Ahh, the great Kansas City BBQ debate. Before we weigh in with our humble opinion, please let me explain that from September to January, KC is kind of like a second home for me, and recently for SC as well. See, we are season ticket holders for the Kansas City Chiefs. While it may seem odd that two people who live over 1600 KM's (1000 miles for those of our US friends) from KC would be season ticket holders...not to mention the abysmal showing the team has had over the last few years...anyone who has ever been to an NFL game understands the allure of the tailgate party. And nowhere in the United States can you find a better tailgating experience than in Kansas City. For the uninitiated, think of tailgating as a big block party with about 80,000 other people. Everyone brings their favorite food, set up grills in behind their cars, and eats and drinks to excess for about 4 hours. Usually starting at 8:00 am on a Sunday morning. It's all about community, fun, and fan frenzy, and I've seen people towing smokers the size of a small vehicle behind trucks, school busses converted to mobile party machines, and even a dude deep frying a turkey one chilly thanksgiving morning. So to understand the importance of BBQ in Kansas City, you need to understand how revered it is in their culture...and tailgating is a great indication. I've been to several other NFL stadiums, and never had an experience that was even close to KC. For example, in Miami one year, I watched rows and rows of people eating picnic style sandwiches (slightly lame and dainty if you ask me) before the game, while up the road in Jacksonville, the parking lot was almost completely empty 2 hours before game time.
For those of you who may think that BBQ is simply setting up your grill in the back yard and throwing some marinated meat onto it, that is NOT what I am talking about here. It's also not that crap that you get in restaurants (the further you get away from Mecca, the worse it is) where some rapidly cooked slab of ribs is drenched in overpowering BBQ sauce. No, true Kansas City BBQ is about time. And patience. It's a craft, a skill, an art, and a science. The meat is smoked over a variety of different aromatic types of wood...slowly...often 12 hours plus, and then accented with different styles of often award winning BBQ sauces. When it is done, the smoked flavour is simply infused into the meat, so you need less sauce to truly enjoy the taste. Likely any kind of meat could be BBQ'd, but the usual fare is pulled pork, pork ribs, smoked sausage, beef brisket, beef ribs, smoked/grilled chicken, smoked turkey and the ever famous burnt ends. Burnt ends, are essentially the end bits of a brisket that has been smoked, and they are usually returned back to the smoker for a longer period of time before being served. It's a bit of a misnomer, as they actually aren't burnt to any degree, but I promise you, a more tender bit of beef will never cross your lips.
The BBQ restaurants in KC range from commercial localized chains, to shacks in some guys backyard. For this review, I have focussed on three of them. This is not to say that there aren't better ones than I have listed here, but these are three of the more popular ones. For our Kansas City readers, I would love for you to chime in on this blog so we can review some other, perhaps lesser known places.
First up is Arthur Bryant's. One of, if not the oldest BBQ restaurants in KC, Arthur Bryant's has a very distinctive old school ambiance and menu. While you can buy meat by the pound, the menu is predominantly sandwiches and sides. We visited the original location on Brooklyn avenue, and after enduring a very long lineup, we were shuffled to the front of the line. While our hearts were set on the pulled pork sandwich, the guy taking our order would have non of it, suggesting...ok, insisting...that we take the two meat sandwich instead. So we each chose pulled pork and ham and shuffled ahead to pay. The sandwich essentially was a piece of Wonder bread (do they still even make that stuff??) with a very decent portion of ham and pulled pork, slathered in very tangy BBQ sauce, covered with another piece of Wonder bread, then drenched in more sauce. The meat was very tender, but in my opinion, I have to confess this was my least favorite meal at a KC BBQ restaurant. I found that it had too much sauce, to the point that it completely overpowered the taste of the meat. Perhaps it was an off day for the sauce guy, but I think there are better places to explore.
Next is BB's Lawnside BBQ. The first time I entered into this joint...can't really call it anything but a "joint", I was a little skeptical. Imagine a roadhouse, but with the walls completely papered in ads for blues concerts in days gone by. But looks can be very deceiving. Seating is either at one of the semi broken down booths, or side by side with the other patrons at long tables...which actually adds to the charm of this place. But BB's isn't just about the food. Every night...or at least every night I have been there, BB's has had live blues music. Sometimes old school, sometimes new, but always smokin hot. They usually charge a small cover (well worth it), and the food is outstanding. They have a plate you can order called the BB King, but beware, you better have a serious appetite. The first time I ordered it, I was thinking to myself that it was only $16, so how much food could it possibly be? Well my friends, that night, for the first time in my life, I got drunk on meat. The BB King is a mound of carnivore delight with four ribs, Italian sausage and either beef, ham, turkey or pulled pork, as well as battered fries and some beans. The sausage is amazing, the brisket tender and flavorful, the pulled pork is out of this world, and the ham, while a tad on the salty side at times, is the single juiciest and tenderest bit of meat I have ever had. Overall, great value for your dollar, great ambiance, and great entertainment.
Finally we come to Oklahoma Joe's. This restaurant has probably won the most awards in Kansas City. With two locations, one of which is in a gas station...yes, I said a gas station...this place is to KC BBQ, what Geno's is to Philly Cheese Steaks. Anthony Bourdain, well known for his Food Network show "No Reservations", selected Oklahoma Joe's as one of 13 places to eat before you die in a Men's Health Magazine article. In it, he says "People may disagree on who has the best barbecue," he writes. "Here, the brisket (particularly the burnt ends), pulled pork, and ribs are all of a quality that meet the high standards even of Kansas City natives. It's the best barbecue in Kansas City, which makes it the best barbecue in the world." Very hard to argue with that once you've eaten there, and the only thing I would add, is that the turkey is the most flavorful meat I've ever had the pleasure of eating. For me, the smoke infused taste epitomizes the whole Kansas City BBQ style of cooking. The only criticism I could possibly muster, is that the portions aren't quite as plentiful as some other places.
So for pure taste, it has to be Oklahoma Joe's for my choice. However, for best food value and entertainment, BB's is a damn close second place. Regardless, both are restaurants on our must eat at list every time we go to KC.
Arthur Bryants:1727 Brooklyn Avenue, Kansas City, MO
BBs Lawnside BBQ: 1205 E. 85th Street Kansas City, MO
Oklahoma Joe's: 11950 South Strang Line Road, Olathe, Kansas
BB's Lawnside BBQ:
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