EDITED BY Martin Cizmar
WORDS BY Ardie Davis, Natalie Torres Gallagher, Mary Henn, Jordan Michelman
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Shawn Brackbill
HOW WE MADE THIS LIST
We hit the pits. We’ve been pretty much everywhere. We hit every new barbecue spot that’s opened since the release of our last list. We revisited our top ten from 2019 and made a point to check back with places on the bubble.
We hit the pits again. Anything that’s on our top ten was visited by someone on our team at least twice in the past six months to ensure consistency. We pay our own way and don’t announce ourselves.
We judge each place on its own merits. We tend to ask the person at the counter what’s good and get that. We ate a lot of ribs and brisket. We don’t like it when the meat’s being hidden by the sauce—but we sure do love sauce. This round, we gravitated toward spots that offer a few unexpected twists.
We don’t get hung up on the decor. We embrace both the romance of a gritty greasehouse and the comforts of nice cocktails and linen napkins.
It started with brisket. Well, brisket fat, actually. Tyler Harp was puzzling over what to do with all the drippings left over from Harp Barbecue, his twice-weekly barbecue pop-up in the back room of a Raytown brewery. What pairs well with beef fat? Harp’s mind went to chocolate chips.
Harp Barbecue’s tallow cookies are dark and squat—nothing you’d find on a Pinterest board—but there is a generous dusting of flake salt on top of each one. I tasted all kinds of things: smoke, gooey chocolate, brown sugar, an undeniable
meatiness. I was overcome by a primordial urge to devour what is delicious, closely followed by an instinct to hoard this delicacy for times of scarcity.
If Harp can do that with the drippings, just imagine the brisket itself.
Two years after we anointed it tops in town, Harp is still the best barbecue experience in Kansas City. In the last two years, the city has seen a raft of newcomers who have matched where Harp was two years ago. But Harp keeps setting the pace, getting a little better every time we visit.
Harp is still cooking in a wood-fired pit parked in the gravel lot out back of Crane Brewing. He’s still got Texas-style brisket—the crown jewel of his menu—ribs that shine like blue ribbon winners, and the cult-favorite blueberry-cheddar sausage. But he’s also making—well, cookies. And jerk chicken. And tater tot casserole.
Much of what is on Harp’s menu now is driven by the effects of the pandemic, namely, the record price surge for beef and pork. To give customers a less expensive option, Harp turned to chicken and found inspiration when he attended Chicago’s Windy City Smokeout this summer.
“One of the guys there has a spot called Green Street Smoked Meats, and he had a jerk chicken, and the one he made was the best bite I’ve had all year,” Harp says. “It made me want to give that experience to people, something different than the brisket-ribs-sausage plate.”
Harp’s jerk rub is a blend of the usual suspects (clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, anise seed, allspice) plus fresh thyme for brightness and ground long pepper. The birds are seasoned just before they are placed on the smoker. When they’re ready, Harp spreads the parts atop fluffy jasmine rice and finishes the plate with a citrusy jerk sauce that boasts a playful nip of habanero. One of Harp’s key strengths is balancing bold flavors, and his jerk chicken shows off this skill. Another strength—this one less technical, more elusive—is his ability to broaden the scope of
“You can learn a lot from different foods that are not traditional to Kansas City or American barbecue,” Harp says. “It’s a byproduct of traveling and being around people who care about food. It’s made us better and more open-minded about how we can blend other cuisines with what we’re trying to achieve.”
That includes tater tot casserole, his take on the Midwest classic. Harp offers it as a seasonal side and folds his sausage into the mix. Like everything else, it sells out fast.
The excellence of Harp’s basics is undisputed: the brisket, the ribs, the sausages. These are things that many do well and that Harp usually does better. But his brilliance shines brightest in the menu items you aren’t expecting, the ones you aren’t getting in line for. Sides that you’ll end up fighting over. Ambrosial chicken rubbed with an island of spices, cooked with such a focused patience that no drop of precious moisture dares escape the bird. Chocolate chip cookies that are at once as familiar as a kitchen-counter ceramic jar and as astonishing as it feels to fall in love for the first time. — Natalie Torres Gallagher
Stepping into Chef J BBQ in the West Bottoms is like turning up at your buddy’s house for dinner. Half the customers are sporting Chiefs gear. It’s likely that Zac Brown Band will be playing as Justin Easterwood ushers you in like an old friend whose name he’s temporarily misplaced.
This is no small feat given this particular pit is located in the concession stand of a seasonal haunted house. Wood paneling lines the walls, and iron chandeliers hang where Easterwood cooks. Stained-glass cutouts fill the counters where meat is sliced. It’s low-key, charming and very Kansas City—blending the nostalgia of Sunday cookouts and watching your uncle fix up his Camaro in the garage with
the eerie overtones of a 19th-century factory building.
That eccentric down-home vibe is just the crackling of the whole operation. Near-perfect barbecued meat is at its core. Easterwood makes everything from scratch, from an escabeche of jalepenos and carrots to a yellow-gold Carolina-
style mustard sauce. The house-made sauce is served in tiny containers to keep meat from being drowned by well-intentioned, overzealous patrons. It’s all prepped with care.
“Meat trimming and sausage prep can easily take a whole day,” Easterwood says. “Barbecue is all about timing, so I make sure to give myself leeway. The meat tells you when it’s done, not the time.”
Everything Easterwood makes is exceptional. The bacon burnt ends are melt-in-your-mouth meat candy. The jalapeno-cheddar sausage is exceptionally rich. The rib crust makes for a full sensory experience—I got teary-eyed on the first bite. Don’t snooze on the turkey either; it’s as moist as the brisket.
As for sides, instead of standard cheesy corn, Easterwood makes smoked elotes, sauced and spiced with a wedge of lime pressed into the center. It’s a hybrid of traditional Mexican street corn and cheesy corn bake—the ideal companion for brisket tacos and pulled pork nachos.
Speaking of tacos: Chef J will be serving them all this month until midnight. His location is a haunted house snackbar, after all, and with that comes the responsibility of feeding young, meat-thirsty crowds piling out of The Beast. It’s not a glory gig for an elite pitmaster. But someone has to do it, and Easterwood has arranged for the exit of the attraction to drop you off at the order counter—because he’s a good friend like that. —Mary Henn
Are you ready for Jones Bar-B-Q… chips?
Yes, they’re what they sound like—potato chips flavored with TV-famous sauce that’s bright and peppery, balanced with a little molasses.
“It’s something we’ve been working on for a minute,” says Deborah “Little” Jones, who runs the restaurant with her sister Mary “Shorty” Jones. “I sit at home and think about stuff that might interest people. Sometimes it does and sometimes it don’t.”
Deborah Jones’ ideas tend to be a little different. Like a coconut pineapple sauce that’s outbuzzing the original, which was made famous by the sisters’ appearance on Queer Eye. Or the vending machine out front, which dispenses items like rib tips wrapped in cellophane—it’s been a hit with the neighborhood around Jones’ humble cinder block building, which is outfitted with picnic tables and a weathered locker smoker.
“With Amazon and the railroad, there’s lots of late-shift people, and this was for them,” Deborah says. “We weren’t even thinking about Covid, but it worked out.”
At Kansas City magazine, we’re longtime admirers of the Jones sisters and their no-frills barbecue, the best of a rustic local tradition that they learned from their father, Leavy B. Jones Sr. My most recent visit to Jones was my best ever—two bones splashed with the house sauce were sticky and smoky in all the right ways, with a contrast in textures and depth of flavor it’s hard to get from polished processes. And the Wednesday wings were even better.
Years have passed since their memorable appearance on Queer Eye, but it continues to open doors and bring in new customers from out of town. And it makes things like barbecue chips possible. “We try to keep our stuff in Kansas City, but there was no one here that did chips like that,” Deborah says. “So I emailed a guy out of state and he wrote me back in half a second, ‘Are you the Jones sisters that were on Queer Eye?’”
They still take care of the old customers, too. Like Mr. Jones (no relation), who has been eating their food since their dad had a place on 10th Street, where he told people, “taste it—if you like it, buy it, and if you don’t, that’s fine.”
“Mr. Jones is older, and he doesn’t wait in the line,” Deborah says. “He’ll wave, ‘Excuse me, excuse me—I just want two sausages with extra pickles. I’m a forty-year customer. They know who I am. Can I get my sausages?’” —Martin Cizmar
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The next great KC ’cue chain? Jousting Pigs looks to be making a play.
Just two years after opening at 3Halves Brewing Co. in Liberty, owners John Atwell and Rod Blackburn are taking over the former Arthur Bryant’s near the Sporting stadium in KCK. “It kind of fell into our lap and seemed like too good of a deal to pass up,” Atwell says.
Growing into a small chain while keeping your product consistently excellent is a huge challenge. Many good men have failed at this endeavor. “We’ve been able to attract and train some really good talent,” Atwell says. “We need to be able to trust our pitmaster. We’ve got people who do it how it needs to be done and get it done right every time. That’s where you need to be. Look at a place like Franklin’s in Austin. Aaron Franklin isn’t out there cooking every brisket he does, but he’s trained up people who can do what he wants them to do.”
The mention of Franklin isn’t a toss-away. Jousting Pigs started as a competition team influenced by a memorable trip to Texas, where Atwell ate at Franklin’s, Snow’s and a few other operations famous for serving sauceless brisket, which is crusted with salt and pepper and sliced into thick, fatty slabs. Atwell staged with Tyler Harp, a high school classmate of his wife. “I was blown away by his food, like pretty much everybody else in Kansas City that’s had it.”
A recent visit shows Jousting Pigs has planted itself firmly among the city’s elite. They keep long hours and yet consistently turn out perfect ribs, some of the best beans in town and my personal favorite cheesy corn bake in KC, green chili cheesy corn with a nice pop of heat.
And then there’s the brisket. Jousting Pigs is the rare place in town where you can get perfect thick-sliced brisket on, say, a Wednesday. It’s the product of a hybrid process, which starts low and slow overnight before being finished faster after the pitmaster shows up at 4 am. “It comes off when it’s done—it’s not a time or temperature thing,” Atwell says.
The new location, the former Arthur Bryant’s, came outfitted with the same Old Hickory smokers that the original location uses—they’ve been cleaned and serviced for a second round. The larger new kitchen will allow for more catering gigs and let the company bottle their Korean and spicy sauces for retail sale.
Those sauces are both great. They’re served on the side and, despite the brisket being Texas-style, some customers do still ladle them on.
“As long as you don’t put ranch on it, I don’t really care,” Atwell says. “And, sadly, that has happened. This is the Midwest. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that some people really like ranch.” —Martin Cizmar
Q39 pitmaster Rob Magee does everything a little bit differently. The chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America, the Harvard of culinary schools, before breaking onto the competition circuit en route to opening his own spot. Magee knows a lot about the science of food, enough to ignore certain truisms and bits of folk wisdom.
“When you did the competitions, it was all about that [science], but you were only serving six judges,” he says. “I’ve got this cuisine I really fell in love with. I took everything I learned in the field and figured out how to do that in a restaurant.”
And Q39 is a restaurant—a barbecue restaurant, but a restaurant. It’s a place you get an appetizer, two drinks, maybe dessert. And, brisket. Low and slow is out here. Q39 makes a brisket in six hours, with the meat wrapped in foil to keep it moist. And they do that a couple times a day to make sure there’s fresh meat for lunch and dinner.
“I was told a million reasons why you can’t serve fresh barbecue,” Magee says. “I figured, if I’m going to have brisket going out to my customers, it has to be fresh out of the smoker and sliced to order.”
I’ve been to the Midtown Q39 twice in just the past month, and I’ve had two excellent experiences. The first time, I popped in by myself for wings and a smoked Old Fashioned with Four Roses and smoked honey. On the second visit, I brought out-of-town guests who eat all over the country. They had the wings and smoked Old Fashioneds—and ribs and brisket and the chipotle sausage, which is hand-cranked to have a satisfyingly gritty texture.
My friends, who’d both been to other notable barbecue bastions both in KC and abroad, were impressed by the same thing that always gets me here: the way Q39 can feel both down-to-earth and a little posh.
We also got the wings again—a dish that exemplifies why Q39 remains toward the top of this list. At Q39, they start with meaty jumbo-size wings that are marinated for a full day, then fried, then char-grilled, then smoked. It’s a complicated process, but it makes for a meal that stands out even in a town lousy with great wings.
“What really makes the wings work is the marination,” Magee says. “It keeps it really moist. The wings are cooked, like, three different ways, which makes it super delicious.” —Martin Cizmar
Four favorite sausages
Guajillo Beef Sausage at Fox & Pearl
The signature sausage Fox & Pearl chef Vaughn Good makes for his Sunday-only barbecue menu, branded as Night Goat, turns the fat content down just enough to let the bright berry-and-smoke flavor of guajillo peppers sing.
Blueberry-Cheddar Sausage at Harp
Less of a sausage and more of
a bite-sized charcuterie board, this beloved creation explodes with sweet, ripe blueberries, sharp white cheddar, fresh
herbs and-of course-gloriously beefy juices.
Chipotle Ghost Pepper Jack Sausage at Scott’s Kitchen
Do you enjoy pain? Does danger turn you on? Do you see a warning label and think it’s a dare? Haul yourself to Scott’s Kitchen up by the airport and brace yourself for the hotter-than-hell abuse that is their chipotle ghost pepper jack sausage. Milk is not on the menu, so bring your own.
Chipotle Jack Sausage at Jousting Pigs
If you’d like a little heat without losing sensation in your tongue, the chipotle pepper jack sausage at Jousting Pigs is a safe bet, with creamy cheese balancing the slow-burning spice.
It’s tough to see the forest for the trees, they say, or to tell the wheat from the chaff. Visitors to Kansas City are all but required by municipal ordinance to sample the twisting, turning foodway known as KC barbecue, a hodgepodge of influences and migrations from across the South and Midwest, as labyrinthine and complex as American history itself. Many come with a half dozen or more restaurants on their must-see list, eating little else. This is, of course, a rookie mistake: food in Kansas City does not start nor end with BBQ.
I am lucky enough to spend time in your city around once a year, which means my target list stays freshly updated with new wine bars, breweries, contemporary fine dining, food halls, coffee shops, and more—much more—in one of the country’s most exciting food and beverage cities.
But this is the barbecue issue, and there is really only one barbecue place that my soul demands to be reunited with every time I touch down at MCI, and that’s Gates.
I love everything about Gates: the dimly lit and comfortable dining room, so as to commit the sin of enthusiasm away from the bright lights of judgment; the late hours, suggesting a stop at Gates after having visited several other imbibing establishments in the course of a revelrous evening; the cognac bar at the Emanuel Cleaver Boulevard location, perhaps as classy and convivial of a drinking destination I’ve ever had the pleasure to know; and, of course, the service, from the greeting upon stepping foot inside (“HI MAY I HELP YOU?”) to the nodding hook-up from the carving line, slicing brisket and burnt ends to order. On my most recent visit, I ate there twice—in a single evening.
Yes, the food is very good. Gates is easily among the best barbecue restaurants in your city, and the Gates family’s history is a significant part of why this cuisine is synonymous with KCMO. But it is the vibe at Gates that is peerless, unmatched, sine qua non. It transcends the food itself and becomes something more, something important and meaningful, calling me and so many others to return across the decades, happy and hungry and welcomed.
There are many excellent barbecue establishments in Kansas City. And then there is Gates. —Jordan Michelman
With imperfect Spanish, I tried to tell the woman behind the window at El Pollo Guasave that I had questions for the owner of the little chicken shack on Central Avenue in KCK. She waved over the man operating the grill. He was wearing a white apron, and when I told him, “Tu pollo es el mejor de toda Kansas City,” his easy smile grew. He was very glad I liked it, he responded graciously in Spanish—before hailing his bilingual daughter to continue the conversation.
Felix has been operating El Pollo Guasave for sixteen years. He is originally from Guasave, the Sinaloan town where the iconic Mexican chicken chains El Pollo Loco and El Pollo Feliz were both born in 1975. There are only two options on the menu at El Pollo Guasave: Pollo entero (whole chicken) or medio pollo (half chicken). Both come with sides of rice and beans, plus corn tortillas and salsa. The Sinaloan signature style is all over the flavors in these birds, which first take a luxuriant bath in a vibrant orange-garlic marinade before getting butterflied and layered on a fiery grill.
In a text message, Jessica, Felix’s daughter, kindly declined my request for an interview, adding that her father is “old-fashioned.” Over numerous visits, we have ascertained the following: The chicken at El Pollo Guasave is never frozen (there’s no room for a freezer). The grill operates on an assembly-line model, with the birds migrating across it to be cooked at different temperatures during its hour-ish of cook time. We have surmised that this method creates a depth of flavor that most other places, where the grill temp is consistent, can’t attain. The result is a charred, citrusy chicken whose juicy flesh is practically leaping from the bone directly into your mouth.
Kansas City barbecue is built on borrowed techniques and traditions: It is a mashup of all the best things from other regions. And so we aren’t interested in the semantic argument about whether grilled chicken is technically “barbecue” or not. The racks of ribs at Charlie Vergos in Memphis spend similar time on a similar grill, and no one has ever questioned its barbecue bonafides. In the Kansas City spirit of embracing outside influences, we are deeming Sinaloan-style charbroiled chicken to be barbecue—and damn good barbecue, when it’s done right. Before complaining, please stuff a medio in your mouth. —Natalie Torres Gallagher
GIMME THE BIRD
Honestly, I’m not much for brisket. I know when it’s done well, and I know how to appreciate it, just as I can recognize the inherent superiority and grace of, say, Olympic shot-putters. But give me a juicy, well-spiced bird, its skin flame-reddened and speckled with black char —give me El Pollo Guasave—and I become a barbecue evangelist.
When it comes to ’cue, beef and pork get all the glory. While everyone was looking the other way, Kansas City has been slowly fanning the flames of its barbecue poultry game. When I say, “I love barbecue chicken,” I am not talking about the Costco thighs you threw on the gas grill, slathered with Kraft sauce and forgot about until the bottom of your third beer. I am referring to the birds that receive significantly more attention: The whole cherry wood-fired chicken at Poio (807 S. 17th St., KCK), for instance, which is brined for a full day in a garlic-chili-vinegar mix and tastes like waking up from a wonderful, vivid daydream. At Buck Tui, birds are blessed in a Thai marinade of citrus, fish sauce, lemongrass and coriander before they are smoked low and slow over hickory, oak and cherry wood, then served on a bed of jasmine rice.
You can smell the chicken at El Pollo Rey (901 Kansas Ave., KCK) from several blocks away. Here, dozens of plump birds are moved down a long wood-fired grill while the woman at the counter calls out orders for whole chickens, half chickens and wings. The chicken king likes to pair this smoky bird with pickled red onions, tortillas and a zippy pink salsa. —Natalie Torres Gallagher
Jack Stack has been one of the most recognizable names in Kansas City barbecue for decades.
Since Russ Fiorella opened the first storefront in 1957, the brand has expanded to include five locations in Missouri and Kansas (a sixth is coming soon to Johnson County).
What it does well today are the same things it has always done well, the things it must do well: brisket, steak, ribs. They begin the same way today that they did over sixty years ago, with a live fire in a brick pit over hickory logs built as the sun is cresting over the horizon.
For a long time, I disliked the idea of Jack Stack. When I arrived in Kansas City in 2013, I saw the stylish chain and the salad section and decided whatever made it popular had probably sizzled out. But on a busy Friday evening last month, as I leaned back into a booth at the Country Club Plaza and considered the full rack of lamb ribs in front of me, I realized I had played into the tired trope of snobbish food critic. And the joke was on me.
Those lamb ribs start with ample dry rub—a combination of onion, garlic, cayenne and brown sugar—before they are transferred to the grill, where a half-hour in the heat renders them a tender, smoky bronze. On the plate, the rack gets a zigzag of shiny glaze and two sides before it is sent to silence the hunger of the carnivore who ordered it.
Earlier this year, I sent my family in Texas a care package consisting mostly of Kansas City barbecue sauce and rubs. They’re big barbecue people, of course. (If you’re not serving barbecue at a Texas wedding, does the marriage still count?) Included in the package was a bottle of Jack Stack Barbecue Kansas City Hot Sauce.
A few days after opening the mail, my Uncle Mingo texted me: “We just had wings and I have to tell you, this sauce is the best I’ve ever tasted, way better than any we have had before. We’re ordering more.” I think I’ll send them Jack Stack’s lamb ribs, too. —Natalie Torres Gallagher
Stop lyin’ on Kansas City barbecue.
Kansas City invented sweet barbecue. Uh, no. The sauce Henry Perry made at the first commercial establishment in the city was “harsh” with spice and pepper. His disciple, Charlie Bryant, also made extremely spicy sauce. The number of KC establishments that “slather” their meat in “thick, sweet” sauce is tiny.
KC barbecue is a “style.” It’s really more of a philosophy. Many establishments that have been serving “traditional” Kansas City barbecue for decades do things differently. There is no signature cut or sauce. It’s a vibe.
Kansas City is Kansas. Or Missouri. Kansas City is Kansas City. It transcends the concept of borders. When someone obsesses over a particular establishment’s placement relative to the border, they’ve missed the point entirely.
Gates and Arthur Bryant’s are the two oldest barbecue spots in the city. Rosedale Bar-B-Q is older, unless you get weird with the definitions.
Go to Arthur Bryants early if you want burnt ends! Arthur Bryant’s invented the burnt end— the crispy, fatty edge of the brisket point—originally offered as a complimentary amuse bouche to waiting customers. Burnt ends are by definition in limited supply, so they meet demand by making a totally different thing and calling it “burnt ends.” Real AB burnt ends are available on the 3B sandwich.
Teddy Liberda is half Thai, half German and all KC. Liberda and his family have been “all over the city, man,” running restaurants since Liberda’s mother opened her first in 1991.
Times and tastes have changed, which you can see from the menu at Waldo Thai Place, the restaurant Teddy owns with his wife, Pam. A health problem sidelined Teddy shortly after the restaurant opened, and his wife, a native of the northern Thai city of Lampang, redid the menu to her own tastes.
“My wife took over as the chef and started doing the straight-up native food,” he says. “We only do it one way, and we bring the heat. It was hard in the beginning, and now she’s killing it.”
The couple is, Teddy admits, a little competitive. And so now that he’s back from the mend, he’s got his own new project, currently operating at the Overland Park Farmers Market but soon to take over a space at 119th and Metcalf.
Buck Tui serves barbecue the way Teddy grew up eating it. That’s with papaya salad and jasmine rice. The cheesy corn is enriched with a little coconut milk.
“I’m from Kansas City, so we’ve always barbecued,” Teddy says. “I’m half German, half Thai, so we’re always barbecuing. And those flavors really come together.”
The first time I had a Thai-American barbecue mashup was at a food festival in Portland. The best local pitmaster in town had collaborated with a successful Thai restaurateur to create a one-off dish they called “smoked brisket jungle curry.” It was the talk of the festival—I have a vague, booze-sodden memory of overhearing noted Thai food chefs Andy Ricker and David Thompson discussing it at an afterparty. It birthed a very successful restaurant, Eem.
The secret, as Buck Tui shows, is that bright, hot, fruity, complex Thai flavors pair extremely well with smoky, earthy American barbecued meats.
“In Thailand, they’ll marinade or salt cure or brine pretty much all the meat—they don’t have big offset smokers like we do,” Teddy says. “You have that fish sauce, palm sugar, anchovy, lemongrass, coriander. We have all that, and then we cook it Kansas City-style, low and slow, open pit.”
And then you dip it in tiger cry sauce?
The challenges of serving a consistent product when you’re cooking a creative new menu just once a week in the summer heat are real, but Teddy says, “We like a challenge.”
That challenge will be done soon, and you can expect Buck Tui to soar even higher from here. “Mainly, I’m trying to get some of the barbecue people to try Thai food, man,” Teddy says. “As a chef, it’s something my whole team is enjoying.” —Martin Cizmar
Like the name says, Char Bar in Westport is a bar where the food is (lightly) charred. Three whole wings are brined in coffee and smoked, then sopped with a spicy sauce and served next to a large dipping cup of buttermilk-chive dressing.
Wednesday Wings at Jones
At Jones Bar-B-Q in KCK, wings are a Wednesday special. Jones smokes their wings whole until the skin starts to bubble a bit, then splashes them with the house’s excellent sauce and plates three whole wings on a slice of white bread. They’re both simple and perfect.
Q39 calls its wings “the best in the world,” and there’s certainly a case to be made for that claim. Six flats or drummies come on a rectangular platter with a nice coating of smoky chipotle barbecue sauce.
Some of the best little barbecue spots are the product of one person’s passion. Such is the case at Big T’s on Blue Parkway, where things are at their best when Timothy Jones is personally manning the old wood-fired pits.
Jones, no relation to the sisters of KCK, got into barbecue through his father, Oscar, who placed second in the earliest years of the American Royal. They cooked for everyone in the neighborhood back in those days.
Jones, who is pushing retirement age, is an excellent barbecue cook. His sliced brisket with a splash of bright-orange sauce and a heap of pickles on white bread is the best of his style of barbecue I’ve ever encountered. The fries, when at their peak, are fat and hot, fried dark brown. Forget the ketchup; sop them in sauce. I’ve been to Big T’s more times than I can count since discovering it before our last barbecue issue (the drive-thru was especially welcome at peak pandemic), and things do vary a little more these days—though the floor is still relatively high.
“Kansas City has a reputation for barbecue, and people are taking advantage of that out here,” Jones says. “I think if people really knew what they were getting with Kansas City barbecue, they’d eliminate a lot of the other places.” —Martin Cizmar
Slicing vs. Sawing
“Hey, Mr. Big Time Chef, that’s a knife, not a saw,” KC Baron of Barbecue Paul Kirk remarked to the late Anthony Bourdain, as Bourdain sliced some barbecue brisket for the opening snippet of a culinary travel show in Kansas City. Bourdain responded to Kirk with a good-natured “no holds barred” chuckle at his knife skills relapse.
Judging from the many online videos of barbecuers slicing meat, plus watching pitmasters at barbecue cooking contests and in restaurants when the electric meat slicer isn’t in use, there’s a lot of meat sawing going on in Kansas City.
That begs the question: “What’s the best knife for slicing barbecue brisket?” Ambrosi Brothers Cutlery Co. on Main Street is a landmark destination for chefs and home cooks in need of new cutlery or cutlery maintenance, so I put the question to Ambrosi sales representatives Steve Lutes. Without hesitation Lutes replied, “A fourteen-inch slicer.” Lutes also noted that a sharp knife is essential. More than eight-hundred local restaurants, plus hundreds of home cooks, get their knives sharpened at Ambrosi Brothers.
I also put the question to chef Richard McPeake, instructor at Kansas City Kansas Community College, the Culinary Center of Kansas City and other venues. McPeake has instructed culinary professionals and home cooks in Kansas City for decades. He is also a veteran of Kansas City’s competition barbecue circuit, competing in past years with select students as the “RibStars” team.
He teaches sold-out Adult Knife Skills classes at the Culinary Arts Center and KCK Community College, with an emphasis on proper knife safety, speed and efficiency. “When slicing brisket for service, it is best to have a fourteen-inch meat slicer so that you slice through the brisket with two strokes,” he says. “‘Sawing’ leads to tearing the meat and uneven slices. A great meat carver gets his slices in one stroke, two at the most if it is a large piece of meat.” —Ardie Davis
ALSO OF NOTE:
This Jazz District “greasehouse” is one of the city’s oldest and, if you’re there on the right day, one of the best. We like the 3B sandwich or beef on bread with lots of pickles and the President’s Choice sauce. (The president is Truman, of course.)
Aunt Mildred’s #10
The story of Aunt Mildred’s #10 goes back to 1944, to a little town called Portland, Arkansas. There, McArthur Williams had a restaurant called Mac’s Barbecue. His daughter Mildred brought it to Rockford, Illinois, where she had a restaurant called The Rib Cage. Third-generation pitmaster Earstin Sanders came to KC, where he sells bottled sauces and cue at a truck on Truman Road in Independence.
One of the city’s all-time great patios, Char Bar in Westport draws a hip crowd for lawn games, ribs and excellent people-watching. The sandwiches are the play here—the best value and easiest to eat while tossing bocce balls.
Danny Edwards BLVD BBQ
This Southwest Boulevard spot’s namesake retired three years ago, with longtime pitmaster Joel Bremer taking over. Wednesday corned beef is our favorite, but we’ll happily take any brisket-based sandwich.
Fox & Fire
One of the best new pits in the area, Fox & Fire closed to move to a new spot in the far Northland as we went to press.
Joe’s Kansas City
Also widely known by its original name, Oklahoma Joe’s, this landmark on the border of Johnson and Wyandotte counties is the first impression many have of KC barbecue. And, for a lot of people passing through, the only impression. That’s fine, of course: Joe’s makes a mean sandwich, some of the best fries you’ll eat and really nice ribs, too.
Is Plowboys the youngest of the old guard or the oldest of the new guard? It’s a good question to ask yourself about this pit run by competition circuit big dog Todd Johns as you wipe sauce off your face. Pulled pork nachos are the way to go here.
Porky’s Blazin BBQ
Porky’s sits on the far edge of Jackson County and came in at number ten on our previous list. It’s out of the way from everywhere and only open weekends, but you can order anything with confidence.
“Night Goat” is the branding for Westside restaurant Fox & Pearl’s Sunday barbecue brunch menu. Chef Vaughn Good is a talented cook. If you’ve got the juice for a $10 link of pork sausage or a $6 side of pickles, you could do much worse. Avoid the $3 house-made slices of white bread on the side that, on our visit, were inexplicably toasted and buttered when served as an accompaniment to brisket.
Scott Umscheid’s restaurant near the airport has appeared on past editions of our top ten list—and for good reason, given the excellence of his thick-cut, bark-heavy brisket and uber-moist turkey.
Slap’s in KCK enjoys a loyal following. We love their cheesy corn.
Come for the wood,
leave with a sandwich. This charming patio eatery initially opened to serve food to customers buying logs from the aisles out back for their own smokers. The cheddar-jalapeno muffins, served warm, are a favorite.
This classic KC spot smokes on Ozark hickory and seemingly always has a great special running.