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"I would love to open a location in Kansas City someday," she told me, "but I found out that I'm going to have to move my place in Lawrence by next year so this neighborhood can be redeveloped."
The library across the street is scheduled to be torn down to make room for a convention center, but that seems unlikely to stop Brown from following the dream she says she first blurted out as a teenager: "I want to sell healthy fast food."
As a college student, Brown got her degree in occupational therapy but supported herself by catering. After attending a natural-cooking school in New York, she pulled together the resources to open Local Burger in 2005. It's not fancy: Brown bought the blond-wood tables and chairs at Target. But her place caught on quickly. Maybe too quickly.
"We were packed even before we got all the kinks worked out," Brown said.
That was no surprise to Audrey and Dan, who live in Lawrence. When they first visited the restaurant shortly after it opened, they encountered a sense of chaos in the dining room and the kitchen and had not enjoyed their meal at all. They'd been wary of returning. But a lot can happen over six months, and Brown has assembled a professional crew to oversee the tiny kitchen as well as the counter, where patrons order from a limited but appealing menu.
We shared a starter of Cowgirl Hummus a thick, crumbly, warm concoction that tasted more like refried beans than anything served in a Middle Eastern restaurant. (I was afraid to ask what the "Cowgirl" ingredient was, so I didn't.) Bob and Dan also gave thumbs up to the spicy, hearty chili made with ground buffalo meat from the Lonestar Bison Ranch near Overbrook, Kansas.
In true diner fashion, Brown offers inexpensive combo plates that include a Local Burger or an organic hot dog with a side dish. Sorry, no french fries (although Brown is contemplating adding potatoes fried in coconut oil). Instead, there are Progressive Potatoes soft slices of baked yukon, red and sweet potatoes. For his side, Dan chose the dairy-free rainbow slaw to eat with his buffalo burger he said the meat was a little dry but tasty. To accompany her elk burger, Audrey opted for an odd, salty salad of cucumber, onion, hijiki (a sea vegetable) and tamari sauce. "It's probably very good for me," Audrey said as she pushed the salad in my direction. It looked hideous but tasted great.
I was curious about a Metsker Farms pork burger but decided to test Brown's version of a veggie burger. It turned out to be excellent meaty rather than doughy, with a slightly crunchy exterior but, like most veggie burgers, it was even better dressed up, in this case with a slice of melted Kansas-made cheddar cheese and a superb organic whole-wheat bun.
Unlike the meat and cheese, though, that bun wasn't made in Kansas. "They're from an organic bakery in Boulder," Brown explained. "We have great bakeries in Lawrence and Kansas City, but Rudi's Organic Bakery had the product I wanted."
The nearby Lawrence bakery Wheatfields probably had the kinds of desserts that I wanted, but I bravely nibbled away at Local Burger's handmade organic sweets. Bob, Audrey and Dan liked the honey-sweetened peanut-butter balls, pecan-pie bites and chocolate-covered dates more than I did.
But at least I had an epiphany while biting into an organic peanut-butter cup: I really do prefer sweets that still have gluten, dairy and refined sugar in them.