Sorry, French Laundry. You didn’t top Calvin Trillin’s list. The eminent food writer has famously declared that the best restaurant in the entire country is—drum roll—Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue—by extraordinary coincidence, in Calvin’s home town, Kansas City.
I’m here to verify that claim. The way devout pilgrims crawl on their knees to Lourdes, I pay homage to the pit masters at Bryant’s. And I’m not alone. The line out the modest storefront’s door is a pastiche of business suits, cops’ uniforms, sports legends’ jerseys and truckers’ denims. Autographed photos of pleased patrons run from Count Basie to Bill Clinton (and there are 200 barbecue joints here in KC to choose from).
The ribs at Bryant’s bristle with a hickory-blackened crust, their fat left behind in the pit, and served naked. Slather them, if you wish, with Bryant’s trinity of sauces—original (tart), spicy, or sweet. Ignore their bedding of Wonder Bread and enjoy. (Note: Bryant’s has gone a bit uppity. On previous visits, a roll of paper towels anchored each table. Today, it’s paper napkins.)
Branded by a silhouette of a gent in a top hat, Gates Bar-B-Q is a bit more genteel. They actually greet customers instead of barking at them. Gates’ ribs are uber-tender, almost dainty by KC standards, backed by a similarly addictive smoked brisket.
We’d joined KC BBQ Tours (www.kcbarbecuetours.com ) for a four-hour, four-pit expedition, which included some under-the-radar local secrets like L.C.’s. Pushed by popular demand, Mississippi-born L.C. Richardson has expanded his no-frills joint from three to six tables, for which he flame-broils his bones till they’re supremely flavorful and juicy. Likewise, his burnt ends.
Woodyard Barbecue—which started out selling wood to DIYers—now sells meat as well. And thank goodness. The burnt-end chili is a winner, as is the homemade sausage. But the real treat is the pork butt, smoked five hours over pear wood. (At what temp, I inquired. “Optimum” was the succinct answer.) Anyway, smoked till “barking,” which means the charred end of the brisket is ready to be scraped off, and the whole thing started over.
‘Cue and More
Well, four ’cue joints wasn’t quite enough for us, so a pal and I waddled over to Oklahoma Joe’s, a former gas station-turned-gastronomic with what local polls contend is the best of the best, and I’ll give ’em credit. After standing in line over an hour—it’s de rigueur—we savored (read: slobbered over) the best pulled pork on the planet—juicy, flush with flavor, and topped with slaw. Plus a plate of beyond-wonderful burnt ends. Worth the drive? Worth the airfare!
But KC doesn’t live on bones alone, not on your James Beard medals. We gussied up for dinner and headed to Bluestem, where Corby Garrelts proves why he was chosen Best Chef Midwest. My picks on his five-course menu of local flavors started with aerated foie gras with wild plums, coffee-cardamom “soil,” ice cream and honey (!), followed by risotto dotted with nettles, then arctic char atop eggplant and sweet onions. Missouri hen paired with Kansas duck alongside squash, duck fat aplenty, and “pears off the trees of Missouri”, preceding a grand finale of pumpkin fritter gilded with creme fraiche, black tea, salted caramel, pumpkin seeds and candied squash. Between each course appears a little “surprise” from the kitchen.
Garrelts recently added Rye to his resume. “Bluestem features how I was taught, but I grew up eating what we serve here,” he explains. “It’s actually okay to love those things again, even if they’re not high-tech. It’s cooking from the heart. No one cooks fried chicken anymore, and people are ready for it again. Ready to get back to their culinary roots.”
Are we ever! Those Amish chickens take the prize. Corby brines them, then adds baking powder to their flour coating for super-crispiness. The kitchen goes through 400 pounds of chicken a week, with good reason. And its accompanying veggies (think corn soup, heirloom tomato and arugula salad, kale, okra) come from family-run farms.
Michel Smith, another Beard winner, put KC on the dining map when he cooked at the elite American Restaurant. Now as master of his eponymous café, he favors New American dining. Right beside it in the Crossroads District, his newest, Extra Virgin, offers offbeat tapas of Asian-to-Latin flavors. In both, he puts diners first (and isn’t that a novel idea?). “I think about how the customer is eating the food,” rather than photo-op plate presentations.
Start with ultra-local tomato and peach salad (genius combo), then proceed to braised rabbit on gnocchi with shiitakes and Parmesan. Or pork cheeks with roasted plums, haricots verts and lentils. Or ruby trout with succotash, chanterelles and a lime-carrot sauce. Step next door to push the envelope with adventurous starters like his best-selling duck tongue tacos (“I go through 35 pounds a week”) or crispy pig’s ear salad. There are tuna ceviche tacos for the more mainstream palate, along with wood-fired poblano mac and cheese, and chicken thighs stuffed with figs and chorizo. “Almost every chef in town has worked for me,” says Smith, “and when they’re ready to go out on their own, I help them with their business plan. I teach them that the way to get good at their jobs is—travel!”
Affaire is a brand-new dinner stop favoring modern takes on Germanic cooking (and yes, the familiar wiener schnitzel/sausages fare too). Lidia’s represents the 15-year-old outpost of bold-name Italian chef Lidia Bastianich, who picked KC for her first venture outside NYC. She pours her own privately-labeled wines with her fritto misto, and more.
Then it’s down to the West Bottoms, near the Farmers Market, for Adam Northcraft’s Local Pig, a butcher shop/charcuterie calling on humanely-raised meats from local farms to produce the 350 pounds of primo bacon he goes through weekly, plus bacon pate, sriracha head cheese, coppa with tangerine and sage, and yummy sandwiches.
For a grand finale, inhale the bonbons from Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolates. Elbow also worked at the famed American Restaurant before concentrating on his passion. Best seller: fleur de sel caramels, followed by chocolate-enrobed raspberry jelly, all small-batch, hand-painted jewels. “Look for balance between the filling and the chocolate,” Elbow counsels.
Okay, KC also knows how to mix a mean cocktail. Belly up to the bar at the classic Rieger Hotel, where mixmasters shake a mean Unicycle (aperol, grapefruit, vodka, sparking wine) and Pendergast, named for the city’s notorious political boss during the days of Prohibition, during which in KC, never mind, booze continued to flow freely.
Here are a few great KC places to visit when you’re not eating.
18th & Vine: This was THE place to be for KC’s African-American community in the ’20s and beyond, buoyed by new arrivals from the South seeking jobs and education. The vibrant crossroads had it all: bars, jazz club, social clubs, doctors, stores and restaurants in the days where Blacks couldn’t try on clothes or get a bite to eat downtown. Jazz greats played till dawn, when folks headed first to church, then to the ball game, dressed to the nines. The story comes to life in the American Jazz Museum, (Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald)—live concerts, too—and the Negro League Baseball Museum, whose Black all-stars prevailed over challenges like no hotel room, railroad car nor diner to serve them on the road, culminating in the breakthrough by Jackie Robinson in 1947.
National World War I Museum: “Where the story of war is told from everybody’s point of view,” and 9,000 red poppies represent the 9,000,000 dead. The imagined “great adventure” of flashing sabers and brave deeds soon gave way to the grim reality of stalemate in the trenches, “a place of despair” for four long years, as vividly portrayed through first-hand accounts and artifacts.
Got art? The home/studio of Thomas Hart Benton, Missouri’s most famous painter and the first-ever artist to grace the cover of Time Magazine, showcases the man who chose to produce “common art for the common man,” including the mural in the Presidential Library of his pal, Harry Truman. The Nelson Atkins Museum sports classics, starting with notable Egyptian and Chinese collections, on through the bold names of European painters, with Claes Oldenberg’s ginormous shuttlecocks anchoring the lawn. Check out its “Here and Queer” tours. Nearby, the Kemper spotlights contemporary art. Even more contempo are the indie galleries of the Crossroads District, with 10,000 admirers cruising the streets every First Friday. October’s FF hailed LGBT Human Rights Month, where the boys convened—as always—at Hamburger Mary’s.
Gay KC: Show-Me Pride, in early June, draws 30,000 visitors. Gay Film Fest, later in June, is another hit. Visit bars Missie B’s for drag shows and dancing; Bistro 303 for an upscale, all-out time; and Out Abounds, sports bar supreme. Hotel Phillips (chic renovation of a classic property) is ultra-welcoming.
For more info, www.visitkc.com or 888-474-8520. –Story and photos by Carla Waldemar, RFT Contributor