If you have a sweet tooth and a touch of nostalgia, then mosey over to Gibson’s Health Mart Pharmacy’s old-fashioned soda fountain. Partake in a Green River, vanilla cream Coke, or ice cream chocolate soda, all at small-town prices.
A winery is probably not something you would expect to find in America’s Heartland, but the weather appears to be ideal for growing grapes. Located about 5 miles off of I-70, Shiloh Vineyard and Winery is an oasis on the prairie owned by a couple who produce about 7,000 gallons of liquid sunshine each year. They offer tastings (Call first.) of their first wines, dry reds and whites, and dessert wines. A bottle of their most expensive is around $24.
Your dinner call will be at the Western Kansas Saloon and Grill where owners Kenny and Lien Quan use top quality ingredients, like Texas beef, and serve hungry diners steaks, seafood, and pasta. One customer said that their fettuccini Alfredo was the best he’d ever had. For dessert, try their rich crème brûlée. Ask about the plugged up hole in the floor from the Prohibition Era.
Jump back on I-70 heading east for about 30 minutes to your next exit along the culinary highway. Home to Fort Hays, this city has seen African-American Buffalo Soldiers, General George A. Custer, and Buffalo Bill Cody.
Start your day at the Golden Griddle, known for excellent coffee and pancakes. Many Volga Germans settled in this area, and at Augustine’s Bakery, you can experience authentic tastes from the old country. Chad and Holly Augustine bake their confections from scratch such as their very popular Schwartzbeeren coffeecake.
Gella’s Diner and Lb. Brewing Co. is the “in spot” for lunch. They have won many awards for their beers including the noteworthy oatmeal stout. They have a variety of menu items from salads to burgers, but what really distinguishes Gella’s are their soups. Hands down, the one you should try is the dill pickle with potatoes, dill, and carrots ($4.95).
For homemade lemonade, stop by Professor’s Classic Sandwich Shop. They have amazing, flavorful lemonade made with their own raw honey.
Al’s Chickenette is one of those iconic Heartland roadside stands whose big red chicken on the side of the building just makes you want to stop. Al’s is the oldest restaurant in Hays, and since 1949, they have been making Al’s grandmother’s fried chicken recipe. This is one place that should really give you something to cluck about.
Nicknamed The Little Apple®, Manhattan will be your next stop along the Interstate. This is a college town and home to Kansas State University and The Wildcats. On game day, the excitement is palpable, and everything radiates purple Wildcat pride.
So, how’s the food in Manhattan? Fortunately, you don’t have to travel all the way to The Big Apple to find a great meal. Start by visiting Varsity Donuts for The Oscar, topped with peanuts, Oreo, Heath Bar, and potato chip crumbles; sea salt; and a drizzle of chocolate.
Next, visit Bourbon and Baker, whose menu is influenced by the comfort and soul of many cuisines. Their best small plates include the chicken and waffle with maple-pecan butter ($9) and an elevated fried baloney slider with Dijon and white cheddar cheese ($8).
Of course, what would Kansas be without barbecue? The Cox Bros. have been cooking their version of championship, award-winning barbecue for the hungry masses for many years. They have a variety of platters of hickory smoked meats and a sauce to accommodate every main barbecue region.
Afterwards, head to Call Hall, home to the KSU Dairy Bar. The ice cream comes from cows on site, and one of their best sellers is the blueberry Purple Pride. Their creamy confections are so fresh that it might be the closest to cow to cone that you can get.
The nearby Liquid Art Winery and Estate was started by a young couple who converted 10,000 rough acres into a sort of Napa-style vineyard. Vineyards were actually in abundance in Kansas before Prohibition and are still slowly returning. Delightful wines such as Aronia ($5.56/glass) are available in their tasting room and/or to take home.
For supper, a term preferred in these parts, the Wine Dive is a good choice. Start with lamb sliders ($11) and then their Cubano sandwich ($9) paired with any number of fine wines.
While the name Leavenworth conjures up the large federal prison, there is quite a bit more to see than just that Metropolitan Ave. facility. After gaining post entrance at the visitor’s control center, explore Fort Leavenworth’s museums and monuments. Some of the most notable are the large, visually stunning Buffalo Soldier sculpture and fountain and fascinating historical artifacts at the Richard Allen Cultural Center Museum.
The prison, also known as The Big House, sits as a visual backdrop for your first meal here. Calling themselves The Little Steak House Across from The Big House, the Metropolitan Steak House is known for their large portions and freshly made burgers, steaks, and sandwiches. Their Hico burger has a half pound of Angus beef topped with ham, cheddar cheese, and barbecue sauce ($8.99).
All Slabbed Up pretty much describes this homey little building serving up smoked brisket, pork, and ribs. The meat is tender and flavorful, and you can slather it up with one of their tangy barbecue sauces.
For dinner, go international at Luigi’s Italian Cuisine. While you are waiting for your spaghetti Bolognese or lasagna (both $9.90), feast on soft, garlicky rolls and top it off with their house-made tiramisu.
The third largest city in the state, Kansas City is home to NASCAR racing at the modern Kansas Speedway and some of the world’s best barbecue.
Slap’s BBQ is a little culinary patch of joy nestled in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood. A brothers’ barbecue competition ended up as a brick and mortar featuring their best recipes for mouth-watering smoked meats. Their pork ribs fall off the bone, and their beans are sweet and tangy.
For a mid-afternoon respite, head to the nearby town of Bonner Springs to Third Space Coffee. The name was the owner’s idea that everyone needs a place outside of work and home to relax and have a great cup of coffee. The décor is clean, modern, and inviting and you can enjoy your coffee or latte and homemade bakery items.
After researching the best way to make custard for eight years, Jim Sheridan opened his own storefront in Kansas City. Using only the freshest ingredients, he creates his frozen custard sensations that have people lining up at all hours of the day and evening. You may just fall in love with ice cream’s possible successor.
At Original Juan Specialty Foods, you’ll sample some of the best of their 150 products: regional dips, marinades, sauces, salsas, and snacks.
Once you decide to exit the Interstate, a whole world of sights, adventures, and tastes await. These five cities will definitely treat you to the best of what the Heartland of America offers along with a heaping helping of down home hospitality.
Where to Stay:
WaKeeney- Best Western Plus WaKeeney Inn & Suites
Hays- Holiday Inn Express
Manhattan- Holiday Inn at The Campus
Leavenworth- Fairfield Inn
Kansas City- Chateau Avalon Hotel and Spa— They have 61 themed rooms and excellent cinnamon rolls.