If you’re a Texan looking to expand your barbecue literacy with a trip to the Missouri/Kansas border, be warned that the brisket you order will not resemble the beautifully carved, thick, juicy slices of black crusted beef you’ve come to expect in Texas. Rather, an order of brisket in KC usually means limp ribbons of lean beef, fresh from a deli slicer.
I understand that any disparagements of Kansas City barbecue coming from a Texan will surely be seen as regional chest thumping. The city has rightly gained legions of barbecue fans outside of their region, and even some well-respected voices in the food world. In 2011, Anthony Bourdain, a New Yorker, described his love for Oklahoma Joe’s (now Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que) to Men’s Health Magazine. “It’s the best BBQ in Kansas City, which makes it the best BBQ in the world.” Bourdain called it one of the thirteen places to eat before you die.
Then he came to Austin, Texas.
After filming an episode the following year in Texas for his travel food show, No Reservations, Bourdain reversed course on his personal blog and wrote Austin had “the best barbeque in the country.” He continued:
Yeah. I know. Bold words. Especially coming from a guy who has said many times that North Carolina whole hog style is his preferred last mouthful—and that Kansas City is the best all-around BBQ Center. That was before. This is now. I am reasonably sure—no…I’m damn sure—that I have NEVER tasted barbecue so perfect, so technically accomplished, conscientiously prepared, austerely seasoned (un****ed up), moist, juicy, tender, still shimmering with perfectly suspended internal fat as the beef brisket at Franklin BBQ.
Barbecue opinions are subjective, so I’m not saying that the best barbecue in Texas is better or worse than the best in Kansas City. I’m simply pointing out then when judged by one of the most experienced palates in the world, Texas barbecue came out on top, and it was the sliced brisket that made the difference.
Much of my disappointment in Kansas City’s brisket comes down to personal preference. I guess I could equate it with my personal preference for the thick cut pastrami from Katz’s in New York to the Boar’s Head version at the Kroger deli counter. They’re both good, but only one will have you contemplating a plane ticket. Also, has anyone noticed how closely the Arby’s Smokehouse Brisket Sandwich, with its shaved brisket, melted cheese, and onions strings resembles the Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que (formerly Oklahoma Joe’s) popular Z-Man sandwich? The visual association was too strong for me during a recent visit, so I opted for burnt ends on the sandwich and enjoyed every bite.
It’s not fair to just pick on Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que. It’s the darling of the Kansas City barbecue community, and rightly so. The rest of their menu is quite enjoyable. The tender pork ribs are superb and the beans might be the best in Kansas City. And did I mention those burnt ends? Smoky chunks of juicy, fatty brisket are served without sauce. This would make some good sliced beef, but here’s the rub. In Kansas City, the meat from the point, the fatty brisket, is rarely served as anything other than burnt ends, and they’re usually covered in barbecue sauce. If you get them at Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que then you’ll likely walk away happy, but the presentation and quality here is far from the norm in KC.
Five years ago, when I first visited Kansas City, LC’s had snuck in as the favorite of the trip. Hickory smoke bellowed from the smoke stack out of this small building. The dining room had captured its share of the smoke as well. The hand-formed sausage was a stand-out, saucy ribs were smoky and pleasantly chewy, and the burnt ends seemed to be the embodiment of what Kansas City barbecue could be. It made such an impression that during my trip to the city a couple of weeks back, I drove straight to LC’s from the airport to begin my barbecue journey. The return visit broke my heart.
I could have bounced the undercooked burnt ends on the table. A black char had developed on the dried out ribs. Not even their fantastic sauce could save them. The brisket was sliced thin to hide just how tough it was. It was late on a Friday afternoon, so no matter how crestfallen I was, I chalked it up to an anomaly. But the poor showing at LC’s ate at me. I had suggested a stop here to countless barbecue fans who’d asked my opinion on KC BBQ. I had to go back.
On the way back to the airport on Monday morning, I stopped for a redemption meal at LC’s right as they opened at 11:00am. This time the sausage was so dry it crumbled. The ribs were now so undercooked I would have needed a grinder to get all the meat off the bones. The burnt ends weren’t any better. They certainly looked the part, but could have doubled for chewing gum. At least those thick cut fries were great on both trips.
But the trip wasn’t a total wash. The fresh-cut fries at Arthur Bryant’s, a local landmark, were also great, and the ribs were the best on this trip, even if the much-revered restaurant has received its fair share of knocks lately. Locals say, “It’s not what it used to be.” What they’re likely referring to are the burnt ends. Calvin Trillin made them famous when he called Arthur Bryant’s the best restaurant in the country in a 1972 Playboy article (link is SFW). Nowadays instead of those burned edges Trillin described, you’ll get something between chili and a sloppy joe. It’s hard to even know if there are any burned edges hidden in there.
The closest I came to good Texas barbecue was at Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue. Sweet pork ribs and almost tender burnt ends were good, but the juicy, smoky beef short rib begged to be taken down to the bone with each tender fingerful of beef. Fancy digs or not, this was barbecue worth returning for.
Since I last visited, I also heard that both Q39 and Slap’s BBQ were serving thicker slices of brisket. I ordered Q39’s “Judges Plate,” competition-style barbecue featuring lean sliced brisket that was unfortunately nearly devoid of fat (and the chewy fat that remained didn’t add to the experience), drizzled with sauce, and finished with a sprinkling of rub. There was plenty of flavor, but not from the beef. The slices are thicker than the KC norm, but the meat itself was bland and the smoke was barely detectable. The excellent burnt ends were the far superior smoked beef bits. They were the only ones to match Kansas City Joe’s burnt ends in quality. Imagine if they’d just offer this great fatty beef in proper slices instead of just the dull lean brisket.
At Slap’s BBQ, a new joint across the river in KC’s Strawberry Hill neighborhood, the entire set-up seemed to be an homage to Austin—specifically Franklin Barbecue. Dual offset smokers set up outside burn only wood. Meats are held in an Alto-Shaam, are cut to order in front of the customer (a rarity in KC), before they’re served on pink butcher paper lined trays with sauce on the side. The smoked turkey rests in a vat of melted butter (a la Franklin), and even the walls are painted a familiar color of teal. But the similarities don’t extend to the brisket.
Only lean slices are available. They exhibit very little bark, and most of the fat is trimmed away. Owners Mike and Joe Pearce admit that they had to cut corners to get some sleep. Instead of going low and slow on the briskets and cooking them overnight, they wrap them tight in foil and finish them in six hours. This makes for a quick cook, but the smoky flavors suffer greatly. It was some of the most well executed sliced brisket I had in Kansas City, but it wouldn’t get a second thought in Austin.
Despite the sliced beef, I liked the place. It’s a real joint, and a bright spot in a struggling neighborhood. The excellent smoked Italian sausage came from a nearby butcher shop, and the people who run the place really care about their food. That’s why owner Joe Pearce introduced himself while I was mid-rib. He then sat at a nearby table, glancing over periodically as I dined with a friend. It was while I was searching for something constructive to say about the brisket that I realized what had been missing over the last few days. The smoke and black pepper that is the star in Texas barbecue was barely a supporting actor in KC.
I love Kansas City. It’s a beautiful town with plenty of civic pride. Kansas Citians are fervent barbecue fans, and the bickering about who makes the best barbecue in town is endless. But I know how to stop the arguing. Last year, Texas Monthly published a conversation between former editor Greg Curtis from a discussion with Kansas City native Calvin Trillin. Curtis explained, “Texas barbecue tends toward an ideal. There’s a Platonic brisket. It exists in the mind, and you can kind of sense how far away whatever you’re eating is from that ideal.” I had that Platonic Texas brisket on my mind during every meal of this trip, and most meals were far from that ideal, but there’s an opportunity there. With all other menu items being equal, if a barbecue joint in KC started doing sliced brisket as well the good ones in Texas, it would immediately be the unquestioned best barbecue in Kansas City. Who’s gonna be first?
Also visited in KC, but not mentioned above:
Danny Edwards Boulevard BBQ
Gates Bar-B-Q (twice)
Winslow’s City Market Barbecue
If I missed one with great sliced brisket, I’d love to know for the next visit.