For thousands of years, humans have slow cooked meat over wood fire. Different regions in North America developed their own style of barbecue (aka barbeque, bar-be-cue, bar-b-cue, BBQ, or just ‘cue). From dry rubs to wet sauces, from sweet to vinegary, from mild to hot-as-hell, all celebrate the smoky flavor of wood fire. And one of the most famous BBQ centers in the United States is Kansas City. Straddling both Kansas and Missouri, this mid-West city boasts 100+ BBQ joints, more ‘cue restaurants than any city in America. Kansas City is so renowned for BBQ it’s home to the American Royal, the World Series of BBQ Competition. In fact, many BBQ authorities consider Kansas City to be the epicenter of the barbecue universe.
RFT Editors Bobbie Hasselbring and Anne Weaver recently traveled through Kansas City and, while we knew we couldn’t begin to experience even a tiny fraction of the dozens of eateries—both casual and upscale—serving great BBQ, we searched out some of the best serving classic KC ‘cue. And what we found was downright delicious.
What Makes KC BBQ?
First, a BBQ lesson: there is grilling and there is BBQ and, friends, they’re not the same. Grilling means cooking over a direct, open flame, usually rapidly. BBQ is an entirely different creature. Meats are cooked slowly over an indirect flame over wood (or sometimes wood chips or chunks), which allows the wood smoke to penetrate the meat.
BBQ regions like Texas, Tennessee, and the Carolinas are justifiably proud of their ‘cue and all of them do it a little differently. In Texas, for instance, the wood used is usually mesquite. In Memphis, it’s often hickory. So what makes Kansas City BBQ special and different from other regional BBQ styles? KC ‘cue is a blend of many BBQ traditions. BBQ chefs in Kansas City use a variety of woods for smoking meats, including hickory, oak, apple, cherry and even pecan.
Also, many different meats–pork, beef, chicken, turkey, mutton and even fish–are part of Kansas City-style BBQ. The meats are usually dry rubbed with seasonings like salt, pepper, sugar, cayenne, paprika, mustard powder, and granulated garlic to spike up the flavor and slowly cooked over different woods. Then the meat is slathered in a thick tomato- and molasses-based BBQ sauce that’s usually a flavorful blend of tomato sauce, brown sugar, corn syrup, molasses, vinegar, onion, garlic, and red pepper.
Sauce in Kansas City BBQ is paramount. KC sauces tend to be sweeter and less spicy than other regional BBQ sauces. (However, most KC ‘cue joints sell hot versions of their sauce.) Sauce often defines many of the regional restaurants in Kansas City. The sauce that comes from the region’s classic heavy hitters, Arthur Bryant’s and Gates BBQ, tend to be more savory and vinegary and less sweet than some of the other KC ‘cue places. And most KC BBQ joints worth their smoke bottle and sell their own version of finger-licking sauce.
Other regional BBQ styles are famous for particular types of ‘cue. For instance, in Texas, brisket is king. The Carolinas are famous for Carolina pulled pork. You can find both in Kansas City and something deliciously unique to the city’s ‘cue scene—burnt ends.
While Kansas City BBQ includes all the classic types of smoked meat, the most iconic are burnt ends, usually served smothered in sauce atop white bread. Burnt ends are pieces of flavorful meat cut from the fattier point half of a smoked beef or pork brisket. A brisket is composed of the point and flat ends. The point end is thicker and contains more fat than the flat end, so it requires more cooking to become tender and render out the fat and collagen. The longer cooking yields “burnt ends,” pieces of meat that have some char or bark. These crisp pieces are not suitable for slicing so they are chopped or minced and often returned to the smoker to create even more flavor. Burnt ends are served alone with sauce or in sandwiches and they are definitely a treat.
Sides in Kansas City BBQ are familiar—baked beans, cole slaw, French fries. However, KC style baked beans are not the often too-sweet New England style of baked beans. These barbecue beans are less sweet, smoky and they often have pieces of barbecued meat or even burnt ends added.
Kansas City style BBQ got its start with one man—Henry Perry. In the early 20th century, Perry, an African American from Tennessee and a former porter, came to Kansas City and channeled his Southern upbringing into a unique style of BBQ. He opened a stand in the city’s garment district, cooking his meats over an open wood fire and slathering them with a “harsh, peppery” sauce that often brought tears to customers’ eyes. Perry sold slabs of smoky ribs wrapped in newspaper for 25 cents and it wasn’t long before Perry became know as Kansas City’s “BBQ King.”
Success followed Perry’s BBQ efforts and, over time, he opened three restaurants in the city. He also taught others his craft, including Arthur Pinkard and brothers Charlie and Arthur Bryant. Pinkard would go on to cook for George Gates, founder of Kansas City’s Gates Bar-B-Q, one of the city’s BBQ giants. Charlie and then Arthur ran Perry’s BBQ empire after Perry died. It was Arthur who reportedly altered Perry’s original harsh sauce recipe to create the bright orange and distinctively tangy flavor that is Arthur Bryant’s sauce today. He also renamed the business after himself. And today, Arthur Bryant’s BBQ is at the heart of classic KC BBQ.
While KC BBQ embodies styles and techniques from around the country, we wanted to experience ‘real’ KC BBQ, the classic style that put the city on the BBQ map. So we started with Arthur Bryant’s.
Arthur Bryant’s. At Arthur Bryant’s, it’s still all about the meat. At the two locations (1727 Brooklyn Ave. and the newer location out by the Speedway), you order at the counter and eat off plastic trays. In the 1970s, writer and food essayist Calvin Trillin put this BBQ spot on the map by writing that Arthur Bryant’s is “The best damn restaurant in the world.” We’re not sure we’d go that far, but the barbecue is certainly tasty.
We ordered a sampling of meats. The pulled pork was chewy and tender, with just a bit of heat. We found the sliced brisket flavorful and smoky, but a bit dry. Adding plenty of Arthur Bryant’s President’s Choice BBQ Sauce (Original, Sweet and Spicy, and Extra Hot) really helped. The sauces get their name from the fact that President Obama ate here. When I asked which sauce the President liked best, they told me, “All of them.” Thus, every sauce is called “The President’s Choice.”
The vinegary flavor of the BBQ sauce was new to me. Arthur Bryant’s sauce is more savory and vinegary than other BBQ sauces I’ve tried. Even the so-called sweet sauces are tangy and not super sweet. Arthur Bryant’s Original BBQ Sauce is rather thin with a deep red color and distinct vinegary flavor. The Rich and Spicy Sauce, our favorite, is lighter in color and more complex in flavor. And, for those who like spicy BBQ sauce, Sweet Heat is smoky and HOT, HOT.
At Arthur Bryant’s, we also enjoyed two large pork ribs (‘bones’). These were big and meaty with just the right amount of fat on them to keep them juicy. The burnt ends at Arthur Bryant’s were a surprise. I was expecting charred meat. Instead, they were cubed pieces of brisket with a bit of fat served in sauce. It was tasty, but certainly not what we were expecting.
We ordered a side of baked beans, which were juicy and smoky with big chunky pieces of brisket burnt ends.
Arthur Bryant’s, 1727 Brooklyn Ave., Kansas City, Mo., (816) 231-1123; 102 Village West Parkway, Kansas City, Kan., (913) 788-7500, arthurbryantsbbq.com
Gates Bar-B-Q. The next most famous ‘cue joint in Kansas City is Gates. Established in 1946 with the help of Arthur Pinkard, chief cook for the originator of KC style barbeque, Gates is run by third and fourth generations of the Gates family. Today, 84-year-old Ollie Gates is still very much involved in the business as is his daughter, Arzelia.
Gates is all about service. Their motto is “How can we help you?” and Miss Jasper, the day manager at the restaurant we visited, told us they practice “FECC”—Gates’ food and service at must be fast, efficient, courteous, and correct. She said every day employees must taste the food to make sure it’s perfect. She also told us that Gates and Arthur Bryant’s are the last two remaining restaurants that serve the original KC style BBQ invented by Henry Perry.
Again, we sampled a variety of BBQ meat. Our two ribs were perfectly juicy and meaty with just the right amount of fat. These bones were even bigger and meatier than Arthur Bryant’s and finger-lickin’ delicious.
We also ordered chicken wings because that’s the specialty for this location (each Gates restaurant has a dish for which they’re famous that isn’t served at other locations). These were huge wings with plenty of juicy spiciness. Yum!
For us, the real highlight at Gates was the burnt ends. It came as a big pile of finely chopped meat, char, and fat covered in rich, vinegary sauce and served with slices of white bread. Now this is what we were expecting from burnt ends—juicy, crispy, deeply flavored with smoky, meaty notes and tangy sauce. It was a dish we couldn’t stop eating. In fact, Gates burnt ends were so good we came back before we left town for a to-go order!
Gates BBQ sauces come in three versions: Classic, our favorite, is a red sauce with plenty of vinegary KC flavor; Sweet & Hot has plenty of flavor, but was a bit hot for us; and Extra Hot will take off the roof of your mouth.
Gates BBQ. Kansas City locations: 1325 East Emanuel Cleaver Blvd. 816-531-7522; 1221 Brooklyn 816-483-3880; 3205 Main 816-753-0828; 1026 State Ave
Other locations: 10440 East 40 Highway, Independence, MO 816-353-5880; 103rd & State Line, Leawood, KS 913-383-1752.
Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que. Located on the corner of 47th Avenue and Mission Road in an old Shamrock gas station, Joe’s is owned by Jeff and Joy Stehney, winners of multiple barbecue cooking contests, including the several wins at the Jack Daniel’s World BBQ Championship and the big daddy of BBQ contests, the American Royal. And the banners and trophies they proudly display speak to their BBQ prowess.
When we visited the Joe’s original Kansas City gas station location, the place was packed. Half of the building is dedicated to selling BBQ products like sauces (Joe’s and many others) and half has tables and place in front of the busy kitchen to place your order.
We ordered the Cowboy Dinner that comes with two ribs, sausage, sliced brisket, and two sides (we ordered coleslaw and baked beans). The ribs were impressive and some of the best we’ve ever eaten—really big, super tender and smoky, and nice and pink with a distinctive smoke ring. Celebrity Anthony Bourdain dubbed Joe’s one of the “13 Places to Eat Before You Die” and we agree that their ribs are not to be missed.
The sausage, in our opinion, was only so-so, but the sliced brisket juicy and smoky.
We wanted to try Joe’s burnt ends, but the restaurant only serves them in limited quantities on Monday’s, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. We’ll just have to come back.
Joe’s BBQ sauces, which come in Original and Night of the Living BBQ Sauce, are both deep red and flavorful. Original boasts plenty of smoky flavor with just a touch of sweetness; the other has great flavor, but is super hot.
Joe’s baked beans are a combination of black beans, red beans, and navy beans, with meaty shreds of brisket and pork, onions, garlic, and green chilies in a tangy, spicy sauce. The beans are saucy with a distinctive green bell pepper flavor. The cole slaw, a combination of purple and green cabbage and carrot shreds, is super crunchy and nicely saucy without being too soupy.
Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que. Original Kansas City location: 3002 West 47th Avenue,
Kansas City, (913) 722-3366. www.joeskc.com
Other locations: 11950 South Strang Line Road, Olathe, Kansas (913) 782-6858; 11723 Roe Avenue, Leawood, Kansas 66211(913) 338-5151
And More BBQ
While we were in Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, we met John Thompson, a 30-year resident of Kansas City and a self-proclaimed BBQ fanatic. John is a big man who obviously indulges in plenty of ‘cue. When we met him at Joe’s, he was muscling into a giant slab of Joe’s ribs, a BBQ pork sandwich, and several sides. When we told John we were the city sampling KC BBQ, he’d asked where we’d been and we told him Arthur Bryant’s, Gates, and Joe’s. He replied, “You’ve eaten at the three best BBQ joints in the city. You can find plenty of other places, fancier places where you’ll drop $50. But you won’t find better barbecue than at these three.”
John might be right. However, our time in KC was drawing to an end and we wanted to be sure we’d tried the best the city had to offer. So we headed to Woodyard Bar-B-Que. We’d heard about this modest little BBQ restaurant because they’ve received a lot of media attention—spots on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives,” Antony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” Andrew Zimmern’s “Delicious Destinations,” and Nigella Lawson’s “Christmas Special.” With all this media attention, we thought we should see what all the hubbub was about.
We tried Woodyward’s sliced brisket and found it to be quite good—juicy, smoky, tender. Their spare ribs were meaty and smoky with a nice smoke ring. However, we weren’t crazy about Woodyard’s sauce (mild and hot), which was too tomatoey and lacked the kind of vinegary flavor and complexity we found in other KC sauces.
Woodyard Bar-B-Que. 3001 Merriam Ln, Kansas City (913) 362-8000 woodyardbbq.com
We were leaving Kansas City, but we were still hungry for the taste of BBQ. So we followed the advice of some locals and headed to the little town of Paola. At the Miami County Airport, We B Smokin’, an award-winning BBQ joint, serves what they call sweet smoked BBQ. While their BBQ is quite delicious, it’s quite different from classic KC BBQ. You won’t find classic Kansas City burnt ends here. Owner Gloria, part of the award-winning We B BBQ team, deadpanned, “We don’t burn our meat, we smoke it.”
We B Smokin’ uses applewood, perfect for their sweet smoked meats. Their signature dish is We-B Sticky Ribs, a full rack of fall-of-the-bone tender baby back ribs slathered with BBQ sauce and literally sitting in a sticky soup of honey. The ribs have a lovely char on the outside and are juicy on the inside and they’re finger lickin’ delicious.
We also ordered We B’s sliced pork and sliced beef brisket. Both come “undressed” (without sauce), are smoky-juicy, and benefit from a generous application of We B’s BBQ sauce. The sauce they make marries beautifully with their smoky meat. It also pairs perfectly with the big, soury dill pickle spears that come alongside the meat.
We B’s beans feature kidney and white beans, dressed with plenty of chunks of meat and have a sweet flavor.
We aren’t the only ones who love what We B Smokin’ does with meat and smoke. One entire wall of the little restaurant is filled with photos of a visit by President Barak Obama. The Air Force One helicopter touched down at this little airport and the President and his entourage ate at We B Smokin’. It was a thrill for the owners and staff and we suspect it was a delicious stop for Mr. Obama —just like it was for us.
We B Smokin.’ 32580 Airport Rd, Paola, KS 913-256-6802 www.websmokin.com
Whisps of Smoke
We definitely didn’t have enough time in Kansas City to really explore the city’s iconic BBQ. However, we did get a good taste of what makes KC BBQ special and so different from other regional BBQ. One of the things we learned is that no one BBQ joint does everything equally well. Each has its specialities and do certain dishes better than anyone else.
Joe’s Kansas City Bar-b-cue is tops for KC style BBQ ribs. They’re big, meaty, smoky and delicious.
Gates is THE place to go for beautifully charred, deeply-flavored burnt ends. We won’t soon forget this dish.
Arthur Bryant’s baked beans are filled with meaty, saucy goodness and their BBQ sauce, especially their Rich and Spicy, is wonderfully vinegary and complex.
For brisket, we thought Woodyard’s was the juiciest and smokiest. Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que’s brisket is great too.
And for BBQ that’s really different, We B Smokin’s Sticky Ribs can’t be beat for their sweet, sticky, smoky tenderness.
So that’s our taste of Kansas City BBQ. It’s only a taste and, frankly, we can’t wait to come back and try more of KC’s smoky deliciousness. – Review by Bobbie Hasselbring and Anne Weaver; photos by Anne Weaver