My restaurant specializes in home cooking, but everyone who writes about us just talks about the doughnuts," Karen Allred said one day recently as she swept a wisp of red hair off her forehead.
Hell, the fried doughnuts were what first brought me into Allred's six-month-old Skillet Licker Café. I hadn't seen any of the write-ups she was talking about — or even heard of the restaurant, though it's just up the street from two other little KCK storefront joints (Jones Barbecue and Rincon Colombiano Restaurant) that I really like. One day last week, my co-worker Jennifer walked into the office with a small paper sack filled with warm, sugar-dusted doughnuts. They were delicious, bite-sized puffs of fried dough, each about the size of an old Chevy lug nut. "Where did you find these?" I asked, grabbing a few more from the bag in her hands.
"I was checking out a nightclub on Sixth Street in downtown Kansas City, Kansas," she said, "and after I left, I passed this sign on the sidewalk that said something about 'hot lil' doughnuts.' So I stopped in and bought some. The owner makes them right there in front of you in this little trough. It was cool!"
For the next couple of days, I tried to imagine what a little doughnut-frying "trough" might look like. Finally, my curiosity — and appetite — took over, and early one Saturday morning, I drove across the Kaw River to see for myself. I managed to convince my friend Addison to join me by promising him breakfast and "hot lil' doughnuts."
"I'm not sure what a hot lil' doughnut is," he said as he climbed into my car, "but I'm hoping it's a euphemism for a short, well-oiled bodybuilder."
It isn't, which may explain why Addison wasn't nearly as delighted as I was by the Rube Goldberg-like contraption near the cash register at the Skillet Licker. It's called a Lil' Orbits Automatic Mini Donuts Machine, Model SS1200, and it doesn't look that much more complicated than a Mattel toy I had in the 1970s, except that it has a narrow pan — a gutter, really — filled with potentially dangerous bubbling oil. The batter is squeezed out of the dough hopper into the hot oil, and a little paddle wheel pushes it forward so that another blob of batter can drop into the grease.
"We've had this machine for six years," Allred explained. "We bought it to take to fairs and festivals. When you really get going, you can make a thousand doughnuts an hour."
Allred's been out of the doughnuts-at-the-fair business since she opened the Skillet Licker Café with her son, Curtis. She's happy to be in a more traditional setting. "All that setting up and tearing down at the festivals — it's incredibly hard work," she said.
I nodded, eating a hot doughnut while glancing at the single-page breakfast menu.
While I debated ordering the dish called Skillet Licker Brekky — I have a near phobia about cutesy names on menus — Allred continued her story, which had more twists and turns than a Tilt-A-Whirl.
Restaurants are in her blood. She's the daughter of a legendary former waitress, the late Ruthie Allred, who hauled plates during the heyday of the long-defunct Putsch's 210, the John Francis Restaurant and Meierhoff's. "Everyone knew Ruthie," Allred said.
Allred had been more itinerant: Once upon a time, she owned a teriyaki restaurant in Canada; and, later, a truck stop in Marysville, Kansas; and a combination diner and gas station on Merriam Lane called Mother's Go Gas.
That morning, Allred's 10-year-old granddaughter was the only waitress. Addison was scandalized, but we agreed that this wisp of a child had more poise and savvy than a lot of so-called professional servers in some other restaurants we know.
Addison ordered the Truck Stop breakfast because, he said, "It has a hamburger on it."
I clenched my jaw and ordered the Brekky. And more doughnuts.
"With or without frosting?" Allred called out.
Turns out you can get the dainty doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar, or plain with a little plastic cup of pink or chocolate frosting. I'm a no-frosting kind of guy, and I later asked Allred how many of her patrons prefer icing on their 'nuts. "About 18 percent," she said.
The Skillet Licker's décor reminded Addison of a 1950s recreation room, thanks to the vintage knotty pine paneling, the painted concrete floor and the thrift-store artwork. His eyes lit up when breakfast arrived: a plate of fried potatoes topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, melted cheese and picante sauce. "It's even a 1950s breakfast!"
"Brekky," I corrected him. Allred's signature morning dish is a two-egg combo platter, with bacon, ham or sausage and hash browns and toast. And a half-order of biscuits and gravy. It was a competently turned-out classic diner breakfast.
There are also a lot of side dishes, including grits and oatmeal, but nothing on the menu is too difficult or complicated.
The lunch menu is just as basic: burgers, grilled cheese, chicken salad, a club sandwich, a hand-breaded tenderloin — which Jennifer ordered when I took her back to the place one afternoon. I was feeling daring, so I decided to try the Tuesday lunch special: a chicken taco, a bean-and-beef burrito, Spanish rice and dessert for $6.99.
"We have a different special every day," Allred told us. "It's meatloaf on Wednesdays."
I wondered if I would have preferred the meatloaf to my Mexicali plate, though the puffy taco was tasty. The burrito was pretty skimpy on the beef and beans, and there was enough rice on my plate for three more meals. The dessert was a slice of fresh cantaloupe wrapped in foil. I shoved that aside and ate more doughnuts.
Jennifer's tenderloin sandwich, served on a hoagie roll, was impressively large but imperfect. "It's crunchy in some spots and soft and greasy in others," she said after a few bites.
Maybe Curtis, who was helping her that day — "He's really a mad scientist," Allred explained — can tinker with that dish.
A couple of men walked in the front door and looked around the room. "Do we order at the counter?" one of them asked.
"Just find a table and sit down," she answered, beaming. "We wait on you here, like real people."