The ABCs of KC BBQ
Get to know the Barbecue Capital of the World
In most circles, meat is a known entity. It is not a mystery. It’s … meat. Whether grilled, roasted, braised, fried or broiled, meat transitions from plate to palette with routine expectations. And yet, when that same meat is barbecued, all bets are off. When that holy trinity of beef, pork and chicken dance with smoke, flavors unfurl that suggest intervention from beyond the clouds.
Call it barbecue, BBQ, Bar-B-Que or just ’cue. Any way you say or spell it, its smoke-infused flavors—redolent of hickory and cherry wood—are like nothing else. It becomes something different, something with extraordinary potential.
And in the same way that Chicago has mastered the hot dog and New York defines pizza, Kansas City’s culinary soul mate is barbecue. The two are inextricable. Forever. Welcome to the ’cue-niverse.
But first, a lesson: in the world of meat speak, there is grilling, and there is barbecuing. To grill is to cook (generally rapidly) over a direct, open flame. To barbecue, by contrast, is to cook slowly over an indirect flame, allowing wood-generated smoke to infiltrate whatever mouth candy the pit master chooses to make.
The Beginning: The Birth of Kansas City ’Cue
Pizza in New York started with one man: Gennaro Lombardi. Similar story for Kansas City. Henry Perry had tunnel vision, and filling his scope was barbecued meat.
It was 1908. Perry operated out of a city back alley, and sold smoked meats to hungry laborers. When he found success, he moved into a space with a roof. And with a team of then no-names in his stable—men like Charlie Bryant and Arthur Pinkard—he developed a reputation that continues to draw awe today. Perry was the architect of Kansas City barbecue, and thanks to his vision, a legion of followers would define this city as the greatest for barbecue in the nation.
It’s not just the quality of Kansas City barbecue that makes it unique. It’s the geography. You don’t have to be a supertaster to know that barbecue in places like Texas and South Carolina is legit. But here’s the difference: the great barbecue joints in those places are often separated by hundreds of miles of pavement. Not the case here: the Kansas City region has the greatest concentration of barbecue joints (more than 100, aficionados claim) of any place in America. Visiting 15 in a day isn’t a question of geography; it’s a question of common sense. And stamina.
The House Specialties
Barbecue here is unique. For starters, Kansas City invented and perfected a delicacy called the burnt end. Expect to find it on just about every barbecue menu in Kansas City, and expect to crave it long after you’ve left the region. Its composition: that crispy portion of the brisket not suitable for slicing, but delicious and full of flavor on its own. Pitmasters will chop it into cubes or chunks, and then submerge it into sauce, often times returning it to the smoker for even more smoking.
Too, Kansas City is a sauce town. Here, meat is often seasoned with a dry rub, then sauced. It’s the sauce itself that defines so many of the restaurants in the region. Typically, the style is of a rounder, sweeter tone, as defined most notably by Hillsdale Bank BBQ and Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que. But the region’s most famous sauces are both, atypically, more savory than sweet, and come from the region’s two heavyweights, Arthur Bryant’s and Gates.
Debating barbecue dominance is a sport in Kansas City. Most followers will agree that each restaurant typically features that one item that defines the place—whether beef, pork, beans or sauce. And so, the best way to experience Kansas City barbecue isn’t to patronize one place, but to sample items from many places. Here are the highlights, in my humble opinion:
- Henry Perry’s employee, Charlie Bryant, inherited the restaurant in 1940, selling it to his brother Arthur in 1946. It was then renamed.
- “The single best restaurant in the world,” according to Calvin Trillin in the ’70s.
- Tom Watson in Golf Digest: “I get withdrawal pangs if I don’t eat this stuff at least one a week.”
- Famous for sliced beef (also called brisket) and beef burnt ends.
- President’s Choice sauce, defined by its acidic vinegar tones, is unlike no other in Kansas City.
- The original location at 1727 Brooklyn Ave. is the standard bearer.
- The other Kansas City barbecue heavyweight.
- Another Henry Perry employee, Arthur Pinkard, helped George Gates launch the original Gates Bar-B-Q in 1946.
- Six locations throughout the region.
- Famous for its ribs and Original Classic sauce.
- Battled Arthur Bryant’s in the Travel Channel’s “Food Wars.”
- One of Anthony Bourdain’s 13 Places to Eat at Before You Die.
- Flagship located inside a gas station in Kansas City, Kan.
- Famous for its pulled pork, ribs, fries and spicy slaw.
- Serves burnt ends in limited quantities on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
- Barbecue is “competition-style,” meaning it features those notes and flavors valued in national competitions.
- Multiple first-place wins at Jack Daniel’s World BBQ Championship and the American Royal (more on festivals later).
- Kansas City’s most upscale barbecue.
- Noteworthy for its crown prime beef short rib, which is the largest single rib that man has ever seen. Unofficially.
- Contender for best baked beans in the region.
- Extensive menu features more than just barbecue, as well as wine and cocktails.
- Ships meat nationwide.
- Four restaurants in the region, including the original in KC’s Martin Cityneighborhood.
These may be what some deem the cream of the Kansas City crop, but the crop runs far and wide in the region, and includes a long list of other options. Make it through the aforementioned stops, then move on to the dozens of other restaurants, joints and shacks like Danny Edwards, Rosedale, Quick’s and Smokehouse.
Being the leader in barbecue muscle means more than just fanning out a spectrum of top-tier restaurants. It means offering some of the nation’s best barbecue competitions and festivals.
The American Royal World Series of BBQ – Referred to locally as “the Royal,” this competition is also nicknamed the World Series of BBQ. In fact, with over 500 teams competing, it’s the largest barbecue festival in the world.
The Great American BBQ Festival and Tour - Not quite as large as the Royal, the Great American is not to be underestimated. It’s not only a massive competition, but also a family-oriented event featuring entertainment and kid-friendly activities.
Great Lenexa BBQ Battle - From its humble beginning of 12 contestants and 12 judges, Lenexa today boasts 200 contestants and 240 judges. This “local” competition has become a national destination for serious meat magnets, and a competitive proving ground for anyone with a serious love of ’cue.
It’s only after an extensive tasting that one begins to realize the genius of the Kansas City barbecue arts, and the unknown entity that is the product of smoke and fire. That taste, that sensation—it’s the mystery that is the best barbecue in the world: Kansas City Barbecue.
Region: Downtown, Crossroads, Crown Center
Phone: (816) 472-7427Visit Website