Kansas City and Its Barbecue

Jack Stack Burnt Ends

Jack Stack Burnt Ends, and Hickory Pit Beans

The people of Kansas City take their Bar-B-Que seriously. It’s kind of like politics where everyone has their passionate opinion and is firm in it. I typically don’t do food or restaurant reviews unless I’m truly moved by the experience and must share it. However, when you repeatedly hear that you have to eat some barbecue while in Kansas City, then you gotta do it.

So, what is Kansas City Barbecue? It’s a variety of meats slow-smoked over a variety of wood and then covered with a thick tomato and molasses-based sauce.

Before I arrived, I started doing my research. I put out an All-Points Bulletin on Facebook asking people what they knew about barbecue in KC. This is a small sample of the responses:

Friend, “Go to Gates.”

Friend, “I would go with Oklahoma Joe’s over Jack Stack.”

Friend of a Friend, “Don’t get sucked into the “You HAVE to try Gate’s BBQ. I didn’t care for it the whole 10 years that I live there.”

Once I arrived in Kansas City, from the first evening, I’d ask people, “Who has the best barbecue?” The first three people replied; Gates BBQ.

But, then a few started to mention Jack Stack, which up to this point, I hadn’t heard of.

Then there were the self-applonited connoisseurs who liked to break it down by the menu items:

“Jack Stack has the best burnt ends!”

“Gates has the best barbecue sauce!”

“Get the beans at Gates!”

“Arthur Bryant’s is the spot for beef barbecue!”

“If you like ribs you have to go to Oklahoma Joe’s!”

I decided to check out Gates first which is one of the oldest barbecue joints in Kansas City. Gates has been serving barbecue in Kansas City since the late 1946. Arthur Pinkard was a cook for a man named Henry Perry, who is known as the “Father of Kansas City Barbecue.”  When Perry died, Pinkard partnered with George Gates to open Gates & Sons. Gates is a casual spot, with fast food type service lines and appearance. I had their beef sandwich on a bun, with barbecue sauce. I thought the meat was good, but I wasn’t a fan of the barbecue sauce.

Gates Barbecue Signage

Gates Barbecue Signage

The following night I went to Arthur Bryants. Charlie and Arthur Bryant originally worked for Henry Perry. In 1940 when Perry died, they took over and renamed the restaurant. Its claim to fame is that three US Presidents have dined there. I went to the original location on Brooklyn & 18th and found the place too busy for a sit-down meal. I had to yell through a window to place my to-go order. In order to get a sampling, I ordered a pound of a variety of meat; pulled pork, beef, and sausage, and I got a sampling of the barbecue sauces.
Arthur Bryant Interior - Brooklyn St Location

Arthur Bryant Interior – Brooklyn St Location

Once I arrived back at my hotel, I stopped by the hotel restaurant to get a plate and a place setting for my food. This sparked another conversation about which restaurant serves the best barbecue. Both the hostess, and the waiter replied, “Jack Stack.”

I was like, “Really?” They were like, “Yep.” Then I said, “I went to Gates last night. The meat was good, but I didn’t really care for the sauce.”

I was immediately interrupted by a, “Oh no. Uh, uh. Now, I like Gates sauce. Which one did you get?”

“I don’t know. It tasted really peppery. Like it had too much cayenne.”

“Well…you gotta try all three.”

I thanked them and asked if they wanted any of this food as I knew I was not going to eat 75% of it. They declined, and as I went to my room, I thought “Tomorrow I’m going to Jack Stack.”

When I got to my room, I spread it all out on the bed and started throwing it down. I didn’t care for the sausage at all. The beef brisket was smoked to tender perfection, and the pulled pork was very tasty. However, the jury was still out on the sauces. Out of the three I tried there was one that was better than the others. But, I didn’t “feel” anything about it. Meaning, it was just OK.

On my third and final day in Kansas City, I met up with a friend who coincidentally just happen to be in town, and we went for lunch at Jack Stack.

For me, things were looking up the moment we walked through the door. Jack Stack is a “host takes you to your table” type restaurant, unlike the other spots, where you grabbed your tray, was handed your food, and found a table. I like being served.

We decided to eat in the bar area, which for me is another plus. It’s more relaxed, and you’re more likely to meet new people. I ordered for both of us the Burnt Ends Appetizer with beef, ham, and sausage, along with a garden salad, and a side of Hickory Pit Beans, Cheesy Corn Bake, and Potato Salad.

Oh my goodness! And, goodness is what it was. I knew I had found my favorite barbecue restaurant when I caught myself eating the leftovers after I was officially done eating. My fork kept finding its way back to the plate for “just one more piece.” The Zagat Survey has named it the “#1 Barbecue Restaurant in the Country.” It’s not hard to see why.

There you have it, the story of how I was introduced to Kansas City barbecue, and how I discovered my favorite.

Yes, I know, I didn’t check out Oklahoma Joe’s, named one of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s “13 Places You Must Eat Before You Die.” Next time, Kansas City, next time. There’s only so much I can eat.

So…who do you think has the best barbecue?

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About Terri Lundberg

Terri Lundberg is an American expat currently residing with her husband in Saudi Arabia, but she calls Seattle and San Diego home. She’s a travel writer, an avid photographer and is a resource and cross cultural trainer to expats relocating to Saudi Arabia. She's been to 100 destinations, 26 countries, and counting.

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