Pretty much everyone loves this place, there are accolades all over the web, extolling the virtues of its ambience, uniqueness and mostly its hamburgers. Without question, the Flea Market is one of Kansas City’s most interesting lunch spots, and well worth a visit for those who have not been there. It’s also a decent place for happy hour, dinner and late nite carousing.
But it’s not perfect, people.
For first-timers, the following is an important aspect of the dining experience to be aware of. While the tables have menus on them and there are plenty of waitresses about, food must be ordered from the register at the end of the bar. Unless you happen to arrive at a slow time, you’ll see the line. You pay for your food at the register, and pick it up from a window when they call your name over the annoying loudspeaker. Waitresses operate only to serve drinks, and these must be paid for in cash on the spot, like any self-respecting bar. The beer selection in excellent, and they offer upwards of 20 on tap if I’m not mistaken. It is basically a bar that allows an external vendor to sell its wares within the confines. In fact, I think that is exactly the situation. The wait for food can be lengthy but not unreasonable for a lunch spot. The menu (pdf) has lots of stuff to offer, but it’s the burgers that are their bread and butter.
Anyone who says the flea market offers the “best burger ever” is just fooling himself, and probably doesn’t get out of town a whole hell of a lot.
Let’s talk burgers for a moment. Burgers are about the whole package–the glorious assemblage of perfect meat, bun, toppings and condiments. There is also the very important notion of how it is cooked. Burgers can be grilled, fried, steamed, barbequed, oven-roasted, submerged in boiling oil, poached, oven-roasted and baked. Well, maybe not poached, that’s gross. Anyhow, this is just to say that even the simplest of foods carries a lot of complicated decisions about ingredients and preparation. Anyone who watches the goddamn food network with any regularity knows that, in order to create the “perfect” anything, you need to consider every last detail. And in the end, the overly perky host always chalks it up to something hokey like “heart,” “love,” or the ubiquitous “it’s in his blood.”
While the burgers at WFM are excellent and I crave them periodically, they lack the complete package. The meat is excellent, freshly ground from McGonigles and has a texture and a flavor that is hard to parallel. But condiments and toppings are a do it yourself affair; the Flea Market has a fixins bar with the usual assortment of toppings: tomatoes, lettuce, onions, pickles, etc. But the bar pretty much sucks in terms of quality. It features shredded iceberg lettuce (ever try keeping that on a bun?), and the lamest pale, thin-cut tomato slices ever. The whole bar is vaguely unappetizing, with the contents of the tomato container veritably disintegrating into a mass of disjointed, flaccid flesh. Thick cut, yellow onion slices don’t really do it for me either. I usually just get some pickles and make my way back to the table. Likewise the bun is unremarkable, slightly undersized and doesn;t seem up to the task of delivering this wonderful meat slab into your mouth.
The ‘flea market burger’ is quite large, and difficult to finish even for someone of my appetite and ever-increasing girth. I typically go with the mini-burger and some onion rings. The rings are excellent, not overly breaded, very crispy and taste like they didn;t come frozen out of a brown paper bag. The curly fries are what they are. Kind of boring, but with all the hallmarks of being homemade. Definitely try the deep fried pickles–the best I’ve had.
Oh, did I mention that there is a flea market? yeah, and quite a sizable one at that. I don’t know the history of the place, but it definitely is incredibly original as a concept. It’s neat to have a few beers and a burger, then walk around the stalls looking at old stuff for a while. Also a great way to kill time while yer food is cooking. Like most flea markets, the booths are slightly overpriced, and the proprietors seem lacking in most social graces, but it’s fun nonetheless.
A few years ago, the Westport Flea Market was in danger of going away, subsumed by the onslaught of westport gentrification. But apparently some kind gent bought the place and pledged to keep it going in the same vein as before. By all accounts, this effort has been successful. So even if the burger isn’t perfect, it’s still damn good and worthy of your discerning little mouths.