For the Love of BBQ – KC Edition

The planning stages of our trip began innocently enough. My wife suggested that we go somewhere besides St. Louis to watch the Cardinals play baseball this summer. One glance at the schedule and we noticed that they were playing a weekend series in Kansas City; which, obviously led to the desire to expand our barbecue travels westward.

So I did a little research. I knew that KC had a signature style, which had a highly regarded reputation, but I honestly knew very little about it. I knew that it was sauce based – but, like many uniformed idiots, thought that it would at least be similar to its namesake, KC Masterpiece… It wasn’t.

We were going to be there three days, so I chose three places; two supposedly “original” KC style joints and one slightly newer restaurant. I also made sure that I could order (for the most part) the same meats at each place so that I was comparing apples to apples; or in my case, Pork Ribs & Beef Burnt Ends to Pork Ribs & Beef Burnt Ends.

We started at Arthur Bryant’s – a BBQ joint with direct connections to Henry Perry, who is commonly referred to as the “father of Kansas City barbecue.” The ribs didn’t have nearly the amount of sauce I was expecting – which was fine with me – but they also lacked that good smoky flavor I’ve come to expect from Memphis style. The burnt ends were good; cut into good size chunks with plenty of bark. My only problem with them was that they were covered in the sauce, which detracted from the flavor of the meat.

On day two we went to another place whose roots can be traced back to Henry Perry; Gates Bar-B-Q. Again, the ribs were pretty good – a bit saucier than Arthur Bryant’s – but not bad. The burnt ends on the other hand had a good flavor, but were chopped so fine and swimming in sauce that it was more like eating barbecued hash. I didn’t care for them at all.

On day three, we waited for 45 minutes to get a table at Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue. The restaurant itself felt more like a sit-down, chain restaurant than a classic BBQ joint, but the food was really good. It almost pains me to say it, but I think I preferred the meat here to the other two “KC Original” places. It was smoky, not over-sauced, and cooked just right.

 

A few random thoughts:

  • What’s with all the french fries? KC’s menus were not easy to decipher, and for some reason, if you didn’t ask for (and pay extra for) a different side dish, you got fries. I personally don’t care for fries, but at least it gave me a delivery system to try their different sauces.
  • Pickles. That’s right; pickles. Everywhere we went served pickles with their barbecue. I’m not complaining – I just thought it was kind of weird. I suppose it could be Kansas City’s answer to Memphis’ slaw – but I don’t know.
  • Seriously, the menus are terrible. Even our ten-year-old niece noticed. Everything was very vague, and everything I asked for, I was promptly told that I couldn’t do. It was confusing, and the ladies behind the counter were little or no help.
  • Something else I wasn’t expecting; I liked the sauce. It’s a thick, tomato & molasses based sauce that’s as spicy as it is sweet. And I do love spicy-sweet foods!
  • Oddly enough, the best thing I ate in KC was a brioche bread pudding from the Bloom Baking Co. at the City Market. Amazing little bakery. Don’t miss it it if you happen to find yourself in the City of Fountains.

So, in conclusion, Kansas City barbecue wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. Luckily it was a bit better than I expected. But for me, it still doesn’t hold a candle to the honest-to-goodness, dry-rubbed, slow-smoked Memphis-style ‘cue that I know & love.

Pork Paradise

While driving down Poplar Avenue, a little over an hour after arriving in the wonderful city of Memphis for our annual Spring Break trip, a small SUV passed us on the right. Among the ten or twelve bumper stickers plastered across the back of the bright blue vehicle, one immediately caught our eyes. It said “MEAT IS GROSS”. I looked over at the driver and said, “No. No, meat is wonderful. While I respect your right to have an opinion, in this case you are just wrong. We just drove FOUR hours in order to spend FOUR days consuming as much barbecued meat as humanly possible in the world capital of smoked pork. Meat is most certainly NOT gross!”

Of course, no one heard me say any of this besides my wife, who just giggled and rolled her eyes.

We decided to begin this year’s visit with a quick stop at Leonard’s Pit Barbecue for a hearty meal before checking into our hotel downtown. We had been to Leonard’s before, but only for the buffet. We ordered off the menu this time – and in a rare move, we ended up ordering the exact same thing; the rib and pork shoulder combo platters. We also ordered a basket of onion rings for an appetizer, which honestly was a mistake on our part. They were delicious, but there were too many of them and our bodies just aren’t used to that much fried food. We barely ate half of the basket.

The ribs were very good, but not quite knock-your-socks-off good. We ordered them dry, and they were tender and juicy. I only had two complaints; first, even though it had a very visible pink smoke ring, I didn’t get a strong smoky flavor from the meat. My second complaint was with the rub. It was very seasoned-salt heavy which really made it a bit too salty for my taste. The pork shoulder was better though. Probably the best bite I had was when I made my own slider by piling some of the meat on a small dinner roll with a little of their sauce and a fork-full of slaw. It was an overall above-average barbecue meal, even with my few minor complaints.

We then made our way to our hotel and finished the night off with a high-energy Red Hot Chili Peppers concert at the FedEx Forum. I’m sure that helped us work off any excess calories we consumed with those onion rings (not).

On day two, we started early with a quick sandwich at what is apparently a Memphis institution, but one we had never actually tried, Tops BBQ. I learned quickly that there is a reason they’ve been around for 60 years and have 14 locations – and it’s definitely NOT the service, which was frankly rude and impatient. Fortunately the food made up for it. It was an honest-to-goodness Memphis-style BBQ sandwich served lightning fast. It was a nice way to start the day.

Later on we found our way to Cozy Corner, another place we had been to before, but just had to try again. I ordered the large rib plate and she got the Cornish hen – then we split the meat so that we could each try both. They don’t serve their meat dry, which I prefer, but instead covered in their signature sweet and spicy sauce (more spicy than sweet actually, which works for me). I will say this – if I have to eat “wet” ribs, these are the ones I want! Both entrees were outstanding – even if they’re impossible to eat with even an ounce of decorum.

We laid pretty low on Saturday, choosing instead to walk around downtown, make the obligatory trip up Beale Street, and ride the trolley around the loop before enjoying a large mid-day meal at one of our favorite que joints; Charlie Vegos’ Rendezvous. Unlike some people, we like the fact that there are virtually no choices at the ‘Vous. We want ribs and they come dry (just like we like them), there’s no such thing as unsweetened tea, and every meal is served with slaw & beans (period). But it has yet to disappoint us.

Before heading home on Sunday, we had to try somewhere we had never been, so on the advice of the blogger over at Memphis Que, we went to a place we might’ve passed right by otherwise; Double J Smokehouse & Saloon. It’s not just “new” to the Memphis barbecue landscape, it just officially opened in March – but it was immediately obvious that they knew what they were doing. I ordered ribs (duh) and the wife got pork steak. I am usually suspicious of too many options at a place that is supposed to be a BBQ joint, fearing that what I’m there for will suffer from lack of attention. But that wasn’t the case at the Double J. Everything we had there was amazing, from the BBQ Egg Rolls appetizer to the grilled asparagus. But the star of the show, as it should be, was the meat. The ribs were tender and juicy. I could be wrong, but I think they were a different, slightly fattier cut than most of the ribs in town which gave it kind of a bacon flavor – not that I’m complaining. And the pork steak was equally tender and delicious. What a great way to end our 2012 spring break!

Of course, we also went to two Redbirds ballgames, and though they lost both nights, we did get to partake in one of the best reasons to go to AutoZone Park – Rendezvous BBQ Nachos. We have always just got the standard pulled pork ones in the past so we decided to mix it up by ordering the smoked sausage one night and the pulled chicken the next. Both were amazing. That’s right, we ate barbecue in one form or another seven times in four days.

So, NO – meat is absolutely NOT gross.

Especially in Memphis.