The American barbecue tradition rests on four pillars: Memphis, Kansas City, the Carolinas, and Texas. They’re the widely accepted capitals of the beloved cuisine, and rivalries among them are inevitable. We’ll let Memphis, North Carolina, and South Carolina duke it out for supremacy when it comes to pork—but when it comes to competing with Texas in beef barbecue, Kansas City isn’t holding up its end of the bargain.
In 2021, I traveled across Texas to finalize our current top fifty barbecue list, and I also took four trips to Kansas City to assess the smoked-meat situation there. By my estimates, Texas is currently whipping Kansas City’s tail, and dragging it through the sauce. And if you think the state-versus-city comparison is unfair, let me clarify: every major city in Texas has a stronger lineup of excellent barbecue than Kansas City.
Kansas City barbecue has rested for too long on the laurels of its legendary joints, which are all noticeably slipping, Just recently, they’ve allowed enough room for some new blood to reinvigorate the city’s passion for barbecue. Texas, on the other hand, has a ten-year head start on fostering new joints, and we also have a whole host of classic spots that still take pride in the barbecue they produce. But Kansas City isn’t without hope—a few upstart pitmasters are taking some cues from Texas and aim to spark a Kansas City barbecue renaissance.
“I would get ragged on a lot about Kansas City barbecue when I would travel,” Tyler Harp, pitmaster and owner of Harp Barbecue said. “It wasn’t always the easiest thing to defend.” In 2019, the KC native began serving his barbecue from the back of Crane Brewing. Tender brisket is sliced thick for customers. Fat pork spareribs and house-made sausages join the brisket on butcher paper–lined trays. Noticeably absent from the menu are burnt ends, a staple of Kansas City barbecue. Harp’s barbecue is Texas style in its presentation and, more important, in the cooking method. Behind the brewery sits a thousand-gallon offset smoker fueled entirely with hardwood, a rare sight in Kansas City, where gas-powered rotisseries are common. But Harp saw plenty of offset smokers in Texas when he took a trip there to prove me wrong several years ago.
I first shared my disappointment with Kansas City barbecue joints in a 2014 article about their unfortunate method for slicing brisket. In response, Harp—with both animus and a little curiosity—scheduled a trip to Austin. After two days of epiphanies, he returned to Kansas City inspired by what he ate, and he purchased his first offset smoker a few weeks later. Fast-forward to October 2021: Harp Barbecue was named the best barbecue joint in the city by Kansas City magazine. He’s not the only newcomer making waves.
Number two on the list is Chef J BBQ. Justin Easterwood opened the counter-service joint in the West Bottoms neighborhood of Kansas City in 2020. He builds a barbecue tray that looks straight out of Austin, right down to the elote on the side. The burnt ends he serves would be familiar to any Texan given that they’re pork belly rather than brisket, and that’s intentional. “Pretty much everyone here sacrifices the brisket for the burnt end,” Easterwood said, noting that sliced brisket is often an afterthought for Kansas City pitmasters who reserve the fatty parts for burnt ends. Easterwood also stuffs and smokes his own beef sausage, and though he wouldn’t describe his barbecue as KC style, he’s not ready to call it Texas style, despite the obvious parallels. “I like to say it’s my style of barbecue,” he said.
Easterwood and Harp were high school classmates. They now push each other beyond the boundaries of traditional Kansas City barbecue, and have similar thoughts on how their home city could rekindle the magic. “Too many places get into feeding the masses and kinda lose the quality aspect of true barbecue,” Easterwood said. Harp agreed that attention to detail and serving consistently great barbecue aren’t the norm. “We’re just trying to give Kansas City what it deserves,” he said.
Andy Fox, owner and pitmaster of the Fox & Fire Barbecue truck, agreed. “I love Kansas City dearly, but we’ve got a long way to go,” he said. He started serving smoked brisket out of a Kansas City brewery in 2020, but his truck has been parked in Kearney, twenty miles northeast of Kansas City, since last September. The line forms early and wraps around the trailer-mounted offset smoker. Thirty minutes after I arrived, I opened my takeout container on a picnic table and the sight was stunning: a glistening slice of smoked brisket, jalapeño cheese sausage, juicy smoked turkey, and lightly glazed spareribs nestled together. One bite of the house-made sausage had me thinking Fox was a transplanted Texan. “No doubt I’m influenced by Texas barbecue,” he said, but he grew up in the Kansas City area. It was a trip to Texas that changed Fox’s view.
“I grew up eating the brisket that we’re all used to here,” Fox said. “Then you have it done like they way you guys do it in Texas, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’” He wanted to bring that same revelatory experience to Kansas City, and knew he needed a wood-fired smoker to make it happen. Fox bought an offset smoker from Jousting Pigs BBQ after co-owner John Atwell decided to switch over to rotisserie smokers. Fox never considered going the easier route with a rotisserie. “I know there are cheaper ways to cook barbecue, and maybe more efficient ways, but at the end of the day I believe in what we’re doing,” Fox said.
During my many visits to Kansas City last year, I didn’t just hit the new spots. I wanted to check in on the legends, and some of my past favorites as well. Besides a good platter of ribs and dirty rice at the original location of Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que and the tender burnt ends and thoroughly enjoyable pork belly corn dogs at Q39, I had a string of disappointments. The excellent fries at Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque couldn’t make up for tough pork ribs and minced brisket “burnt ends.” It was the same scene at Gates Bar-B-Q a few blocks away. A few months later, I was looking forward to a return trip to LC’s Bar-B-Q to pay my respects to the late L.C. Richardson. The chilly half rack of ribs had either spent too much time on the cutting block or hadn’t been thoroughly reheated from the day before. At Jack Stack Barbecue, the method of reheating meats made for soggy bark and washed-out smoke flavor. (Attempted visits to Jones Bar-B-Q were thwarted by an unexpected closure and a “sold out” sign.)
A week after that visit, Kansas City magazine released its aforementioned barbecue issue. It included a few spots I hadn’t tried, like Big T’s Bar-B-Q, and a tip about a potential hidden gem on the Arthur Bryant’s menu. According to the article, ordering the 3B sandwich was the only way to get real chunks of brisket burnt ends, an item first made famous by Arthur Bryant’s. I booked a flight back to KC, eager for a reason to praise something other than the fries at this legendary joint and to get a look at the brick pit inside Big T’s.
At Big T’s, the pit covers the entire wall behind the counter. It’s the first thing you see after walking through the front door. Much of the menu was unavailable at 4:30 p.m., an unfortunate occurrence that certainly garners respect. Thinly sliced ribbons of brisket were still juicy, and the ribs, though undercooked, had good smoke flavor. A trip earlier in the day is required to really get a sense of the place. At Arthur Bryant’s, I watched as a cutter chopped up a smoked brisket point into sizable chunks for the 3B sandwich. His knife struggled to separate what should have been buttery tender brisket. Sadly, my teeth weren’t any more successful against the chewy beef. At least the sandwich comes with those crisp fries.
Back in 2014, the opening of Slap’s BBQ and Q39 were predicted to bring about a Kansas City barbecue renaissance. Rob Magee, the late founder of Q39, brought a fine-dining feel to barbecue with a waitstaff, real plates and silverware, craft beer and cocktails, and sides like white bean cassoulet and orzo pasta salad. It’s still serving the tender, thin slices of competition-style brisket I remember from its early days, and the burnt ends are satisfying, but the place never became influential enough to inspire copycats in town. At Slap’s, it all began with great promise when it was still trying to mimic Franklin Barbecue’s style. As business grew, Slap’s switched to a fleet of gas-fired rotisserie smokers. Producing at high volume is now the primary goal.
I was worried that might be the direction Jousting Pigs BBQ was headed in. After opening in the KC suburb of Liberty in 2019, it soon traded its offset smoker for a rotisserie. Thankfully, the restaurant has retained its attention to detail. The thick-sliced Texas-style brisket features a stout bark and a well-rendered fat cap. The burnt ends are even juicier, and are served with barbecue sauce on the side.
The brisket and burnt ends are just as good at Scott’s Kitchen near the airport. Owner Scott Umscheid isn’t shy about the fact that his barbecue roots are in competition cooking, and his pit room houses only rotisserie smokers. Still, his barbecue trays would look familiar to any Texan, except for the sauce drizzled over the beef. His brisket burnt ends are consistently among the best in the city. Umscheid was mentioned by Harp, Easterwood, and Fox as a mentor, even if none of them cook competition style. “The Texas style has had a lot of influence with these young guys, and that’s okay,” Umscheid said, while noting that he hasn’t been in barbecue much longer than some of the new kids, having opened Scott’s Kitchen in 2017. Still, Harp calls him one of the true pioneers of Kansas City barbecue for the level of care he consistently puts into the meats and sides served every day. And after witnessing firsthand the inconsistent cooking in KC, I can see why that might be considered pioneering. “We needed to get our s— together, and provide some barbecue that is worthy of the [Kansas City] name,” Umscheid agreed.
Harp is hopeful, and to illustrate that he took me to dinners at both Buck Tui BBQ and Fox and Pearl. The former is a Thai barbecue pop-up that roams around town. Ted and Pam Liberda serve brisket egg rolls, glazed pork ribs with kimchi, and smoked wings covered in a spicy tiger cry sauce. Fox and Pearl is a fancy restaurant where chef Vaughn Good offers a full barbecue menu on Sundays under the name Night Goat. I was in town on a Thursday, so we chose from the smoked and wood-grilled items on the daily dinner menu. A perfectly cooked smoked pork chop, smoked chicken legs in a Cajun barbecue sauce, and a sausage made with chunks of foie gras contributed mightily to one of the best meals I enjoyed last year. These two restaurants showed a new dimension of Kansas City barbecue that wasn’t just another version of Texas-style brisket.
Aside from the new crop of pitmasters I’ve praised here, most folks in Kansas City won’t agree with my opinions about their beloved barbecue joints. That’s okay. If they stick to the legendary spots in town, they don’t know what they’re missing. Besides, this is a message of hope. Kansas City has young and capable barbecue talent. For now, the movement is being constrained to the margins, as these joints are located on the outskirts of town or in the suburbs, or operate as pop-ups. The magazine critics have found them, but until they’re embraced by a wider audience who will come to expect more from their barbecue as a result, Kansas City will remain on this side of its barbecue renaissance.