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.