[Erin Schramm (along with her trusty side-dog, Clara) is an elementary school Library Media Specialist (read: school librarian) currently living in Lawrence, KS. She enjoys books, Lays Dill Pickle potato chips, and that trusty side-dog mentioned above.]
I am absolutely not the expert on Kansas City barbecue. I haven’t even been to all four of the places everyone talks about. I’ve been here since August, and I’m three-fourths of the way there. Patience is a virtue or something like that. The fact of the matter is, I grew up in Kansas, and after fourteen years away, I’ve returned to the motherland while most of my friends (including the editors of this esteemed site) have yet to step foot in the land of
sunflowers and “sacks.” (I’ll know you’re a true Kansan ex-pat, or ex-pat come home,
if you get that joke.) Therefore, you’re stuck with me and my dubious opinions.
So. Barbecue. Ahem. If you weren’t already aware, Kansas City is known as the Barbecue Capital of the World. According to VisitKC.com, there are more than one hundred barbecue restaurants from which to choose. But how did this carnivorous heaven come to be? It all started with a man named Henry Perry. Perry was born in Tennessee, and when he was fifteen he found work aboard steamboats traveling up and down the Mississippi River. In 1908, having landed in Kansas City the year before, he decided to use the cooking skills he’d acquired working in the steamboat kitchens and go into business for himself. He started selling smoked meat to laborers from a back alley in the Garment District of Kansas City. His food was so popular that he eventually opened a restaurant that was passed down to Charlie Bryant, one of Perry’s employees, upon Perry’s death in 1940. If the name Bryant sounds familiar, it should: Arthur Bryant (Charlie’s brother) bought the restaurant from Charlie and turned it into one of the most successful barbecue joints in KC to this day (which I, personally, don’t understand at all, but we’ll get to that in a minute). If you want to learn more about the great Henry Perry, check out this article from the Kansas City Public Library (coincidentally, where I got my info!).
Of the one-hundred-plus meat-smokin’, sauce-mixin’ entities, four have been chosen by the people as stand-outs. Those four are Oklahoma Joe’s, Gates, Arthur Bryant’s, and Fiorella’s Jack Stack BBQ. I’ve actually been to all four of these restaurants, but I went to Jack Stack’s so long ago that I don’t remember it and therefore that visit doesn’t count. So, I’ll check it out again and write an addendum to this post at some point in the near future. My apologies, Jack Stack’s. For now, let’s concentrate on the other three, starting with Gates.
Gates Bar-B-Q restaurants are arguably the biggest barbecue institution in all of KC. Another former Perry employee, Arthur Pinkard, helped George Gates start the restaurant in 1946. Today, there are six locations throughout KC, and they’re known just as much for the atmosphere as for the food itself. The restaurant is set up cafeteria-style, so you get in line, look at all of the side-dish offerings behind the glass case, check out the meat options on the menu behind that, and order at the register… except you better hurry that shit up, because if you don’t, you will get yelled at by the cashier. But that’s all part of the fun. There is a lot of yelling, both to customers and among the employees themselves. If you’re a delicate flower, this place might not be for you, though it didn’t really bother me. The food, however, was literally unmemorable. As in, I ate some variety of barbecue sandwich (beef?) and I think I had a side of potato salad? Since I had no idea I’d be writing this completely informal review of my food a few months down the line, I obviously didn’t take copious notes. I believe I liked the original sauce, but other than that, I remember thinking that I could easily not eat there again in my life and be perfectly fine with that. And that’s not good.
Moving on to Arthur Bryant’s: You got a little history of this one earlier in this post and that’s good enough for me. According to Calvin Trillin, Arthur Bryant’s was “the single best restaurant in the world,” and to that I say either the food has changed immensely since the ’70s or Calvin Trillin was on crack. You guys, I know I’m going to get all kinds of shit for this, but I do not understand the accolades and hype over this place. I just ate here today. As in five hours ago. It was possibly the worst barbecue I’ve ever eaten. The burnt ends were fatty and not very burnt. The ribs were dry. The sauce… oh my god, the sauce. It was awful. Now, I will grant that I am not big on lots of spices and herbs, and this sauce tasted really, really spice-y to me. Not spicy as in hot, but “spice-y” as in full of lots of spices. Maybe you are a spice person and you would like it. I did not. I almost want to try a different location (which a few friends have advised) because I’m so perplexed about why people rave over this food. Surely, something just went awry with my personal experience? But then I think about having to eat that food again and just… no.
So, I saved the best for last. And by “the best” I mean the motherloving best (well, unless Jack Stack’s happens to actually be the best but… no, it’s not possible to be better than this). Seriously folks, if you take a trip to Kansas City and you don’t eat at least one meal at Oklahoma Joe’s you are doing yourself a major disservice. Oklahoma Joe’s is a mere child on the scene compared to Bryant’s and Gates, having opened its first KC location in 1996. According to the Oklahoma Joe’s website, Jeff Stehney, Oklahoma Joe’s owner, started out on the barbecue competition circuit, using an Oklahoma Joe’s twenty-four-inch smoker. Jeff, along with his competition team Slaughterhouse Five, won numerous Grand Championships as well as so many other prestigious awards that they became generally recognized as one of the top competition barbecue teams in the country. Amid all of the award-winning, Jeff and Joe Don Davidson (owner of the Oklahoma Joe’s Smoker Company) decided to go into the restaurant business together. The first Oklahoma Joe’s restaurant was opened in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in January of 1996, with the KC location opening in August of the same year. Eventually, the Oklahoma location closed when Joe decided to sell the smoker company and there was no one left to oversee the restaurant. Jeff bought out the KC location, and we are all eternally grateful that he did. Anthony Bourdain himself named Oklahoma Joe’s one of his 13 Places To Eat Before You Die.
There are two Oklahoma Joe’s locations: the original, which is connected to a gas
station, and a second location on 119th and Roe, which is a stand-alone building (and a little bit more like a mid-range sit-down restaurant). At both locations, you get in line, order your food, pick it up, and then go get a table. Those who get a table before they’ve gotten their food face the silent wrath and major side-eye of fellow barbecue eaters as well as the wait staff. Now, the food. I have been to Oklahoma Joe’s several times since I moved back to Kansas eight months ago, and I have yet to eat something that’s not completely delicious. The brisket is flavorful and smoky. The chili has brisket in it, along with chunks of jalapeno and pork rinds on top. The onion rings are huge and fried until they are crunchy-crispy. But my favorite thing at Oklahoma Joe’s, hands down, is the ribs. Extremely meaty, juicy, tender, smoked to perfection, and topped with their signature tangy-with-just-a-hint-of-sweet sauce… my description doesn’t even touch the surface of how perfect these ribs are. Every time I go, they’re better than I remember them being the last time I was there. Every. Single. Time. It’s simply the best barbecue KC has to offer.
Next time you’re in KC, you should definitely try out one (or two, or three) of the dozens of great barbecue restaurants the city has to offer. These three are just the tip of the iceberg. Bring your appetite, and lots of napkins.