One of the little delights of life is sitting in a restaurant, opening up a menu, and deciding what to order. On our 15 days/ 15 cities foodie trip along Interstate-70 through Kansas, my husband Ron and I did this 45 times! Here are some tastes of the Heartland that you shouldn’t miss.
In WaKeeney at 4 a.m. in the morning, a young baker enters the Hometown Bakery on Main St. and gathers her ingredients to begin making the traditional morning donuts one expects from such an establishment. Maple long johns, glazed, and fruit filled donuts are all on the menu along with biscuits, eggs, bacon, and hot coffee.
At Jake & Chet’s Café, breakfast, including waffles and pancakes, is served all day. Big fluffy biscuits with white gravy are a local favorite. Burgers and sandwiches are available as well.
The Brazen Bull is newly opened, and owner Kathy Zahn personally served us with a casual friendliness that made us feel quite welcome. Start with the jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped in crisp bacon or a tower of batter-fried onions served in two sizes: 6 inches or 12 inches along with a side of sauces. Their fresh cut steaks are grilled with their own secret seasonings.Texas toast patty melts are huge and can easily satisfy a hungry rancher.
An unexpected discovery just a short 5-mile drive from WaKeeney through beautiful wheat and corn fields is the Shiloh Vineyard & Winery. This family-owned winery produces 6-7,000 gallons a year and the wines are fermented on the grounds of this serene landscape. Tastings are offered in a uniquely converted chicken coop, and 4 times a year, a chef creates special dinners with wine pairings.
Back on Main Street, the Western Kansas Saloon & Grill serves steaks, seafood, and pasta. We ate samplings of each and found them all to be quite tasty. Customers drive from all over to order the ribeye and prime rib steaks.Owners Kenny and Lien Quan sat with us and shared some fascinating stories regarding this historical building. Ask about the little hole in the floor used during Prohibition.
Hays offers an array of eateries and is in on the food scene. Our morning breakfast was at the Golden Griddle, known for their robust cups of coffee, scrumptious piles of pancakes and eggs, bacon, and biscuit combination plates.
At Augustine’s Bakery, German and American bakery goods are all made from scratch. Owners Chad and Holly Augustine offered us their Schwartzberren coffeecake, a delicious confection baked with German blackberries and topped with a crumbly streusel. The Germans who immigrated to this area brought along their traditional recipes that are still in use today.
We ate lunch at the award winning Gella’s Diner and Lb. Brewing Co. where the soup sampler includes sauerkraut, beer cheddar, dill pickle, and green bean dumpling. Along with seasonal beer brews, handcrafted in-house root beer and cream sodas are available. Gella’s has a rustic and contemporary, fun interior.
The perfect fried chicken is at Al’s Chickenette, operating since 1949. This award-winning eatery is located in its original building and is the oldest restaurant in Hays. The chicken is fresh, and all side dishes and dressings are made from scratch. The fried chicken recipe is from the owner’s grandmother, a good indicator!
Professor’s Classic Sandwich Shop serves just what the name says. Customers can order a hot ham and cheese, hot roast beef and Swiss, Reuben, melted cheese, or pork tenderloin with ham and cheese. The specialty drink is the homemade honey lemonade made with local raw honey.
The university town of Manhattan has a smorgasbord of cuisine to offer college students, families, and tourists. A morning stop at the popular Varsity Donuts, an iconic shop located in a historic building, is not to be missed. Creative flavors include maple bacon with salted caramel, and one of their daily surprise specials is The Oscar, made with peanuts, Oreos, Heath Bar candy, potato chips, sea salt, and a drizzle of chocolate. Patrons can munch on donuts while playing one of the many board games or rent a vintage bike for the day.
At Cox Bros. BBQ, owners Bud and Bobby Cox have been practicing the art of barbecue since they were teenagers. Hundreds of pounds of slow-smoked quality meats are cooked in huge smokers, and the sweet potato fries are just outright addicting.
Liquid Art Winery & Estate is the upstart venue of a hardworking and creative young, married couple, David and Danielle Tegtmeier, At this time, there are 7,000 vines, which will eventually cover 10,000 acres. The wine bottles carry beautifully designed labels and the wine is top quality.
The eclectic menu at Bourbon & Baker offers a unique blend of Midwest and Southern cooking. Small plates are served, allowing one to sample several items. We ordered the chicken and waffles, the fried bologna slider, and the flavorful Brussels sprouts. A must-try is the homemade creamy butterscotch pudding. The ambience is casual and a fun place to do some serious munching.
You can comfortably arrive in your favorite jeans at Wine Dive & Kitchen, which has a floor to ceiling wall of premier wines and a menu of incredible cuisine at affordable prices. We selected the wedge salad, Cuban sandwich, and the silky rum cheesecake. Brunch on the weekends is coming soon.
Across the street from the Leavenworth Penitentiary is the Metropolitan Steak House— known as The Little Steak House across from the Big House. This 17-year-old establishment is special because of the large portions and good prices, and the Black Angus steaks are fresh-cut. The soup of the day when we visited was a pork cider soup with large chunks of pork and diced potatoes in a thick creamy soup base.
One can never sample too many barbecues. All Slabbed Up BBQ is an appropriate name for this cozy eatery. Real dollar bills, old Kansas license plates, and music posters adorn the walls. The barbecue pork sandwich is the top seller and the barbecue beans are tasty and sweet.
A local told us not to miss the garlic bread at Luigi’s, and she was right; the homemade yeast garlic rolls are scrumptious. The hearty tomato basil soup along with the large square serving of lasagna was delicious. Obviously, tiramisu is a happy ending to an Italian meal.
Not exactly a restaurant but a business to spice up one’s cooking is the Original Juan Specialty Foods. They carry over 900 barbecue sauces and 700 hot sauces, and their private label is on 160 of their personally created products. The Pecanwood Smoke Bourbon Vanilla Pecan and the Harvest Apple BBQ have won top awards in the sauce world. Also, for wholesale to the public are salsas, snacks, dips, marinades, and culinary gifts. Tastings are a must. We came home with a box load of products to use in our personal recipes.
Our last barbecue stop before we exited Kansas was SLAP’s BBQ. This business started in a food truck and folks stood patiently in long lines for these tasty vittles. It was time to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant and the long lines continued! We shared a table with other customers because that’s the way to eat barbecue. They serve the traditional barbecue sandwiches along with a selection of side dishes, and everything tasted just like it’s meant to taste.
Ice cream is refreshing after hot, spicy barbecue, and Sheridan’s Frozen Custard is the perfect remedy. 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 rich, creamy, and delicious frozen custard.
These Midwest folks sure know what they’re doing in the kitchen. Using the best of locally available resources, they offer tantalizing tastes, textures, and flavors to weary travelers traversing the Interstate. Stop by these small cities to enjoy their down-home hospitality.
Where to Stay:
WaKeeney- Best Western Plus WaKeeney Inn & Suites
Hays- Holiday Inn
Manhattan- Holiday Inn at The Campus
Leavenworth- Fairfield Inn
Kansas City- Chateau Avalon Hotel and Spa