Where can you see Virgil “Gus” Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 Mercury spacecraft, touch a Redstone Nuclear Warhead and fill up on a charcoal grilled Cowboy cut bone-in rib eye steak? The answer is Hutchinson, Kansas. The “Salt City” and Wichita’s little brother is home of the Hutchinson Municipal Airport, the Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Museum, the Underground Salt Museum and the Airport Steakhouse.
Landing at the bustling Hutchinson Municipal Airport (KHUT) is convenient and relatively easy. KHUT is a towered airfield with three runways (including two crosswind runways), a plethora of precision and non-precision instrument approaches and a centralized location just three miles from downtown. After touchdown, taxi over to Wells Aircraft (the FBO), refuel and grab one of their courtesy cars ($10). Hutchinson Muni is the perfect launching point to an aviation filled excursion into the history of the worldwide space program.
Many have wondered why there is a space museum, with a collection second only to the Smithsonian, in the heart of the Midwest. The Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Museum acquired a bulk of their collection in the 1970s when the Smithsonian decided to clean house. The Cosmosphere is a bit of an enigma. Perhaps with a nod to Midwestern sensibility, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Interspersed among the replica German V1 rockets, Sputnik satellites and original Apollo 13 capsule is the "moon diaper / fecal management subsystem" exhibit and a shrine to Laika the dog - the first animal in space. Its vast and diverse collection is defiantly worth the $18 entry fee ($16 for senior over 60 and children 4-12.)
Reliving the Soviet and US space race will make any aviator or aviatrix hungry. On the west side of the airport, near transient parking, is The Airport Steakhouse. The tail section of a yellow Piper Cub sticking out of the wall above the entrance makes sure you know that this is an airport restaurant. However, this place is not your grandfather’s airport diner. As the name suggests, this local institution is all about meat. Owner Kevin Bowen has been tossing Cobb salads and charcoal grilling corn-fed, Midwestern choice beef for over 20 years. Nighttime dinner service is augmented by weekday breakfast, a business person’s friendly lunch buffet and a lavish Sunday brunch.
The Airport Steakhouse offers what New York Chef David Walzog calls “utter predictability” chophouse fare. A standard, uncreative menu does hold flavorful surprises. In the how can fried foods be bad category, the large, crispy Fried Onion Rings ($4.99 & $6.59) lived up to their hype. These jumbo rings are crisp, tender, a tad bit acidic and slightly sweet without being greasy. The Buffalo Wings ($6.59) however fell short of their Airport Steakhouse Favorite designation. Fried wings are all about the sauce but this version tasted flat, uninspiring and canned. I expected more. By far the champ in the Fly Bys (Appetizer) section is the baked Stuffed Mushrooms ($7.99). The large mushroom caps are overflowing with crab, shrimp and mozzarella cheese and tasted as decadent as they looked.
Inconsistency continues to be the norm with the rest of the menu. When aged and cooked correctly, corn-fed meat has a marbling that results in a juicy and tender mouth feel. The majority of the Airport Steakhouse‘s various cuts pass the tender test but fail the flavor category. The Filet ($15.99 & $19.99), K.C. Strip ($17.99) and Sirloin ($14.99 & $16.99) steaks all were passable but flabby tasting with no richness or finesse. The charcoal flavor did not come through and the meat didn’t stir any primal hunter instincts. All the offerings come with a soup or salad and a choice of potato. Similar to the national steakhouse chains like Morton’s and Ruth Chris, you basically get a plate with steak and a potato. That isn’t a complaint but rather a warning. Be prepared for a nickel and dime experience if you need to get your daily vegetable requirements.