Where There’s Smoke There’s Barbecue

The Dean Street Smokin’ Rib Rubbers didn’t make it to the competition this year in Jonesboro as a full team, but Joan and I did get to check out the Kansas City BBQ scene on a recent trip to the mid-west.

I had an opportunity to attend a demo on Albert y Ferran Adria’s line of molecular gastronomy products called “Texturas” sponsored by Albert Uster, and Joan came out to join me.  Before I left town I sent a text to a well-traveled culinarian friend to get the scoop on notable Kansas City restaurants.  Between his recommendations and my own exhaustive research I came up with a list of KC favorites, and we dug in!

We were there for two nights and as many days, and we didn’t eat one bite of anything that wasn’t barbecued.  Fun, but I understand what it must be like to be a traveling TV chef—grueling.  Anthony Bourdain and the likes must get absolutely worn out, and I can’t imagine it’s easy to stay thin.  We definitely got our fill of barbecue…quick!

If one examines the history of barbecue in America, there is reasonable evidence that it all began in the Carolinas, having been transported from the Caribbean by the Spanish in the 16th century.  It makes sense then that styles and ingredients migrated west to Tennessee, Missouri, Texas, and finally California, picking up regional differences every few hundred miles.

In North Carolina barbecue is generally known to be pork only—sliced, pulled, or chopped.  Lexington, NC, near the center of the state, is considered by many to be the center of the barbecue universe, and sauce there is mostly vinegar with a touch of ketchup for color and body.  Western North Carolina adds more seasonings and is more of a tomato based product.

A small section of South Carolina uses a mustard based sauce on pork and chicken.

Memphis style BBQ is typically pork ribs and chicken with a distinctive dry rub, sauce optional.  St. Louis does ribs.

Texas is known for brisket and sausage, as well as smoky and delicious pork and chicken.  While living on the Central Coast of California I became accustomed to sliced beef tri-tip, smoked sausage, and linguica (a spicy Portugese sausage).

Kansas City is particularly known for “burnt ends”, which are just that—crusty, charred, spicy, juicy, fricking delectable scraps of beef brisket (apparently they can be pork as well, but all we had were beef).  Otherwise, what sets KC apart from other regional styles is generally the broad combination of meats, and a zesty tomato sauce that is perhaps known for being a little sweeter than some other regions.

We had four places to try, three of which have multiple locations throughout the city.  Whenever I have a chance to sample a famous place that has branched out I prefer to go to the original wherever possible.  I want to see what made a place famous!

Joan Loving a Rib at Arthur Bryant’s

At each restaurant we did our best to order the same items so that we could fairly evaluate each one against the others.  Wherever possible we ordered pork ribs, pulled pork, brisket, burnt ends, chicken, and French fries, and surprisingly I don’t remember leaving anything behind at any of them!

We started out with dinner at one of the oldest BBQ establishments in town, Arthur Bryant’s.  Arthur’s brother Charlie Bryant worked for Henry Perry who came from Memphis and began KC’s barbecue tradition in 1908.  Charlie took over Perry’s restaurant when Perry died in 1940, and Arthur took over in 1946 and renamed it.  So Arthur Bryant’s gets to claim the status of city’s oldest, and some say the best.  Great meal, great atmosphere, and the best fries!

Arthur Bryant’s Sampler Plate

Lunch the next day took us to Fiorella’s Jack Stack, the “upper crust” of barbecueries.  The ambience of this KC favorite is more like that of a refined major theme restaurant, and we detected none of the delicious smoke smell that one expects from a barbecue restaurant—what I like to call “nasal umami”.

Flavors were clean, and sides were spectacular.  If you’re ever there make sure to get the Cheesy Corn Bake, and we were told after the fact about their specialty “Crown Prime Beef Ribs”.  Wish we’d have taken more time to read the menu, but we were in a hurry.

Halfway through our excursion we actually realized that Bourdain had done a show on Kansas City barbecue, and we tracked it down online and watched it.  We were pleased that he visited all of the places that we did, and we shared his opinions on most of them.  I was particularly pleased to hear him say that even though he loved Kansas City BBQ, his favorite BBQ of all time absolutely is that of my home state, North Carolina (not a popular concept with my Texan better-half, but I love her anyway).

Outside LC’s

For dinner on Day Two we went to what we were told was Bourdain’s favorite (before watching the show), LC’s.  LC’s doesn’t have a website, they’re located in seemingly unlikely part of town, there was no line to get in, and the building is very unassuming, but a true “joint” not to be missed!

Joan’s son Trevor, who is stationed at nearby Whiteman Air Force Base, joined us, and the three of us chewing as hard as we could were unable to eat more than about half of the smoky and divine goodness that was spread out before us.  The burnt ends and the ribs are piled high and to die for.  Their sausage clearly homemade and unique—reminiscent of Italian sausage.

We managed to save room for ice cream afterwards at a wonderful little place called Glace Artisan Ice Cream.  Flavors like French Lavender, Goat Cheese and Wildflower Honey, and Farm Fresh Corn tantalized us and drew us in.  We were not disappointed, and were also treated to the fine artisan chocolates of local chocolatier Christopher Elbow, some of the finest I’ve had!

Before leaving town we had to find out what all the stir was about at Oklahoma Joe’s, seemingly Anthony Bourdain’s true favorite.

Lunch—Day Three.  Dear Lord just help me through one more plate of barbecue!

Ribs & Sausage at Oklahoma Joe’s

Oklahoma Joe’s is a restaurant attached to a gas station in a busy part of town.  It was opened by a group of guys known as the Slaughterhouse Five that entered (and seems to have won) more barbecue competitions than anyone in the history of barbecue.  They wrote the book on Kansas City barbecue—been there, got the t-shirt.  They actually have pretty cool t-shirts as well!  We bought a couple.

OK Joe’s is the only place we went that there was a line.  Of course it was a busy weekday at lunchtime, but the place seemed well visited by tourists. They’ve really got it down though.  They move people through the line with amazing precision, and the food was spot-on!

The ribs came picture perfect, the brisket as tender as a mother’s love.  Their spicy sauce could make just about anything better, and the pulled pork nearly as good as I’ve ever had!  This was true BBQ branding at it’s best, but honestly I’d take a dirty little back-street dive any day.

That you’ll find at LC’s!

Our Favorites

At the end of it all, before we kissed goodbye and traveled back to our individual corners of the world, we took time to reflect on another whirlwind adventure that we both treasured, and we scribbled down our personal votes on each category that we sampled.  We were mildly divided in a couple of areas, but I think I can safely say that we didn’t have any bad barbecue.  It’s hard to pick the best of the best, but we gave it our all.

I’ll still say that my favorite ribs are Mark Griffith’s in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and my favorite pulled pork is at Mac’s Speed Shop in Charlotte–but this Carolina boy will say that Kansas City is definitely my pick for overall Barbecue Capital of the World!

Love those burnt ends!