Kansas City barbecue never gets the limelight it deserves. From burnt ends to lamb ribs, their barbecue is America’s hidden gem, yet to be discovered by the uninitiated masses.
It is not uncommon to overlook Kansas City, Missouri, a second-tier metropolis flanked on all sides by flyover states. Out-of-staters dismissively, and often ignorantly, refer to Kansas City as “Kansas” when it actually straddles the borderline between two states, Missouri and Kansas. Amid this backdrop of obscurity, Kansas City barbecue is the unsung hero in the annals of BBQ lore.
Their barbecue does not awe first-timers like that of a monstrous Texas brisket accentuated by the glorious lining of its pink smoke ring. It does not pique the curiosity of barbecue aficionados like Carolina style does with their famous pulled pork cooked on a spit roast and dressed in a vinegar mustard sauce. And it doesn’t have culinary ambassadors like Aaron Franklin spreading his brisket gospel to the non-proselytized America—all those weekend weber-grilling folks who associate “barbecue” with grilling hot dogs and hamburgers in their backyard.
Instead, Kansas City barbecue’s appeal humbly rests in its rich palette of sauces, seasonings, and specialty cuts of meat, all deriving from a history that traces back to WWI and the Great Depression. Every restaurant there has a few signature dishes waiting to be discovered: some are famous for their succulent burnt ends, while others are known for their hickory-smoked pulled pork and barbecue baked beans. Here are four authentic barbecue joints in Kansas City that every visitor needs to go to: LC’s Bar-B-Q, Arthur Bryant’s, Joe’s Kansas City, and Jack Stack Barbecue.
The interior of LC’s is minimalistic down to a tee. The dining area’s tables and chairs are the only things in one’s field of vision upon entering. This no-nonsense seating arrangement has no adornments, no memorabilia, and no tablecloths. It has no desire to impress anyone because the only thing that matters is what’s behind the narrow kitchen counter: the safety vault looking furnace, the smoker. LC’s sole smoker holds shelf grate after shelf grate of caramelized meat—bulky slabs of ribs, whole briskets, pork, etc.
Every time the pitmaster swings the smoker door wide open to skewer the meat with his Poseidon-like fork onto the chopping block, the overwhelming scent of hickory smoke engulfs the entire room. Once the smoke clears, one can see the juices from each meat-filled grate drip downward like an hourglass to the meat-filled grate below it, creating a heavenly chain of flavor distribution. On one of those grates rests the burnt ends, LC’s signature meat.
Burnt ends come from the point cut of the brisket, as opposed to the flat cut. The former is deckled in fat, while the latter is lean. From what is commonly understood, the origins of burnt ends sprung from pure serendipity. In the old days, pitmasters would slice the lean brisket for sandwiches and discard the charred fatty parts or serve them as a sample to customers waiting in line. Soon enough, the craze caught on and the demand put burnt ends at the forefront of menus all across the city.
At LC’s Bar-B-Q, a single burnt end chunk is twice the size of an average Kansas City burnt end, and their portion size per order can easily feed a famished party of three. For the mathematicians out there, the cube dimension of a single beef chunk is around 2 in. x 2 in. x 2 in. The fattiness of LC’s burnt ends allows the beef to develop flavor compounds in a gradual slow smoke, rendering the entire chunk to an amalgamation of smoke-infused fat, gelatinous tendon, and succulent beef. The crown jewel of the burnt end is the blackened bark, encrusted on the surface of each burnt end by the insulated waft of hickory wood. When the teeth sink into the chewy bark, the fatty layer beneath the bark compresses and imparts its richness over the entire chunk, bathing the tender beef below in another layer of flavor.
Arthur Bryant’s is in the 18th and Vine district, the birthplace of American jazz, and the Negro Leagues Museum. Their 100-year-old brick building emblazoned with a signature-font logo stands as a proud artifact of America’s industrial past. Upon entering, dated photos of celebrities, famous athletes, and politicians enshrined in wooden frames greet patrons. If Obama and Truman had their pictures taken at Arthur Bryant’s, that’s all the validation this establishment needs.
The setup resembles a soup kitchen or a mess hall in the barracks. The tatted-up pitmasters standing behind the glass-enclosed counter bark at customers one by one, demanding an immediate response. A friend of mine—an MMA fighter standing 6 ft. 3 in. with bulging muscles underneath his shirt—once said he felt reduced to a skittering mouse when the pitmaster snapped at him for mumbling his order.
They’re famous for their mile-high, thin-sliced barbecue meats. Looking at the prep cooks frantically push the commercial meat slicer carriage back and forth to produce a mound of meat on a thin sheet of wax paper, one might think Arthur Bryant’s is a neighborhood delicatessen. Their gargantuan beef sandwich is full of sliced lean brisket piled about five to six inches high in between two slices of flimsy wonder bread and served with piping hot fries, cut and fried on the spot with the skin intact. Their sausage sandwich is also unique because it’s not served as a link or in circular slices. Instead, it’s sliced into thin flavorful sheets of smoky seasoned pork. Others go with a heaping pile of pulled pork served on bread with pickles.
As a complement to their meaty sandwiches, Arthur Bryant’s vinegar-based tomato sauce is the antithesis of generic corn syrupy barbecue sauce. For first-timers put off by the earthy vinegary taste of the original sauce, the sweet heat sauce may be a better option—an orange-hued molasses-based tomato sauce with a slightly peppery finish.
Joe’s Kansas City
Formerly known as “Oklahoma Joes,” Joe’s KC is a powerhouse that smokes its legendary barbecue inside a gas station. I did not make a mistake: I mean, a real gas station on the Kansas side of Kansas City. Outside the gas station, the line snakes its way out to the parking lot with salivating customers inching their way little by little, only to find a dining area packed to the brim with diners munching on barbecue served on oval plates and black trays. During peak hours, not a single table is vacant unless a diner leaves, thus diners often circle around like vultures glancing at each other ready to swoop in on an open table.
The Z-Man is their signature sandwich. It consists of sliced brisket with melted provolone cheese, topped with two thick breadcrumb onion rings and barbecue sauce, nestled in a warm Kaiser roll. When biting into it, the crackling texture of the onion rings scrape the roof of the mouth before the creamy stretchiness of provolone and tender thin brisket pulls apart. The barbecue sauce lubricates the entire length of the tongue in sweet, tangy goodness.
The symphonic qualities of those four ingredients work together to create the G.O.A.T. sandwich, greater than the sum of its parts. After all, several barbecue championship banners festoon the walls of Joe’s KC. They attest to Joe’s greatness the same way those six Chicago Bulls titles hanging from the United Center rafters attest to Jordan’s greatness.
Jack Stack Barbecue
Jack Stack is the GQ of Kansas City barbecue. There’s a time and a place to eat barbecue with a knife and fork in a relaxing atmosphere. With ambient candle lighting and wood fixtures resembling the interior of a mountain cabin, Jack Stack is an ideal place to stop by for dinner en route to a swanky cocktail party. However, what truly stands out at Jack Stack are their specialty cuts of meats.
Their lamb ribs are to die for. The gaminess of the lamb and the hickory smokiness infused throughout the rib make this an addictive choice, leaving the eater with pure euphoria as the tender meat falls off the bone and melts in the mouth. Another specialty at Jack Stack is the dinosaur ribs. The short rib meat pulls off the bone, revealing chunks of tender meat, traces of tendon, and copious streaks of fat. Most diners just end up grabbing the bone with one hand and wolfing it down like a caveman because it’s the one item on the menu that’s almost impossible to eat using only cutlery.
For most of the country, beans are something eaten from a can. Not here. Hickory Pit Beans, Jack Stack’s signature side dish, are sweet, smoky, meaty, and spicy all at the same time. They are the perfect pairing for any smoked meat. What makes their beans special is how they’re cooked. They’re not baked in the oven or stirred in a pot: they’re smoked.
Their navy beans stew in a sea of their original barbecue sauce with chopped brisket and pulled pork. The beans spend the same amount of time in the smoker as the other meats, and they collect all the meat drippings from other meats smoking above them. By the time they’re done, the beans are savory, but molasses sweet. Bits of onion, peppers, and black specks of bark can be spotted floating in the sauce. It’s a spoonful of flavor explosion.
Kansas City barbecue doesn’t put on airs. It knows its own worth. It doesn’t care if outsiders never discover it, but it’s ready to make a lasting impression for those who do. For those who discover it, it’s their pearl of great price.