Five Good Things About Topeka: Hidden culinary gems

Chris has a theory about Topeka: it’s the “indie Lawrence.”

Chris, theorizing about Topeka, circa 2005.

Chris, theorizing about Topeka, circa 2005.

Lawrence, and to a certain extent, Manhattan, doesn’t need to work at being cool. The influx of tens of thousands of young people alone mean there will be interesting shops, bars and places to eat. And they’re all grouped together for convenience, making it easy to spend a day or night on Mass or in Aggieville without wanting for much more. But in Topeka, you have to work harder at finding the cool. We’ve managed to locate a few of those places. The Row House is arguably Topeka’s finest restaurant, hidden in a block of row houses near the Statehouse. It’s almost like a speakeasy. There’s no sign out front; the hours of operation are unusual and you have to know to get a reservation first. But the food is fantastic — the menu changes each week to take advantage of what’s seasonal and available locally. I once tasted a rustic pear tart (with pears from a friend’s generous backyard orchard) that was composed perfectly, with a flaky crust and sweet pears in the middle.

Half carne asada, half carnitas. Cold grilled onions and jalapenos on top. Delicious all the way around.

Half carne asada, half carnitas. Cold grilled onions and jalapenos on top. Delicious all the way around.

But on the other end of the spectrum… there’s no shortage of authentic Mexican food in Topeka. My favorite joint is one upon which I stumbled one day looking for tortillas. Carneceria Camecuaro is a bright-orange metal building just east of downtown Topeka at 6th and Branner Trafficway. One-quarter of the store is a small Mexican grocery, bins heaving with chayote, peppers, limes and cactus. The remainder is devoted to tiny two-person tables, fresh meat cases and a large flat-top grill. There’s no menu – tacos and quesadillas are your choices. The quesadilla is amazing – a thick, crispy tortilla surrounds a pound of meat, such as shaved carne asada or carnitas, with a secret white cheese. (Hint: think pizza.) And then! There’s a buffet of toppings — everything from grilled whole jalapenos to radishes to that wonderful taquiera salsa made with avocados and tomatillos.

Other places of note:

  • Cafe’ Holliday, 12th and Western — homemade Mexican specials and great sandwiches. Try the posole. And if you haven’t been there in a while – they take cards now!
  • Bradley’s Corner Cafe’, NoTo — The meatloaf, open-faced hot beef sandwich and pie are not to be missed.
  • The Pad, Topeka Boulevard and Broad Street, North Topeka — best pork tenderloin in town. Their homemade vegetable beef soup is amazing as well.
  • Lonnie Q’s, Deer Valley and SE 21st — Lonnie used to have the BBQ place in the Harley-Davidson store. He moved out to a brand-new building next to the RV park in southeast Topeka a couple years ago. All of the meat is good – but you should really make sure to get the cheesy taters.
  • Pizza Parlor, Oakland — Two words: Little Bobby. The house pizza has about four inches of meat on top. Grab a pitcher while you’re there.

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