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.