I'm not always eager to eat in a fast-casual restaurant — the kind where one orders at a counter — let alone write about one. But the latest venture by local entrepreneur Jim Sheridan (that's right, the local frozen-custard mogul) is too interesting to ignore.
For one thing, Sheridan's Unforked Eats & Sweets is clearly a prototype for a franchise concept — a pretty good one if he can iron out the kinks. The premise is clever but not overbearing: imaginatively conceived versions of lowbrow street food (tacos, tortas, burgers) in a stylish setting. The Overland Park Unforked looks like a real restaurant and operates like a Chipotle or like Jo Marie Scaglia's the Mixx. The details are artful enough to set a higher bar for local fast-casual. In some cases, though, Sheridan's touches are utterly impractical.
I'm a big fan so far, little flaws and all, but I know a couple of people who won't go back, and for reasons odd enough to match Unforked's own idiosyncrasies. My friend Tom couldn't abide the caterwauling of the screeching babies who always seemed to be in the dining room. Bob says the restaurant's Angus sirloin cheeseburger and hand-cut fries were no better than those served at Culver's.
I say there's no comparison, at least in the burger category. Unforked's Pure Burger is exceptional and cheaper than what you get at most corporate burger chains. (Those hand-cut Kennebec spuds, however, lack crispness and get very cold very fast.)
After three visits to the restaurant, I think Unforked does a lot of things supremely well. The art of getting customers in and out, for example, is handled in the smoothest way possible. I arrived one wickedly hot evening at 6:45, and the joint was packed, with a line of unfed customers snaking out the door. I apologized to my friend Jeff. I had heard the place got busy, I told him, but this was madness. Amazingly, within 10 minutes, Jeff and I made it to the counter, ordered, paid and sat at a table.
Jeff is one of those vegetarians who occasionally takes a walk on the wild side and eats a little meat. The veggie burger he ordered came with a side salad; he chose the Slow Spin because he liked the description on the menu: spinach, goat cheese, golden raisins, blistered onions, glazed Missouri pecans — and bacon.
"I'm sure it's a very small amount of bacon," he said.
It was practically microscopic. And the glazed pecans, at least that night, were totally MIA. (A few minutes later, I overheard one of the employees tell a customer that there was no more of the spinach salad left; it was 7 p.m.) Jeff thought the salad sounded very upscale for a burger joint, and the presentation lived up to the billing. The burger and salad arrived on a shiny metal plate with a real metal fork. Maybe because I'd ordered no salad, I had to make do with plastic utensils.
Like Chipotle, Unforked serves its tacos and other dishes in baskets, but Unforked's are constructed of something resembling chicken wire rather than the usual flimsy plastic. They look charming, but just try to cut a burger in half. Or the tacos or the tortas. "It's not functional," Jeff said. "It's a craft project."
That's not the only Martha Stewart-like innovation in the room. Perhaps I'm missing something, but the strangest decorative element, to me, is a giant steel basket extending practically to the ceiling and bedecked with strings of illuminated light bulbs. I felt like I was eating under the crow's nest of a pirate ship.
Sheridan's also has one wooden fork on a block of wood at each table. You can't eat with it, and it makes an odd centerpiece. "When we opened, we gave customers a card with numbers," explained one of the food runners, "and they put the numbered card in the tines of the wooden fork. That way we knew which table to go to when we were delivering food."
That primitive technique has been replaced with the more standard electronic buzzing devices handed out with each order. I was told that the new rule at Unforked is for diners to go to a crowded corner and pick up their own food when the paging device starts vibrating. But on all of my visits, a runner in an Unforked T-shirt performed that duty. The room can get pretty chaotic, with a lot of little kids underfoot, so employee delivery works best. Let them knock a tray over.
Unforked serves wine and beer, but I saw only one patron drinking wine: a middle-aged woman who didn't seem very happy to be there and who cringed every time a baby shrieked. Some things can be softened with a little red wine, including the top-40 radio blasting overhead, commercials and all.
I sipped a fresh-tasting lavender lemonade — through a plastic straw wide enough to siphon gasoline — that was tart, not too sweet, with just the right hint of the fragrant herb and organic local honey. The beverage offered a cooling counterpoint to the spicier dishes, especially the chile-spiked seared-tilapia taco (which was dominated by a vinegary red-cabbage slaw) and the roasted poblano peppers that dressed the Fundido Sirloin taco. (The kick was welcome in the latter; if only the steak had been a shade less chewy.)
Jeff's veggie burger turned out to be plenty meaty: a grilled hunk of portobello, moist and flavorful under tomato and lettuce ("hand torn," boasts the menu) on a toasted egg bun. (There's also a gluten-free bun.) We shared the burger with the veggie quesadilla, another creation starring those fiery poblanos, with avocado and queso on a tissue-thin flour tortilla. It's a light snack, not significant enough to be ordered as an entrée.
Jeff didn't know what to think of the vegetarian taco, called the Crispy Avocado. "It's state-fair food," he said. And maybe it is, but it's no novelty. Creamy hunks of fresh avocado are battered in a tempura-light batter, deep-fried and tucked into a flour, corn or whole-wheat tortilla with a sassy golden-tomato pico and micro greens. I loved it, but I wouldn't want to check my blood for cholesterol right after dinner.
If you like your meat tender and sweet, the Barking Pig tacos are extraordinary: crispy pork carnitas slathered in a slightly maple-tasting shagbark bacon glaze, topped with queso fresco and scallions. These work best in the white-corn tortilla. I could have eaten 10 of them.
What pass as tortas here are unlike anything you'll find on Southwest Boulevard. At Unforked, they're basically grilled panini. The chicken sandwich, with avocado, bacon, refried black beans and jack cheese, was tasty but unexceptional.
You can get a basket of chips here as a side or a snack: crunchy corn, taro and plantain, served with a choice of salsas or dipping sauces. The thick poblano chimichurri is delicious but too pasty for dipping chips. The salsa verde works, though, and is both light and tart.
I ate a lot on each of my visits to Unforked, but the food generally was light and fresh, so I never felt particularly heavy or too full leaving the building. Jeff says that's by design, so no one feels too stuffed to miss out on a frozen-custard treat before going home. It's a clever gambit; Jeff did, in fact, order a root-beer float made with creamy Sprecher soda.
I passed on the dessert selections, although the description of the toasted-marshmallow milkshake nearly had me swooning. No, at Jim Sheridan's new culinary project, I knew when to put down the fork.