Why Kansas City is America’s best barbecue city

A confession: The first time I went to Arthur Bryant’s, I hated it. I skated across that greasehouse floor on a Sunday afternoon and ordered the burnt ends with slaw. I left shaking my head. Maybe it was good back in the ’70s, but now that’s some kind of tourist trap.

I was wrong. Six months later, I stopped in again. This time, I ordered the sliced brisket sandwich with fries and loaded up on pickles and sauce. Suddenly, everything clicked. I mean, clicked. I saw fireworks and heard angels singing. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t find myself thinking about that sandwich. I’ve been known to call off other dinner plans and drive the family up to 18th and Brooklyn on a random Tuesday.

I’ve been mulling over that experience while working on this month’s barbecue issue, the product of a year’s research — and not just the fun kind that ends with Wet-Naps.

I’m from the opposite side of the Midwest, as far as you can go from here and still be in the Midwest. We didn’t have any barbecue beyond events known locally as “rib burn-offs.” I got interested in barbecue after reading a magazine story in 2005, and my introduction came with a heavy dose of pro-Texas propaganda. I made my first pilgrimage to Lockhart in 2007, and I’ve been back five or six times. I’ve made the rounds to North Carolina’s Skylight Inn, Rendezvous in Memphis, Franklin in Austin and many places in between.

Along the way, I picked up a deep affinity for the spartan Texas style that’s spawned coastal imitators in Gowanus and Culver City. It’s not that I was immune to the temptations of saucy ribs — my first meal in Kansas City was at Gates, and I loved the place — but if you’d asked me a few years ago about barbecue being served with french fries, I would have strongly objected.

That was Texas talking. The average Kansas Citian — whom I strongly suspect eats a higher poundage per capita of smoked meat from a wider variety of restaurants than anyone on earth — might not know or care, but the Lone Star State has established itself as the accepted standard over the past decade. Texas is a big state rich with pride and loud-mouthed people. Texas also has a media battalion that’s been aggressive about championing their unsauced ribs, saltine crackers and jarred pickles.

But with that has come serious erasure of older, richer barbecue traditions thriving in Kansas City. Every pitmaster in the most recent edition of the celebrated Texas Monthly top 10 was white — disconcerting given Texas is home to the nation’s largest black population and most barbecue historians agree that hardly any white people even knew how to make barbecue until the middle of the last century.

Which brings us back inside the ancient walls of Arthur Bryant’s.

I’ve learned the trick to getting real burnt ends at Bryant’s, and also learned that there’s much more to this restaurant than a single iconic dish that makes every tourist list. That’s the power of working through something like this barbecue issue — it demands that we go deeper, to understand why these traditions are so vital here.

Kansas City barbecue — hell, all barbecue — needs to be judged as the ancient art form it is, with allowances for all manner of deeply rooted tradition and improvisational flourish. Sorry, Texas: The very best barbecue is jazz, not a Wagner opera.

Now, I still like Texas barbecue, and you’ll find perfect simple salt-and-pepper Texas brisket at our number one pick. However, that rank wasn’t won by brisket (though it’s damn fine brisket) but by commitment to the craft of barbecue as it exists around the world. That spirit of inclusivity matched with a bone-deep respect for tradition of all stripes is what makes Kansas City the barbecue capital of the world.

Notable Numbers

8 different spellings of barbecue in this issue.

20 percent by which number of KC hotels will grow in four years.

$1,678 monthly lease for the T-Bones stadium, which the county bought off the team for $8 million. The team still skipped 45 of 48 payments.

1889 year of the last publicized bare-knuckle boxing match before its recent revival.

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