By Ken and Angie Locke
We left our neighborhood in west Wichita Saturday morning looking for the freedom of the open road, the comfort of a small town, and the discovery of excellent food. When Ang and I have a free morning, we like to pile into the car, get out of the urban area and find a place to recharge, meet new people, try new foods. It’s kind of like hunting shells on the beach, only in the middle of the prairie.
Because I know how to use Google, I knew there were a few chain restaurants in Clearwater, but only one place that looked like a truly local cafe. That’s what we headed for, without knowing the actual name or address, but trusting we’d find our way. As it turns out, a person can pretty much see most of the town in about 15 minutes. Right next to the library, in which we bought a total of 14 books and one VHS tape, we found ample satisfaction for our growling stomachs.
We struck gold in Big John’s Pizza and Sandwich Shop. The owner isn’t Big John, but a laidback, talkative guy named Bill Kenny. Big John is John Wayne, which becomes obvious upon entering the shop at 117 E. Ross (call them at 620-584-4141; to-go orders are welcome). There is a mural, on one entire wall, of John Wayne running horses and cattle, painted by S. Livingston in 1983. Bill says he heard this is the largest John Wayne mural in North America. (And, honestly, what other continent would have a John Wayne mural at all?)
The restaurant is spotless, newly painted in muted reds and browns, and has a comfortable, slow-river kind of feel to it. So we moseyed up to the counter, said hi, checked out the menu, and asked what the best stuff was. Our choices ranged from sandwiches, pizza, buffalo wings, soups, or the salad bar with fresh mixed greens and lettuce, fresh fruits, regular and low-fat dressings. Bill recommended the ham and cheese, with chipotle mayo and a pretzel bun. We also had to try ‘The Duke’, which, as you might guess, had everything on it. Amazing – both sandwiches – simply amazing. Our son got a medium pepperoni pizza, which we both tried, and tried to confiscate, but he was too quick for us, and had enough left over to take home for supper.
The salty tang of the homemade vegetable beef soup sent my taste buds on a trip down memory lane to nostalgia drive, where my great-grandma used to make vegetable beef soup this good. The tortilla soup we tried drove us south of the border, back down the Chisholm trail that made Clearwater famous in the first place. I don’t claim to have appreciated the soups back when I was a kid, but now, well, that’s good stuff.
Bill Kenny just took over ownership of the Shop in mid-November, and has big plans for it. He is planning a theme night almost every day – Taco Tuesday, Enchilada Thursday, Fajita Friday, a fried chicken and chicken fried steak day are all in the works. An Open Mike Night also is on his list of things to set up for one or both weekend nights. His biggest priority is customer service, followed closely by cleanliness and quickly-bused tables. He took time to visit with each party in his shop over the lunch hour, in between trips to the kitchen to cook, prepare, and serve food. His two assistants were awesome and expertly prepared all the orders we saw go in and out.
This is exactly the kind of trip we were looking for - 12 ½ miles from home, a nice country drive, friendly people, good food and conversation set the perfect tone for the latter half of our Thanksgiving weekend. May we heartily recommend a trip to Big John’s, with a library book-sale chaser thrown in for good measure.