Dozens of great mysteries have gone unsolved through the centuries. I mean, was there really an ancient continent called Atlantis? Was the boy pharaoh King Tut murdered? Who was the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”? Whatever happened to Jimmy Hoffa?
And why in the hell are people waiting in line — sometimes for hours — to eat at Wyandotte County’s new Cheeseburger in Paradise? It’s a serious mystery to me, because I wasn’t able to actually eat in the place until my third visit out there. The first two times I tried to get in, there were so many customers crammed into the tiny “lobby” that I assumed maybe the restaurant’s famous investor, Jimmy Buffett, was actually in the building. But no, the King of the Parrotheads hasn’t visited this restaurant once. The crowds were just standing there, waiting for a table.
I’m telling you, it would be easier to get a cheeseburger in Atlantis than in Kansas City, Kansas. The first time I traveled to the Legends Shopping Center, I arrived at 5:30 p.m., only to hear that there was a 90-minute wait for a table. The restaurant had opened, by the way, at 4 p.m. I was too hungry to wait an hour and a half for a friggin’ burger, so I went across the street for a steak.
The second time, I arrived at 4:30 p.m. “I’m sorry,” said the perky hostess. “There’s already an hour wait.”
An hour? I looked at all the paunchy, middle-aged men and their wives squeezed into the holding pen. “What’s in those cheeseburgers, anyway?” I asked the hostess. “Viagra?”
I didn’t stick around that night, either, but I had learned my lesson. A few days later, my friend Bob and I raced off right after work and parked in the Cheeseburger in Paradise lot at 4:11. The restaurant had been open for exactly 11 minutes and was already half-full. When the hostess finally ushered us through the dining room, I felt like I had won the lottery. Oh my god, I thought, I’m actually going to eat … in Paradise!
All kidding aside, my personal concept of paradise would not be located in Wyandotte County or involve laminated tabletops, a guitarist singing old Dylan songs (badly) and “tiki-style” décor. But Bob — an adult who still finds Walt Disney World an alluring vacation spot — was entranced from the minute the adorable blond waitress bounced over to our table and announced, “I’m your Islander!”
“I love this place,” he whispered to me. “It’s fun.”
At that moment, an old Michael Jackson song trilled overhead, and our Islander pointed out the thick-bound “Bar Log” on the table, each page packed with dozens of specialty drinks. That it was three times the size of the food menu concerned me. “Do more people come here to eat or drink?” I asked the young woman. “Oh, definitely to eat,” she said, grinning. “Especially cheeseburgers.”
I looked around to see what patrons at the adjoining tables were eating. There wasn’t a salad or a steak to be seen; it was as if everyone had been too afraid to order anything but cheeseburgers and fries. Was it a Pavlovian kind of response, I wondered? I mean, if the restaurant’s name has the word cheeseburger in it, did customers feel obligated to order one? “Yes,” one of the managers later confirmed. “We have a lot of great dishes on the menu, but we sell more cheeseburgers than anything.”
That’s one of the great mysteries about this restaurant because,for the most part, the other dishes on the menu are better than the cheeseburgers, as I was soon to discover.
Before I, too, succumbed to the cheeseburger’s siren song, I enjoyed the crustacean combo in the Gulf-to-Bay Platter, which was piled with crunchy fried “popcorn” shrimp, a mound of the pink peel-and-eat variety, a jumble of crispy sweet-potato chips, and a quartet of deliciously doughy shrimp fritters with bits of red and green pepper. It was slightly better than a comparable dish at Red Lobster, I figured — good enough that we left the plate empty.
It was completely up-staged by the Starboard Side Salad I ordered to go with the restaurant’s signature Cheeseburger in Paradise. Served in a chilled bowl, this crisp collage of iceberg, romaine hearts and mixed greens was tossed with little curls of cucumber, bits of fried wonton, crumbles of blue cheese and a fresh-tasting balsamic vinaigrette. Baby, this was a salad worth singing about. Somehow, though, I felt less lyrical about the cheeseburger, though it was a juicy patty of beef, perfectly grilled and draped with both cheddar and American cheeses as well as the standard lettuce, tomato and ketchup — just like in Buffett’s 1978 song. And the bun got too mushy to hold it all together.
Bob ordered the plate of six mini-cheeseburgers, which were cute to look at but equally tiny in the taste department. The problem with most restaurant’s miniature cheeseburgers, I’ve decided, is that you really want them to taste like White Castles, but they never do.
A few days later, I returned on a Saturday with Bob, Lou Jane and Carol. The joint opened at noon; we hit the parking lot at 12:10 p.m. and dashed through the front door. Surprise! There was already a 30-minute wait. We took a pager and stood there as a dozen more customers stacked up behind us, forming a line out the front door. “This is obscene!” Lou Jane muttered. “It’s just a burger joint!”
But once we snagged a table and began munching on shrimp fritters, grilled beef and chicken satay skewers, even Lou Jane realized that Jimmy’s joint isn’t just a celebrity burger bar. It has some decent Caribbean-influenced fare, too. She thought the shrimp fritters were too gluey and doughy, but we all marveled over a rack of succulent, meaty, jerk-rubbed pork ribs. In fact, I wished I had chosen ribs instead of this restaurant’s pressed and toasted Cuban sandwich, which had all the right ingredients (ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese) but needed lots more pickles and mustard.
Bob raved about his tender, seasoned skirt steak, served with a chimichurri sauce that was heady with herbs, garlic and olive oil. And Carol’s blackened tilapia, generously laden with a tart pineapple salsa, was excellent, too. “I’m surprised a restaurant like this — you know, a mainstream chain — has such good food,” she said.
Maybe that’s the secret of the place, the real reason that customers were standing in line to get in, I suggested. But we looked at the tables around us and everyone was eating … cheeseburgers.
“They don’t know any better. They’re tourists,” Lou Jane sniffed, grabbing a menu. “Let’s order dessert.”
I had done some heavy damage on a mound of fried sweet-potato chips, so I was leery of indulging in a wedge of Key lime pie or the seductive combination called Desserted Island, but my lust for sweets got the best of me. The Key lime pie was silken and smooth and just tart enough. The four of us could barely polish it off the “Island,” a warm miniature Bundt cake sidled up against a generous scoop of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream, scattered with sliced bananas and drenched in hot, dark chocolate sauce.
As we got up to leave, I finally heard a Jimmy Buffett song when “Margaritaville” started playing over the sound system. “Is Jimmy ever supposed to come here?” Bob asked the waitress.
“Well, we’re the only location he hasn’t visited yet,” she said. “So I guess he will at some point, but they haven’t told us.”
Yet another mystery.