Updated: Aug 23
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 cannot 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.
8. Arthur Bryants Barbecue: You could tell this was going to be an "authentic" 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.
7. 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 nothing special.
6. 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."
5. Woodyard: 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 Boudain 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: 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.
- 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 "The Plane"), Khan ("Khan!!!!!!!"), 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?
*** Whi is xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
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?