The first time I tried to go to Porubsky’s, I went to the wrong place.
Chris and I took a friend out to lunch and decided we’d try the chili-and-hot-pickle place about which we had heard good things. We ended up in Oakland at Steinbock’s – a small family grocery store, with a deli and hot chili. It was very good, but we eventually surmised that it wasn’t our intended destination.
We finally got things straightened out. We inquired around and got better directions: go to North Topeka, head east on the Sardou Bridge – and then take a left in the middle of the bridge to get to Little Russia.
As soon as I stepped inside, I knew that we needed to get better acquainted.
The red-and-white-painted building is divided in half. The west half is a grocery store, specializing in crackers, cake mixes, and one of the best, most local deli counters I’ve seen in Kansas. The east half is a long, narrow dining room with a handful of booths, three long tables and stools at the bar. Old-school beer paraphernalia covers the wood-paneled walls, sharing space with signed photos of Kansas dignitaries.
The menu is simple: cold-cut sandwiches from the deli, on your choice of bread. Can’t decide? Order a cold plate. For about $3.50, you’l get a try of assorted meat, cheese and bread slices, with thin slices of dill pickles and the blazing-hot Porubsky Pickles. The pickles could have an entire blog entry to themselves. They’re whole kosher dills, sliced and doctored with horseradish to create a mind-blowing wave of heat felt primarily throughout your sinuses. Grab a napkin or two — I’ve seen grown men with tears in their eyes immediately upon consuming said pickles.
They’re best known for their chili, made by Charlie Porubsky on a four-burner stove behind the deli counter. It’s a simple recipe of meat, beans and spices — no tomatoes to be found here. They make their ham salad (or “pig salad,” as I once heard a customer order) there, too. My all-time favorite thing to get, though, is the hot pimento cheese sandwich. Charlie adds paper-thin habenero slices to homemade pimento cheese, with thick shreds of cheddar cheese. It’s creamy, spicy, and awesome on top of rye bread.
My friend Ann and I decided five years ago that we’d start going there regularly and arranged our schedules to fully maximize chili season (Monday through Thursday, September to May.) We got to know Bruce, who works the dining room during the week, and his wife, Becky. Our chili order — hers with a slice of cheese on top, mine without — was immortalized in Matthew Porubsky’s outstanding documentary, Porubsky’s Transcendent Deli.
We’re now at the point where Bruce and Becky know our order, down to the details. No ice for me. A plate of Porubsky Pickles. A pimento cheese sandwich for us to share — half hot, half not.
I’ll miss this place. I’ll miss Bruce’s gravelly voice asking “what are you girls up to?” I’ll miss the diverse crowd of people who make the trek to this tiny neighborhood — elected officials, railroad workers, farmers and hipsters.
But mostly I’ll miss that happy sensation of being a regular. I’m excited about the opportunity to find a new local place. Yet every Monday, for years to come, I predict I’ll still experience a sincere craving for a hot bowl of chili and a warm feeling inside.