Kansas City 'Cue
I spent most of last week in the Kansas City area visiting my family for Christmas. And since neither kin nor Claus left me a slab of ribs or a plate of burnt ends under the tree, I had to go fend for myself. My friend Andy, who smokes meat as part of a local KC barbecue team, accompanied me to three joints he said were currently the "holy trinity" of KC 'cue. Here, in words and pictures, a belated gift for you.
Address: 5800 Blue Parkway, Kansas City MO 64129 [map]
We tried to start at Kansas City institution Arthur Bryant's, but the line was out the door and down the blocka queue of such a length neither Andy nor I had ever seen at Bryant's. We chalked it up to barbecue-starved out-of-towners getting their fix (like me) and drove on to LC's Bar-B-Q, on the southern edge of the city and a little more hidden from tourists.
As usual, LC himself sat at a table in the small and spartan dining room while his pit masters tended the smoker and its meaty contents. We ordered a short end of ribs and a pulled-pork sandwich to split. (Yeah, yeah, so our order was modestwe had to pace ourselves for the day's eating.)
I'd never had the ribs at LC's before, having always been steered toward the pulled-pork or brisket sandwiches by friends in the know. The ribs were a disappointment. Much too lean and none too meaty, they drew most of their flavor from the outer char, put there, Andy speculated, by some time on the grill.
The pork sandwich, however, was perfect, as usual. Piled high as a triple decker on soft slices of white bread, the meat was tender and juicy, with a good balance between fat and lean, and the flavor was smoky with a faint applelike finish.
Address: 3002 West 47th Avenue, Kansas City, KS 66103 [reviewed; map]. One other location at 11950 Strang Line Road, Olathe KS 66062
Oklahoma Joe's is, hands down, the best gas station I've ever had the pleasure of eating in. Having only been to Joe's suburban location in Olathe, Kansas, a more upscale affair in a megastrip mall, I'd assumed that the original restaurant I'd heard about had taken up residence in some sort of decommissioned art deco gas station in Kansas City, Kansas. Not the case. Along with your world-class 'cue, you also have the option of purchasing gas, motor oil, lottery tickets, and, oddly enough, an absurdly large selection of specialized disc-golf equipment.
The ribs here were the best of the three joints we tried, with just the right smokiness, ample meatiness, and a good amount of fat. Perhaps too much, Andy noted, as the bark of the rib he was gnawing on sloughed off the greasy layer just beneath. But, he said, "Better too much fat than none at all, like at LC's." Spoken like a true serious eater.
We also sampled the joint's "Carolina" sandwich (left), a zesty concoction of hot pulled-pork and cool, spicy coleslaw. The thing was seriously addictive, and I could understand why his wife warned him not to come home from our barbecue excursion without one for her. With take-home sandwich in tow, we ended our tour for the day. We would have hit more joints, but a detour for burgers at Town Topic had left little room even for Joe's, and the one other place we wanted to try, Jone's Barbecue in KCK, was closed for the holidays.
Address: 1727 Brooklyn Avenue 64127 [reviewed; map]. Other locations at the Ameristar Casino, 3200 North Ameristar Drive, Kansas City MO 64161 and the Legends retail development at 1702 Village West Parkway, Kansas City KS 66111
The following day, Andy and I resumed our tour with the one place we had to hit: Arthur Bryant's. The place is legend in Kansas City and beyond, with Calvin Trillin famously proclaiming it the "best restaurant in the world."
High praise like that almost sets expectations too high, and if judging by ribs alone, you'd think the Arthur's lovers were out of their minds. As at LC's, the ribs we ate were stingily lean on flavorful fat but did have substantially more meat on the bone.
But I've never gone to Arthur's for ribs. Here, at least for me, it's all about the burnt-end s. And they live up to the accolades. A plate with an open-face burnt-ends sandwich at Arthur's is a terrain of rich variety, both in texture and flavor. One nugget may be succulent and tender, with distinct notes of vinegar alongside juicy bursts of fat. Another may be satisfyingly chewy and ultra smokythey are, after all, the trimmed outer edges of a smoked brisket, the pieces that would otherwise dry out if left on the cut of meat.
At Arthur's, they're coated with the original house sauce and served with a couple slices of white bread and as many pickles as you please, unless the self-serve pickle jug near the register is depleted. On the tables in the cafeteria-style dining room are plastic squeeze bottles of extra saucethe original, a vinegary "Sweet Heat" variety, and a sweeter "Rich & Spicy" variant. The Sweet Heat hit the spot on this visit, and I'm kicking myself for not picking up a bottle on the way outthe line was just too long to stand in again.