Sometimes, on days when the drive home takes a really long time and the road rage of fellow drivers is especially savage, and Baltimore seems so … Baltimore, I think about moving back to the midwest. At times like this, my husband and I casually entertain crazy ideas like moving to such a place as, say, Kansas City.
Kansas City? Sure. I’m as surprised as you are, of course. I spent a summer there at a law firm while in law school, back in 1992, and I hated it. No, no – that’s too strong a term. I just didn’t consider it at the time. After a couple of weeks in town dealing with my weird housemate, a senior associate at my firm who arose at 4:00 every morning to set her hair in rollers, sit under a giant Oster hairdryer embellished with a Don’t Mess With Texas bumper sticker, and paint herself a fresh manicure while giving me the evil eye from under a pair of great big false eyelashes, I decided I didn’t want anything to do with Kansas City and started spending weekends driving back to Minneapolis. Not all weekends, though. And I spent my fair share of afternoons at Royals games sitting on the first base side, and nights at The Levee in Westport, drinking cold Boulevards outside and trying to avoid a guy the summer associates of Kansas City had derisively named Eggs Benedict. Looking back, I guess it was more fun than it seemed at the time, but in ’92, it struck me as a lot of heat and humidity in a cowtown under the crabby watch of Miss Texas Big Hair.
So it came as something of a surprise when, last November, I traveled to Kansas City for business and discovered a lot to like about the city. I had learned a few things in my nearly twenty years’ absence – first, that a number of very fine restaurants like Bluestem and Julian had opened in Kansas City; and second, that I had overlooked nearly all of the city’s many strong points during my summer.
Town Topic, for example. I didn’t know about this place when I lived in Kansas City, which is surprising considering how late it stays open and how much beer we customarily drank. Back then, the firm’s attorneys shuttled out of town summer associates between Gates’ BBQ and Arthur Bryant’s – neither of which is all that awesome, especially once you’ve had, say, Oklahoma Joe’s – with occasional detours to the mediocre and now defunct Kansas City Athletic Club, or Jess and Jim’s for steak. Strictly tourist material, in other words, and hardly compelling. Last fall, though, I drove past Town Topic every day for almost a week and had to resist the urge to make a u-turn with my staff in the car each time. It just looked right.
My final day in town, on the way to the airport, I made a last-minute decision – I was going to get a burger at Town Topic for the plane ride home. One thing led to another, and after a quick phone call to my husband, one burger became a sack of double cheeseburgers and a couple of orders of fries. Those burgers made the flight home, but just barely – I almost ate them all on the flight. As it stood, I did eat all the thin and crispy fries – those don’t travel, see, so I had no choice. Town Topic probably makes the best burgers of their kind I’ve ever eaten – the so-called “slider,” covered with caramelized onions and tangy garlic dills, held together with plenty of melted American cheese.
We talk about those little burgers kind of a lot. Once in a while, we make them at home. I try to remember the guy working the flattop at Town Topic, tossing on those small lumps of ground beef, smashing them flat, steaming the buns on top, pushing the onions back and forth across the flavorsome surface. We eat them while I tell Nat about the way the Nelson-Atkins sculpture garden looked in the fall, and the sweetbreads on Colby Garrelts’s menu at Bluestem, and the ruined empty Art Deco downtown of Kansas City, Kansas, and the Latino neighborhood out on Southwest Boulevard I don’t remember from my summer, and the endless wheat fields off to the west of town.
ps. Town Topic has pie.
Sliders, Town Topic-style
Grind your own beef. Seriously. We’ve been through the reasons why before -at best, the store-bought stuff is too finely ground and a little paste-like; at worst, it’s bits and scraps processed with things like ammonia. Grinding beef takes minutes and gives you quality control.
To really do it right, make your own dill pickles and slice them up for the sliders. This obviously requires a certain amount of planning, so just make the pickles for their own sake and not specifically for this dish, and just have them around. If you buy pickles to garnish your sliders, just make sure they’re the dill kind kind, not the sweet kind – sweet pickles will make this sandwich cloying and gross, given the sweetish white bun, the cheese, the ketchup, and the fried onion.
Serves about six, maybe four.
18 oz chuck, sirloin tip, or another well-exercised and slightly fatty cut of beef, ground as described here
12 slider buns (soft white or potato), split
one large yellow onion, peeled and sliced pole-to-pole
12 slices American cheese
2 dill pickles, sliced thinly (1/4″)
Divide the ground beef into 12 1.5 ounce lumps/balls, not too tightly packed. Set aside.
Heat a flattop or plancha, or a cast iron pan. When hot, place a knob of butter in the pan and add the onions. Season lightly with salt and fry, tossing from time to time, until golden brown. Set aside (you can slide them to a cool section of the flattop or remove to a container off the heat).
Add a little extra butter or vegetable oil to the flattop or pan and distribute evenly to grease. Add the beef about 4 inches apart and smash flat with a spatula. Season with salt.
When browned on the bottom side, flip over and add the onions. Place the buns, one atop the other, over the onion-topped burgers to steam slightly.
Remove the buns to serving plates. Place a slice of cheese on each burger and melt.
Place on buns and garnish with sliced house-made or other dill pickles. Serve two or three to a person with lots of ketchup and mustard.