Dining A La King: Kansas City barbecue goes beyond the history and hype
It’s a dangerous thing to long for something for years.
To revere a place before you’ve even visited because of how it marries smoke, meat and spice makes it risky to actually drive to Kansas City, go to a barbecue joint and belly up to the table.
I talked about visiting for years. I heard about Kansas City barbecue from friends (and on at least one occasion, one of them brought some back for me to eat in northern Indiana). But recently, I finally got the chance to go there and taste it for myself.
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Would it live up to the hype? More importantly, would it live up to my own expectations and hopes?
Kansas City is one of two cities where preparing and serving smoked meat is legendary. Memphis, Tenn. is the other. Texas and North Carolina have their own famous barbecue styles, too.
“The interesting thing about Kansas City barbecue is it’s very eclectic,” he said.
What he means is that it pulls influence from other regions and serves them, deliciously, in a variety of ways.
“In Kansas City, interestingly, we have the ribs, we have the brisket, we have the sausage. We have the chicken, turkey and pulled pork,” he said. “We didn’t invent barbecue. We perfected it, as far as I’m concerned.”
He doesn’t just do marketing for one of the top four most famous barbecue restaurants in the city. He’s also written a book about Kansas City barbecue history and has a novel on the subject called “Thin Blue Smoke.” It’s a pretty amazing novel that is full of barbecue and great characters set in the city he loves.
“We didn’t invent barbecue. We perfected it, as far as I’m concerned.”
Kansas City’s barbecue sauce style blends tomato and vinegar. The burnt ends have become a hallmark of the barbecue here and, like most things, have a story behind them.
Sixty or 70 years ago, people standing at the barbecue counter of a place like Arthur Bryant’s would reach in and grab the crunchy pieces left from the ends of a brisket, Worgul said. Writer Calvin Trillin, who once called Bryant’s the world’s best restaurant, made burnt ends famous and created a challenge.
By lauding something that was essentially a waste product, he forced barbecue makers to find another way to produce them. As the price of brisket has gone up and as Kansas City barbecue has become more famous, burnt ends are often neither burnt nor ends. I wonder what Trillin would say about that.
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The burnt ends I got at Bryant’s weren’t very crunchy or smoky, but they were good doused in classic sauce and served atop white bread the way the place has been doing for years. Arthur Bryant’s, which started in the early 1920s, continues to serve outstanding barbecue. When presidents visit Kansas City, they often stop here and the photos on the wall prove it.
Is it the best restaurant in the world? Nope. Sorry, Mr. Trillin. But it’s still open and still serving barbecue with a dose of history. I’ll treasure the smoked turkey sandwich I had there and want another one, but I’m not ready to call it the best in the world.
Fifteen years ago when Worgul wrote his history book, he said there were 120 barbecue restaurants in Kansas City. Now there are 80 or 90. They come and go.
Joe’s Kansas City Barbecue, which originally opened in Stillwater, Okla. as Oklahoma Joe’s, came to be after owners Jeff and Joy Stehney competed in a barbecue contest and decided to open their own place. It’s an origin story they share with plenty of other KC barbecue joints these days.
The first Kansas City Joe’s opened in a gas station in 1996 at 47th Avenue and Mission Road. It got popular, then famous. The Stehneys changed the name when it left its Oklahoma roots behind to became a Kansas City staple.
Now, there are two other locations in Kansas and Joe’s keeps evolving, Worgul said. They keep working on making the product the best it can be.
Like many Kansas City barbecue places, the newspaper and magazine stories on the wall laud it one way or another, though the one that caught my eye was a 2009 “Men’s Health” story by Anthony Bourdain that included Joe’s as one of “13 places to eat before you die.”
The ribs are tender, smoky and have the right amount of spice. They don’t need the sauce, though the sauce is great. The burnt ends are smoky and crispy because of how Joe’s makes them. The onion rings, french fries and sweet tea all work.
What’s remarkable about eating at Joe’s is how happy, how willing, people are to wait in line for a long time before ordering at a counter, picking up their food and then finding a seat in a crowded dining room.
The staff is upbeat, too, and managed to somehow keep smiling while a couple ordered $220 worth of barbecue on the spot rather than calling ahead like they should have. Those of us in line didn’t have to smile, but remarking on it together led to camaraderie that resulted in strangers sharing food.
The risk of writing about a weekend visit that included barbecue from just three places is how likely it is to be wrong.
But after eating at Arthur Bryant’s and Joe’s, after getting carry-out from Jack’s Stacks, here’s what I know:
Kansas City has some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had. Though I’d rank Joe’s way ahead of Bryant’s and Jack’s Stack’s, all of them were simply great. In a few bites, I found out that Kansas City barbecue isn’t a myth. It isn’t overhyped. It is for real. It’s a regional specialty that leaves its mark on the memory.
If you can go to Kansas City, find your way to a barbecue counter. And in the meantime, read “Thin Blue Smoke.”