Road Trip Eats: BBQ Tour of Kansas City
A Postcard from the Edge of the BBQ Universe
Where the South ends is often a source of argument. Missouri is one of those states that engender the most debate on this topic. Is Missouri southern? Well, they didn’t fight for the Confederacy more than 150 years ago, but they do play football in the Southeastern Conference today. They sure don’t have a southern accent by any means.
Perhaps the best way to draw the line is through grammar. In the South, the word barbecue is always a noun. It might be made of pork in Alabama or beef in Texas, but no self-respecting southerner would ever use it as a verb. Using this rule of thumb, Kansas City and its excellent BBQ scene fall just inside the borders of the South. But be careful: move too much farther north or west of KC and you’re likely to get invited to a party where someone will “barbecue some hamburgers”.
We’ve been to most of the BBQ capitals of the South: Lexington, NC; the Texas Hill Country; Memphis…the list can go on and on. A recent trip to Kansas City proved to us without a doubt that KC belongs in this elite company. We were only there for a few days, but managed to make it to four of Kansas City’s most famous spots: Gates Bar-B-Q and Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque in Missouri, and Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que and Slap’s BBQ on the Kansas side of town.
The first thing to know about Kansas City BBQ is that there is no specific cut, or even animal, that defines BBQ for its citizens. Ribs are most famous in the city, but at any given BBQ joint you may find brisket (including optional burnt ends), sausage, turkey, chicken, or pulled hams. All of these are worthy of a taste. The sauce tends to be sweeter than we’re used to at home; while KC Masterpiece isn’t our favorite by any means, the flavor of this mass-produced sauce should give you a basic idea of how the sauce tastes across most of Kansas City.
We could write an entire article on each place, but most importantly, we enjoyed each one of them immensely and we can see how all of them might be someone’s favorite. Gates (which has multiple locations in the city) had easily the most interesting (and, not by coincidence, the least sweet) sauce we tried.
Arthur Bryant’s offered the best ambience, as the pictures of numerous celebrities on the wall (including Presidents Carter and Obama) were a testament to its status as a Kansas City institution.
Joe’s offered the most variety in meats and sides, and was consistently high quality.
Slap’s might have been our clear favorite of all were it not for their sauce (a honey-loaded version that seemed more like teriyaki than BBQ); the brisket, sausage, and ribs were all phenomenal.
Take-home message: if you fancy yourself a BBQ connoisseur, a trip to Kansas City needs to be on your list. It might be on the very fringes of the BBQ universe, but it is nevertheless an important asset to American BBQ culture. We hope to be back soon to try even more places that we missed this go-around.