Kansas City icons (Marilyn Maye, Valomilk candy, Arthur Bryant's) are forever being discovered and rediscovered by observers outside our metro. Mostly, even the click-baitiest of such notices are good for us — those outsiders stoke the reputations of people and products that many of us take for granted. A few weeks ago, for instance, the Daily Meal website posted a list that claimed to compile "The 101 Best Burgers in America," citing Winstead's and Town Topic as KC's representatives. Two fine joints, to be sure, with a combined hamburger history of 111 years.
But really, is what comes off the grill at Winstead's or Town Topic a legitimate contender for a national database of awesome burgers? Ask a local and you'll get a fast answer: most days, no.
I know, I know: It's sacrilege to speak of Kansas City's most famous hamburger — the Winstead's steakburger — in anything but worshipful tones. Yes, it's a hallowed product, little-changed from what Nellie and Kathryn Winstead started offering 74 years ago. But to most outsiders (you know, people who weren't born in Kansas City — people like me), a Winstead's burger, with its rumpled buns and thin, greasy patties, is no longer all that distinct from, say, a Steak 'n Shake single. In fact, that's about the nicest thing I'm willing to say about the "steakburgers" at Winstead's now.
What I will say is that some burgers in the metro are good enough for the national spotlight. Or, anyway, a very bright regional spotlight. And over the next few months, I'm going to tell you about as many of them as I can eat, starting with the ones on this list. They share a simple commonality: affordability. For less than $10 (sometimes way less) at one of these places, you can get a burger that would make even famous Winstead's booster Calvin Trillin defect.
2504 East Ninth Street, 816-231-0888
Triple cheeseburger, $5.49
On Kansas City's East Side, there's a burger shack dating back to 1961 that clearly deserves some kind of culinary-landmark status. But the Humdinger doesn't get that kind of institutional respect because the surrounding urban neighborhood — with its vacant lots and crumbling sidewalks — has become so depressing. The place proudly carries on anyway, serving the most eclectic menu of any fast-food joint in town: tenderloins and tacos, gizzards and Italian steaks, fried okra and cherry malts — and possibly the most life-affirming triple cheeseburger in town. It's thick and greasy and utterly redemptive.
Hobo's Grill & Bar
1036 North Agnes, 816-241-4626
Double cheeseburger, $6.50
A newer addition to the East Side saloon scene, Hobo's is, literally, on the other side of the tracks. Owners Bob Morris and Dave Hugo have cleaned up their old roadhouse (formerly the River's Edge) and now serve a damn good menu. Go for the towering double burger, expertly grilled and made with McGonigle's ground beef. You get your choice of cheese, with lettuce, tomato and mayo an additional dime apiece. Obviously, it comes in a plastic basket, with potato chips. Splurge for the fries, though, for $1.50 more.
2618 Guinotte Avenue, 816-200-1639
Cheeseburger combo (includes house-made chips and beverage), $8
The food truck next to the Local Pig butcher shop in this historic East Side neighborhood serves a variety of meaty sandwiches — the daily specials might feature a lamb gyro or a meatloaf patty melt — during the day, but there's always a terrific burger on the menu: a juicy 6-ounce patty (ground Angus beef from Seneca, Kansas), masterfully grilled and topped, if desired, with an array of cheese options. (I'm partial to the house-smoked provolone.) The buns are Farm to Market.
Walsh's Corner Cocktails
304 West 85th Street, 816-361-7099
Cheeseburger (includes choice of fries, chips, cole slaw
or cottage cheese), $6.75
Bonus: Wednesday is Burger Night, when all burgers are $1.50 off
from 6 to 11 p.m.
This dimly lighted, congenial neighborhood saloon has been serving booze and burgers since 1978. The burgers are discounted on Wednesdays but taste just as good the other six days of the week: always 6 ounces and always cooked well-done (as the menu declares). It's far from fancy but totally satisfying. And an extra 75 cents buys you onion rings instead of fries. Spend the money you save on some extra rounds, because the room can feel like a real-life Cheers.
Green Room Burgers & Beer
4010 Pennsylvania, 816-216-7682
Cheesy Brownfield, $6.50 (includes choice of cole slaw, fruit or cottage cheese)
Bonus: A burger and a half-order of fries go for $6 from 2 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
This two-year-old burger venue, in the basement of the Westport Coffee House, puts out a smart selection of custom burgers, with the signature being its Brownfield: pickles, red onion, ketchup and mustard (and, on request, seasonal greens and tomato). The house cheeseburger, the Cheesy Brownfield, gets topped with a slice of that good old American fromage or — for two bits more — Tillamook cheddar, Irish cheddar, goat, swiss or feta. The buns, either a fluffy yeast bun or pumpernickel — pumpernickel! — come from Roma Bakery. It might be the only joint in town where you can eat a burger while playing a board game with strangers.
Westport Flea Market
817 Westport Road, 816-931-1986
Mini Market, $7.99 (includes fries, cottage cheese or cole slaw)
Bonus: "Two for Tuesday" special, dine-in only, offers two Mini Market burgers and curly fries
for $7.99 from 5 to 11 p.m.
The perennial winner of local "Best Burger" competitions, the Flea is a polarizing choice: People either love the food and the ambience at this oddball combination of low-rent saloon and vaguely sordid flea market or complain that it's too loud and inconsistent. There are eccentricities — it's still cash-only, and the service is notoriously inattentive — but the hamburgers really are very good. The ground chuck is from McGonigle's, and the kitchen grills it perfectly. The place has a decent beer selection, and there's air hockey. What more do you need?
320 Southwest Blue Parkway, Lee's Summit, 816-347-9393
Stuffed All-American, $7.50 (includes fries or sweet-potato tots)
Bonus: All burgers are half-price from 4 to 10 p.m. Mondays.
Tony Olson decided that "stuffed" was the next big thing in the burger business, and so he has made this spacious venue, the former Bullfrog bar, into a family-friendly sandwich emporium. The man is not kidding about this whole stuffed thing, either. The burgers are as thick as Stephen King novels, and sometimes just as scary. The fat patties are almost always cooked medium-well, the better to seal in a center that has been augmented with various combinations of cheese, condiments and vegetables. The most basic of the eight choices is the All-American, which has our national shiny orange cheese both in the middle of the patty and on top of it. Pretentious? You bet. Also: pleasing, with a populist price.
7337 West 119th Street, Overland Park, 913-661-9887
Pure (single with cheese), $4.60
Local restaurateur Jim Sheridan is still better-known for his frozen custard than for his sit-down food, but his prototype fast-casual venue cooks some terrific burgers, including the signature Pure, made with NatureSource beef (raised without growth hormones or antibiotics) and dressed up with tomato, fresh greens and the optional — and free — slice of American cheese. It may be the metro's most quietly healthy hamburger, and it's delicious.
Christy's Tasty Queen
1405 South 55th Street, Kansas City, Kansas, 913-287-2800
Triple cheeseburger, $5.99
Bonus: Double cheeseburger and fries for $6.20 on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Christy's is a proud relic of 1960s auto culture, when customers loved eating in the privacy of their own cars. Nothing has really changed over the four decades that the place has been open, though the menu has grown more international (tacos, burritos, egg rolls). The juicy, smoky, thick burgers remain superb, and they're not much more expensive today than they were when Richard Nixon was in the White House. They come dressed for that era, too: mustard, ketchup, pickle, onion. Judging by a glance down at the parking-lot pavement, though, those fresh onion slices get about as much respect as Nixon did after Watergate.
924 West U.S. Highway 24, Independence, 816-252-4050
Quarter-pound HiBoy, $4.95
There are three HiBoys in the metro, all locally owned. The original location, at 3424 South Blue Ridge Cutoff, is operated by one owner, with a different operator running the two Independence burger venues. That includes the tidy brick building on 24 Highway, a favorite since 1957. The burgers here are like what you'd make at home if you had time: ridiculously thick, with firm buns and tasty pickles. But there's no reproducing the HiBoy sauce at home. Don't ask. It's a secret.