Savor the Sunflower State: What to Eat in Kansas

Dig into the most-iconic dishes of Kansas, including ribs, wings, chicken-fried steak and more.

Barbecue and Beyond

Sunday dinners, potluck gatherings and farmhouse meals feature prominently among the foods that inspire the people in this middle-of-the-U.S. state. A state wealthy in farmland and cattle ranches is sure to serve some good food. So, come “Home on the Range” with the comfort foods of Kansas.

Barbecue Ribs

Kansans like to get their fingers sticky eating well-smoked barbecue ribs. The best are found at HHB BBQ in downtown Topeka. Pit Master-Owner Ed Moege coats the baby backs in his own special rub and then transfers them to the smoker out back. Towards the end, he smothers them with the house sauce. The result is close-to-fall-apart-tender ribs with just the right amount of smoke. The ribs are available for lunch on Fridays and for dinner every weeknight. They go well with a side of cheesy potatoes or smoked mac and cheese.

Chili and Cinnamon Rolls

In Kansas, the most-iconic dish pairing is a bowl of chili with a homemade cinnamon roll. Though a seemingly unlikely combo, chili and cinnamon rolls pop up on menus throughout the state, including at public schools and local fundraising dinners. The tradition started more than 30 years ago when the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave large quantities of beans to school cafeterias, where they were turned into chili. To get the kids to eat the chili, they paired it with cinnamon rolls. Hanover Pancake House in Topeka serves both chili and cinnamon rolls. Ask for them to be served together.

Barbecue Hot Wings

Kansas is a barbecue-obsessed state, and Woodyard Bar-B-Que in Kansas City, Kansas, got its start selling wood to pit masters in search of their signature smoke flavor. The owner also opened a restaurant with a huge black smoker out front loaded with brisket, pork shoulder and ribs. Right along side those traditional Kansas meats are racks of some of the best jumbo barbecued hot wings ever created. Pit Master Mark O’Bryan covers huge wings with the restaurant’s rib rub and then marinates them in hot sauce. After time in the smoker — which is aromatically perched beside the patio seating area — the finished wings are both smoky and spicy.

Go to: Woodyard Bar-B-Que

Chicken Fried Steak

Diners abound in Kansas, and the dish of choice for those who visit should be chicken fried steak. Kansas diners, like Jimmie’s in Wichita, make some of the best chicken fried steak in the country. (Sorry, Texas!) Crispy breading keeps steak cubes tender before they’re smothered with creamy gravy. Add sides of mashed potatoes and buttery corn, with a light-as-air roll for the ultimate Blue Plate Special.

The Z-Man

Kansas is renowned for its barbecue, and when it comes to iconic spots, no place beats Joe’s Kansas City (formerly Oklahoma Joe’s) and its world-famous Z-Man sandwich. Named after a local sports-talk radio host, the sandwich consists of tender sliced smoked brisket, melted smoked provolone, two crispy onion rings and the house barbecue sauce, all packed onto a Kaiser roll. It has been credited for helping the KC Royals out of an occasional slump — or so the legend says.

Go to: Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que

Pie

At harvest time in Kansas, farmers will work into the night, flipping on their combines’ headlights to light the way. Farm wives often bring dinner to the fields, traditionally with a pie for dessert. Ladies on the farm are famous for making pie and passing along their recipes to succeeding generations. For those who find pie making a challenge, there are places like Bradley’s Corner Café in Topeka. They serve 25 different kinds of pie, both whole and by the slice. Coconut is the most-requested, topped with a traditional meringue instead of whipped cream. Those closer to Dover should head for the Summerset Hall Café for a coconut cream pie regarded as one of the best in the country.

Fried Chicken

In the heartland, comfort food is often interchangeable with fried chicken. Though most households have their secrets to home-fried perfection, area restaurants prepare some excellent birds. Many locals swear the pieces at the Brookville Hotel in Abilene can’t be beaten, while others point to Chicken Mary’s and Chicken Annie’s in Pittsburg where, decades ago, two sisters had a falling out and opened competing chicken shacks. In Leawood, just outside Kansas City, Rye KC’s James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef, Colby Garrelts, masters the balance of crunchy coating and juicy meat.

Pot Roast

All that Kansas cattle means plenty of pot roasts. Hearty enough to stave off bitter winter chills, it’s long been a local favorite. Just outside of Kansas City, at O’Neill’s Restaurant, the Irish Pot Roast is filling and flavorful. A mound of mashed potatoes is covered with tender shredded pot roast cooked with mushrooms, then topped with a cabernet sauce. The pile is surrounded with sautéed celery and carrots to make it as nostalgic and homey as possible.

Brown Bread Frozen Custard

Brown bread may seem like a strange flavor for a rich, dense frozen custard, but not in Topeka. It was a popular ice cream flavor sold by the Baughman Ice Cream Company in the 1920’s from their horse-drawn ice cream cart. It’s flavored with brown sugar and vanilla, with tiny bits of brown bread spread throughout. Today, G’s Frozen Custard and Yogurt in Topeka sells the flavor, keeping it one of the capital city’s iconic sweet treats.

Bierocks

Ask a Kansan to name the state’s iconic foods and you’ll likely hear bierock. Then, you’ll probably wonder what it is. Bierock is made with yeast dough wrapped around a filling of seasoned ground beef and sausage, shredded cabbage, and onions, then baked until puffy and golden brown. The food was brought to the state with Volga German immigrants decades ago. At Grandma Wock’s in Topeka, they make them both the traditional way and with other fillings, such as garlic chicken, Italian, Philly cheesesteak, and vegetables.

BLT

A BLT represents the best of Kansas summers. Crisp cool lettuce, a tomato warm from the garden and local bacon seasoned, smoked and then fried to its sizzling ideal. The Anchor in Wichita makes perhaps the best BLT in the state. Kansas-raised Red Wattle pork is made into applewood-smoked bacon next door at the Douglas Avenue Chop Shop. Instead of the typical lettuce, the chef uses local arugula to add a peppery bite, which also brings out the flavor of the tomato. Everything is piled onto toasted sourdough bread for a stack of summertime in a sandwich.

Steak

In a state where cattle outnumber people two to one, steak is king — and it’s mighty tasty. Few places prepare steak more luscious that Scotch and Sirloin in Wichita. In business since 1968, the restaurant only serves Sterling Silver Certified beef that’s aged a minimum of 30 days to guarantee tenderness. Each steak is cut in-house and seared in a 1,600-degree broiler to make sure it is juicy and delectable.

Coffee

Coffee was the beverage of choice for people traveling the west, from cowboys herding steers to settlers in covered wagons. It was so important that Fred Harvey insisted fresh pots be brewed every four hours whether needed or not in all of his iconic Harvey House restaurants, the first of which opened in Topeka in 1876. Today, flavorful fresh coffee is found at PT’s Coffee Roasting Company, which has been a fixture in Topeka for more than 20 years. Their friendly, talented baristas will help you choose which of their coffee varieties best suits your taste, or expertly pull shots of espresso for your latte, complete with a pretty milk foam design.

Go to: PT’s at College Hill

Hamburger

With so many beef cattle roaming the range, it should stand to reason that burgers are a Kansas go-to meal. The White Castle chain was even founded here in Wichita in 1921. There are enough burger joints that it’s hard to pick a top version. Topeka alone has the iconic Bobo’s Drive-In with its Steakburger, and The Pad’s jumbo cheeseburgers. However, The Burger Stand in Topeka and Lawrence (pictured) may just be the best. Bold combinations include the Black and Blue, with blue cheese and granny smith apple chutney, and the Fire, with fresh avocado and habanero-cactus jam. The Classic is topped with melted Vermont cheddar and goes well with a side of boldly seasoned fries.

Go to: Bobo's Drive In

Monster Burrito

Many Mexican immigrants have made Kansas their home, which also means there are a lot of local restaurants featuring family recipes brought to the state. In downtown Topeka, Lupita’s Monster Burrito is a perfect example. A 10-inch tortilla is packed with rice, beans and diners’ choice of meat, all made from family recipes the founding owner used when the restaurant opened more than 20 years ago. Lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and sour cream are also wrapped inside before the whole thing is topped with a queso sauce. Be sure to ask for pico de gallo on top.

Doughnuts

Kansas is a major drive-through state, with I-70 running east to west right across the middle. Maybe the many drivers passing through in search of portable, easy food can account for the large number of doughnut shops. At the Ladybird Diner in Lawrence, the baker makes doughnuts in both traditional styles, such as glazed, cinnamon and sugar, and chocolate frosted with sprinkles, and in unique flavors, such as the Fluffernutter with peanut butter and marshmallow, and the Garden Party with lemon, lavender and chamomile. Also, check out Varsity Donuts in Manhattan and Bakers Dozen in Topeka — all along I-70.

Cake

Go to any Kansas celebration, pot-luck or friendly gathering, and you’re likely to find cake. Some of the best can be had at The Kitchen in Wichita. Owner Natasha Gandhi-Rue’s husband, Scott, is a construction guy by day and a pastry chef by night, creating rich, luscious cakes that would please any sweets connoisseur. His strawberry version features a cake that is a combo genoise sponge and angel food. The strawberry mousse layer folds whipped cream and cream cheese together with both pureed and diced strawberries, and everything is topped with a vanilla bean cream cheese and whipped cream frosting.

Pork Meatballs

While beef is the meat most-associated with Kansas, the state is also home to numerous pork farms. Many of these operations are raising heritage pork breeds known for having superior taste. Then restaurants like 715 in downtown Lawrence take that pork and turn it into savory meatballs coated in a rich marinara sauce and topped with parmesan shavings. Order them as an appetizer or on top of a mound of spaghetti for your entrée.

Bread

One of Kansas’ nicknames is the Wheat State. Kansas is full of it! And locals have a long history of baking excellent bread. The aptly named Wheatfields Bakery in Lawrence brings out the best in Kansas wheat with their wide variety of bread made in a wood-fired brick oven. Local favorites include the sourdough made with a starter that began when the bakery opened more than 20 years ago. Other favorites include a traditional French baguette, multigrain loaf and Kalamata olive loaf.

Cheese

While beef cattle do graze on the prairie grass of Kansas ranches, the western part of the state also is home to large dairy farms, which have been in operation for generations. The Alma Creamery uses the milk to make exceptionally nuanced cheese. In business since 1946, the company produces a number of varieties, including very sharp Cheddar, creamy Longhorn Colby-Jack, smoky Pepper Jack and cheese curds. Visit the creamery’s retail outlet in Alma to pick up a few packages or find them in many Kansas grocery stores and specialty food shops.

Beer

A state famous for growing wheat can produce pretty superlative beers. Some of the best are located at the Free State Brewing Company in downtown Lawrence. Started in 1989 as the first legal brewery in Kansas, Free State’s flagship beers include the light and refreshing Wheat State Golden, hoppy Copperhead Pale Ale, full-bodied Ad Astra Ale, and silky Oatmeal Stout. They also brew seasonal and small-batch varieties available in their restaurant. While in Kansas, also check out the Blind Tiger Brewery in Topeka and the Tallgrass Brewing Company Tap House in Manhattan.

Chocolate

Kansas was built by immigrants who homesteaded on the prairie. Many of these people brought skills they then passed down to the next generation. Nick Xidis’ great-grandfather and grandfather came to the US from Greece and learned the chocolate trade in New York City. They shared that passion with Nick, who opened Hazel Hill Chocolates in downtown Topeka in 2005. His shop makes chocolates by hand in small batches and with the best ingredients available. Try out some of his rich truffles and fudge, or a fancy caramel apple in flavors such as cheesecake, apple pie, Oreo and Snickers.