Updated: Apr 4
Much like Cincinnati chili, you cannot honestly say you have visited Kansas City without honestly saying you have tasted Kansas City barbecue. To some, it's a religion, to others the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Paris of the Plains, and to others, it's just good eats. It's a cuisine that is quite accessible, as after sucking a baby back rib clean, you can't throw it without hitting another BBQ joint. What is Kansas City barbecue? It is typified by a wide variety of meats (pork, beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, sausage, etc.) with pulled pork, brisket, burnt ends, and beef/pork ribs being particularly prevalent. The meat is rubbed with spices, slow-smoked over a variety of woods, and served with a thick tomato-based barbecue sauce.
How do you review a barbecue restaurant? Should it be based on the sauce, the food, the ambiance, the service? I will base my review more philosophically and base it on the "experience" - everything from the first impression, the ambiance, the sauce, the meat, the sides, the price, the service, and of course . . . the refreshments. In an effort to bring efficiency to the process, I will in force rank the eight "joints" I visited - worst to first. Note: As I was born with a New Yorker's appreciation¹ for barbecue, many of the food adjectives will be courtesy of Mrs. AAR, though reflected in my tone and prose.
I'm not the first man to create such a list. If you google "Best K.C. BBQ", you will be inundated with numerous lists. If you review any one of these lists with a local, expect one of two replies, either "I can't believe that place is on the list!" or "I've never even heard of that place!". I expect my below list to be no different.
11. Gates BBQ (on Main Street): The building has a fast food, cookie-cutter look that says "hey! I know I look like I used to be an Arby's, but come in anyway for some Q!" with a large storefront of smokey windows that says "there's good BBQ inside . . . or a titty bar". Also, the outside smells like a bbq joint should, you may smell the building before you see it as there is a large stack billowing BBQ exhaust smoke, like something out of a Dickensian barbecue tale. When we entered I asked the counter person if there was a bar, and was informed "No". A coworker then said, "why yes there is, just around the corner". Now if that was that person's first week, hey, I get it, we've all been there, but if it wasn't then she needs to be fired. I sat at an extension to the bar that had us sitting on barstools at a narrow bartop looking directly into a mirror (now isn't that a pleasant sight) and stuck out like a sore thumb (it can't get more authentic than that). The bartender was quite helpful and guided me through the menu toward the Four Bone (4 Ribs, 2 Meats, & 2 Sides). All in all, solid, though points were subtracted due to the weirdness of it all.
10. Slaps BBQ: With the exception of Jack Stacks in the Crossroads (see below), this is your closest option to downtown KC. Unfortunately, the food did not match the convenience. We visited with friends from out of town, so we went with the Sampler Plate (brisket, pork, turkey, and sausage plus two sides) @$22.95. We then took Slaps up on his offer to add four Ribs and burnt ends for an additional $4.95, as we wanted our KC Q virgins to experience the full meat gamut (note: not every KC joint has turkey). All six meats were consistent . . . in their averageness (with the ribs being freakishly uniform in size), as were the sides of slaw, cheesy corn, and baked beans . . . in their below averageness. It was all consumed in a plastic tarp-enclosed patio, which may not have been a plus. Mrs. AAR commented that it all tasted like "BBQ fast food". They do have draft beer, though it is served in a plastic cup (a push).
9. Arthur Bryant's Barbecue: You could tell this was going to be a "real" experience as soon as I walked in the door and almost slipped on the greasy floor* while reviewing the photos on the walls of President Obama (who partook in 2014). Inside and out this place looked like a time machine to V-E day. I like authenticity, but sometimes you need to clean the grease off the ceilings and repair some of the splits on the faux leather upholstered chairs. The brisket was tender but lacking in something (zip, bark??), and the burnt ends were not much better, though the baked beans were damn good. The place serves its beer in large frosted glass mugs, which is a very nice touch (so I recommend you follow the President's and my lead by going with a Bud Light).
* The Kansas City A's and Kansas City Monarchs played baseball directly four blocks south at the now-defunct Municipal Stadium, making Arthur Bryant's quite popular with ballplayers. So it's quite possible that the grease I almost slipped on, was the same grease that Reggie Jackson and Satchel Paige almost slipped on.
8. Chef J BBQ: Being housed in the first floor of a 100 year old warehouse (that is now home to a haunted house), should add some architectural interest to the space. And the timber beams and hardwood floors do what they can, but the rest of the space is rather uninspired (and a little dark).
Showing up to any BBQ joint just before closing time (as we did), can lead to some menu items being sold out. In our case, we ordered the Two Meat Plate with pork ribs and brisket, but since they were down to their last two pork ribs they also gave us some pepper sausage and burnt ends to fill out the order. The meats were all solid, with the leanest burnt ends I’ve ever had in KC. The sides were a Hit (the Hickory Pit Beans) and a Miss (the Cheesy Corn). On the way out Mrs. AAR whispered in my ear “Not a repeat“.
7. Scott's Kitchen and Catering at Hangar 29: The eponymous owner of this joint had spent 30 years working for possibly the most ubiquitous restaurant in the world (and a personal favorite of my 99-year-old Mother), Applebee's. While the experience of helping craft untold Oriental Chicken Salads and thousands of Mozzarella sticks might not be particularly useful in discovering the perfect Q, in this case, it worked out. The St. Louis ribs were excellent - seasoned nicely, and fall off the bone without being overcooked. As were the pulled pork and turkey tacos (though the use of flour tortillas is never a good thing). The sauce (both sweet and spicy) was too thin to be properly applied, with more than half ending up on my plate (the engineer in me recommends a thicker sauce or a narrower sauce applicator). The sides were weak, the BBQ Beans were also thin and the Jalapeño Apple Slaw was lacking in both jalapeño and apple. Two thick slabs of white bread served as a pedestal for the ribs, though I'm never sure what to do with them later (napkins?).
I knew from doing a little research that this hanger was alcohol-free, which in theory sounds fine, but when you're sitting on the outside patio (to avoid the Covid) in the middle of August, your mind starts to wander to a place where ice water just doesn't get the job done. Though Scott's is located at the airport, the views from his patio are less Jet Set and more Red Neck, as it overlooks the National Beef Packing Company, a Super 8, and quite possibly the ugliest Quality Suites in the world. Mrs. AAR wondered aloud where to get a beer and asked me if I thought the Quality Suites might have a restaurant. To which I replied, "for the hotel guest's sake, I hope not." Later when asked by the author to compare Scott's to the rest of the field, she replied "better than some, worse than others."
6. L.C.'s Bar-B-Q: Hands down the most authentic-looking (and smelling) BBQ joint in K.C. Not only was BBQ smoke billowing from a stack, it was billowing from the entire building, creating a noticeable haze in the leeward parking lot. At one point I thought the place might be on fire. When I entered to effect a rescue, I was greeted with a rather modest dining room with smoke rolling out of the smoker filling the joint with a Cheech and Chongian haze, though in this case with notes of hickory and grease.
As we were brushing up on closing time, they were out of pork, so we went with a platter of chicken quarter, short ribs, brisket, and burnt ends. All of which were quite tender and covered with a judicious amount of sauce. Extra sauce will run you an extra 50 cents, though there is a communal ketchup bottle on each table, just in case you need a little sweetness (or the 45th president of the United States stops by for a slab). The best baked beans on this list (they were slightly burned and include some burnt ends, increasing their tastiness and viscosity). The menu on the wall is a bit cryptic, so just get a recommendation from a counterperson.
-Watch your step as this place must use the same janitorial service as Arthur Bryant's.
-After I returned home I couldn't stop thinking about eating one more short rib, which was either a testament to L.C.'s pit skills or the fact my clothes reeked of barbeque smoke.
5. Woodyard Bar-B-Que: Tony Bourdain ate here with the Black Keys back in 2008. It's a nice set-up with a backyard filled with picnic tables nestled in amongst some trees, you'd think you were in the country except for the traffic yards away on Merriam Lane. $26 for three meats, and a side. The slaw was tasteless (get the baked beans) but the chicken wings were excellent. I wanted to sit where the Great One sat, but when I asked the cashier, he replied "Who is Tony Bourdain?"² . . . Which if you ask me is just plain sad.
4. Jack Stack Barbecue: Went here as "Tony Bourdain ate here", it was easy walking distance of our digs at 1827 Washington Street and I found a $20 Jack Stack gift card lying on the street a few weeks earlier. First of all, it is a fine dining restaurant (whatever exactly that means in this day and age), which is rather incongruous with finger-licking baby back ribs (though they do have their own branded lemon-scented moist towelettes). Excellent service with melt in your mouth burnt ends. I washed it all down with a Shiner Bock (which is oddly listed under "Imports and Crafts"), in homage to the Texas Q I ingested years ago when living in Houston. The Hickory Pit Beans were quite good but take a pass on the Cheesy Corn Bake.
3. Harp Barbecue: Reminded me of the best places for Q in Texas³, which open at a fixed time and close when they ran out of meat. In this case, Harp opens at 11:00 am on Saturdays and closes when the last slab of ribs is served. I arrived at exactly 11:00 am and proceeded to wait 1.5 hours before arriving at the serving counter (though since it's located in the backroom of Crane Brewery, the line snakes through the bar, so it's not all bad). The meat was pretty damn good, though I'm getting too damn old to wait 1.5 hours for anything (the last time I did was to get Springsteen tickets . . . the Born in the U.S.A tour!). They might want to think about getting some help behind the counter, as Mr. Harp and friend can only slice brisket so fast (busy as a one-armed brisket slicer).
- During my 1.5-hour sabbatical, I met a local who loves BBQ. He used to live in Austin, but felt that Kansas City Q was better and this was the best place. When asked why he left such a cool city as Austin, he replied "Too damn hot!". It was a nice conversation as we all need to have some of our choices affirmed (I'm not talking about visiting Harp for BBQ, but gettin' the hell out of Texas).
2. Q39 Midtown: When I read that the chef-owner of this place did not believe in the "low and slow" matra ascribed to every BBQ joint in the world, I knew I had to give this barbecue rebel a try. And I was not disappointed. Though located in a non-descript strip mall, between a massage studio and trucking company, once you enter the door, you realize that this is not your Mom's barbecue joint. The interior is modern, clean, and woody with first-class service and plenty of it. Excellent barbecue and even better sides: Apple Slaw and Baked Beans (w/ pinto beans and burnt ends).
1. Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que: Don't be put off by the fact it's located in a Shamrock gas station, which actually adds to the off-the-beaten-track authenticity. It's on Tony Bourdain’s "Thirteen Restaurants to Visit Before You Die" which is good enough for me. Tony says it‘s the best barbecue in Kansas City, which therefore makes it the best in the world. This place is known for its ribs and burnt ends, so . . . get the Ribs & Burnt Ends Dinner ($17.49) and wash it down with a PBR and Boulevard Nutcracker Ale. An AAR Must Eat.
Bonus: I decided to take a different approach and partake in some Korean BBQ at a nearby restaurant called Kobi-Q. Korean short ribs are the antithesis of BBQ ribs, in that they are beef, not pork, and are not fall off the bone, therefore requiring a good gnaw to get the sweetmeat that clings to the bone the way Donald Trump clings to the flag.
When I entered @ 2:30 pm on a Saturday the place was completely empty, which is never a good way to start off any restaurant experience, though we could sit anywhere we wanted! Mrs. AAR and I were parched so I quickly reviewed the refreshments menu, which surprisingly did not have any Korean beer. When I asked our server why, she mentioned that due to "global shaking events" it was impossible to procure Korean beer. I didn't catch everything she said but assumed it was similar to the Covid related shortages that are also affecting my ability to purchase Trollberget counter height stools from Ikea. To keep things Oriental⁴, I decided to go with an Asahi Super Dry Lager and thought, leave it to the Japanese to conquer this supply chain issue and get an icy cold beer into my right hand. Though the delivered Ashahi was very cold, I was a little taken aback by the label on its neck that stated: "Japan's No. 1 Selling Beer - Asahi - Product of Italy". I thought to myself, "The Japanese are letting the Italians make their beer?! What's next their sake? The Irish make their rice? Are the Swiss going to have the Jamaicans make their watches?!" (insert suitable ethnic geographic joke here).
To get ahead of any future supply chain bottlenecks, I quickly ordered some edamame, beef dumplings, and ribs. The ribs on the menu were of the LA Galbi variety which unfortunately meant they had been cleaved width-wise across the bone into paper-thin slips of beef with paper-thin slivers of rib, which while allowing the beef to better absorb the marinade did not allow me to better grasp the ribs between my fingers and gnaw at the aforementioned sweetmeat. Apparently, LA Galbi is a fusion of Korean BBQ ribs and Mexican cuisine. While I'm all for improved global relations (can't we all get along?), in this case, another DMZ may need to be drawn (or a wall may need to be built).
When I subsequently googled "What are Korean ribs?", one of the replies was "Why are Korean short ribs so expensive?", which after paying $27 (in Kansas City no less), I had to agree with. The answer was "Korean food, in general, is more expensive because you get a LOT of side dishes with your main course order." Which surprised me as my short ribs just came with the ubiquitous ball of white rice and ramekin of kimchi, which after we ate (also including the above-mentioned edamame and dumplings) still left us unsatiated. So I had to order a Korean vegetable pancake (which was quite good) to finish off the job.
My wife asked the server where she was from and I was surprised to hear she was not from Korea but was from China. I shouldn't have been surprised though as I'm quite sure this happens in most other cuisines (as that paisan that served you that "eccellente" spaghetti bolognese was most likely an amigo). I asked her what was the best Chinese restaurant in KC and she replied tentatively something about "the Hong Kong something or another", but since I had previously found Hong Kong cooking rather bland, I asked for another recommendation. She then mentioned a place called "Jen Jen's" that was "always full of Chinese people". To which I replied, "That's exactly the place I'm looking for!“
- My (and Tony Bourdain's) first rule of barbecue is; focus on the meat and don't load up on the sides.
- Burnt ends are the tougher, fattier, oddly-shaped end pieces of brisket. Back in the day, they were given to customers for free, they have now developed into their own unique sub-species of Kansas City barbecue (and even worse, are no longer free). Originally made famous by Arthur Bryant's.
Endnotes: I wanted to provide some very specific details which while vaguely interesting did not contribute to the overall narrative. Perhaps just wait until the end to read.
¹ I grew up using the terms; grilling and barbecuing interchangeably. It wasn't until my 20s (or later) that some Southerner set me straight:
- Grilling and barbecue are very different techniques of cooking. Grilling is typically small foods, cooked hot and fast with no smoke, often with no lid, and over high heat. Barbecue is typically larger cuts, cooked low and slow, with the lid on and is like roasting, but often with smoke.
² "Who is Tony Bourdain?" It all reminds me of the anteinternet meme (AIM) of "Who is Ricardo Montalbán?" Ricardo Montalbán had a long and storied career as a character actor who rose to fame as the man in Tom Wolfe's suit ("Mr. Rourke" and "De Plane"), Khan ("Khaaaaaaan!!!!!!!"), and for extolling "rich Corinthian leather". He may be responsible for making famous "the five stages of the actor" (originally coined by Jack Elam to describe the course of his own career):
Who is Ricardo Montalbán?
Get me Ricardo Montalbán.
Get me a Ricardo Montalbán type.
Get me a young Ricardo Montalbán.
Who is Ricardo Montalbán?
³ What's the barbecue difference between Kansas City vs. Texas (Central vs. East) or for that matter vs. St. Louis vs. Memphis vs. Carolina (East vs. South vs. Lexington) vs. Alabama vs. Kentucky. It all has something to do with beef vs. pork vs. mutton, vinegar vs. tomato vs. mustard vs. mayonnaise vs. Worcestershire, whole hog vs. shoulder vs. other parts, spicey vs. sweet, grilled vs. slow-cooked with additional terms like bark, burnt ends, and smoke ring, thrown in for good measure. Who knew it could be so complicated?
⁴ Did reading the word oriental make you gasp?! Well despite what I've been led to believe the term is actually more offensive to non-Orientals than to Orientals. It appears that the term is used by many older Asians and the proprietors of hundreds if not thousands of restaurants, hotels, shops, and organizations with Oriental in their name. Why has the term become "persona non grata"? I think Margret Cho is on to something when she said “White people like to tell Asians how to feel about race because they’re too scared to tell black people.”