Tag Archives: Topeka

Fusion food in my ‘hood

We’ve experienced great kindness from our fellow Wichitans since moving here earlier this year.

On my second week of living here, in full exploration mode, we popped in to an Indian grocery that happens to be less than a mile from our current home.

The India Emporium sits in a non-descript white cube of a building, next to a Korean BBQ joint (I know! In Wichita!) and across the parking lot of a tire shop. A small green-and-gold sign along the top of the building  was one of the few clues that tipped us off to what might be inside.

We had just a few minutes before closing, but browsed the aisles of spices, stacks of bagged long-grain rice, racks of bottled drinks and parcels of snacks and candy. We found an incredibly affordable jar of tahini, replenishing our supply. We’d discarded the rest of our ancient tahini stash when we moved, and thoughts of hummus danced in our head.

They didn’t dance for long. The kind and bespectacled proprietor sized us up in a matter of seconds. “You like hummus? I’ll bring you some of mine.” After ducking into the back, he brought us each a spoonful of the creamy, garlicky concoction. I completely forgot that I was standing very close to a large display of saris and other traditional Indian attire.

He urged us to come back for lunch sometime, gesturing to a small menu on the counter. We thanked him, paid for our jar, and left, intending to return soon to eat more of the creamy chickpeas.

Fast forward three months. Last week, after a handful of meetings, I found myself in that state of being that can only really be described as “hangry.” The trip to the grocery store would come later that evening; the last CSA box was but a distant memory. I remembered the lunch invitation and headed over.

The luncheon menu is Mediterranean, not Indian; there’s schwarma as opposed to saag paneer; falafel instead of dal. I’ve had both the beef and chicken schwarma (because I might have gone back a second time already.) They defy classification: thinly sliced meat, hummus, tomatoes and a wonderfully spicy cilantro sauce are all wrapped up in what I believe is a tortilla, then are grilled on a panini press into a slightly flat, burrito-shaped wrap.

Beef schwarma with fattoush salad. It's a keeper.

Beef schwarma with fattoush salad. It’s a keeper.

I can’t completely bend my brain around this; all I know is that it’s delicious, and it comes with a generous helping of fattoush (or Greek, if you’d prefer) salad to boot.

Some of my favorite colleagues loved the Indian buffet  down the street from my old office in Topeka, and a good plate of that amazing Indian turnip dish is hard to beat at lunchtime. I might have been a little bummed when I realized I was getting into something completely different than the food to which I’d become accustomed.

But I came up with a solid compromise: mango ice cream, fetched from the frosty cooler near the cash register and pried from the tub with flat wooden planks. A fitting end to any meal.

Five Good Things About Topeka: Porubsky’s

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.

Perfect chili weather. Photo from http://www.transcendentdeli.org

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.

Chili and Porubsky Pickles. And plenty of hot sauce.

Chili and Porubsky Pickles. And plenty of hot sauce.

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.

Bruce and I on my last visit. Photo credit: Ann Williamson

Bruce and I on my last visit. Photo credit: Ann Williamson

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.

Five Good Things About Topeka: Coffee shops that serve great beer

In the last year, two coffee shops in Topeka have really upped their game when it comes to coffee and beer.

It’s not completely unusual to find a coffee shop that also serves spirits — the Bourgeois Pig in Lawrence has been doing it since before I was in college. But it’s a taller order in the rest of the state.

Blackbird Coffee is modest, unassuming, and easily overlooked. Like many other businesses in Topeka, it’s wedged in a strip mall — almost hidden between a pharmacy, a frame shop and an UPS Store. There’s a tiny front porch with tables and a bowl filled with water for Mali and other dogs whose owners have good taste in drinks.

Earlier this year, some good friends invited us to several fantastic events showcasing semi-obscure Belgian beers. Each beer came with a commemorative glass. My favorite beer was the Cuvee des Jacobins Rouge, a lip-puckering Flemish sour ale. My favorite glass accompanied the Kwak – a beer so named for the sound it made leaving the oddly shaped glass designed to fit in a wooden holster specially installed in coaches. (I can’t make this up.)

The glasses came with their own wooden stand. Neat for novelty's sake, if nothing else.

The glasses came with their own wooden stand. Neat for novelty’s sake, if nothing else.

The other coffee shop/craft beer joint in Topeka is the Flying Monkey/PT’s Coffee. It’s a little more than a year old, and landed just in time for Topeka to catch the pour-over coffee craze. (And, PT’s Coffee is probably one of the absolute premier coffee roasters in the U.S. Who knew?) The space is modern, with polished cement floors, industrial metal appointments and warm wooden chairs and tables, all which nearly disappear in the bright sunlight that floods the room during the day. They too have a patio that looks out on to scenic 17th avenue, and Washburn University. (And yes, you may lift your dog over the fence if you like.)

They have a few taps and mostly serve local Kansas beer, but frequently have an excellent IPA or Imperial Stout on tap from the West Coast as well. I love that they serve Black Knight Apple Cider from Renaissance Winery in St. Marys. It’s quite sweet and very strong.

But the coffee at the Monkey is probably the best in Kansas, if not the Midwest. Aside from the pour-over bar, they serve hard-to-find coffee drinks (including a mean flat white) and affogato that combines creamy local vanilla ice cream with PT’s dark-brown espresso. Their food is great too.


Affogato on left, flat white on right. Hipster wooden table below.

We know of a few neat coffee shops in Wichita, but we’ll miss the vibe of these two places. Any suggestions for new places to try? Bonus points awarded for places where we can bring the dog.

Five Good Things About Topeka: Topeka-Shawnee County Public Library

During the next two weeks or so, I’ll feature some of the things I liked best about living in Topeka. Here’s the first in the series. Enjoy!


When Chris moved to Topeka, one of the stops on our inaugural tour around town was the library. We saw the art gallery, the coffee shop, and the excellent bookstore.

I visited three times before I ever saw the stacks.

Topeka-Shawnee County Public Library. Photo from http://www.michaelgraves.com.

The library, designed by Michael Graves, has pretty much everything you’d think it should have — a nice selection of books, including cookbooks and knitting project books (not that I ever finished anything before the book was due back, but still.) They have great movies and CD’s, and, when we first moved to town, they’d send them to you in the mail, free of charge. We determined it was our own free Netflix and took advantage of the service as often as we could.

But there are other great things, too. We saw the quirky French flick “8 Femmes” during one of their regularly scheduled international movie nights. We attended a thoughtful presentation on the Jayhawk Theatre, the State Theater of Kansas, which is now in ruins, hidden behind offices in downtown Topeka. And we saw an awesome Jim Richardson show of his travel photos. It’s always great to see and think about a Kansan traveling all over the world and bringing back ideas to share with us.

The coffee shop puts out good, hot chili with black beans, and homemade cinnamon rolls that are thick and gooey with just enough icing. And the bookstore frequently has vintage Kansas books for sale.

We’ve always told visitors that they should drop in. I’m not sure if any of them believed us.

But they should have. This place is great.