I went; I ate; for the most part I snickered. Of all the alleged barbecue capitals in the United States, the only serious rival to Texas is Kansas City, Missouri. This is because Kansas City barbecues beef, whereas Memphis, the Carolinas, and the rest of the Deep South barbecue pork. But its reputation is also the result of the efforts of K.C. native and New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin, who for some two decades has been writing rapturously about Arthur Bryant’s without ever once describing the barbecue or what makes it so good. In other words, K.C.’s rep was suspect. I had to see for myself.
So one weekend in March, I flew to Kansas City to sample its best. At the vaunted Arthur Bryant’s, the brisket turned out to be tough and dry and the pork ribs little more than fat-on-a-stick (I’ll admit that the beef sausage was pleasingly spicy and the sliced pork moist and tender). I didn’t even try the rest of the menu, the size of which is typical and represents a problem. In Kansas City nearly everybody serves brisket, pork, pork ribs, sausage, turkey, ham, and chicken; often, there’s also lamb (including ribs) or mutton, beef ribs, and seafood. They also serve “brownies,” or “burnt ends,” which are bite-size pieces of the burned edges of the briskets. With so many meats cooking at once, the pitman doesn’t get to baby any of them the way a Texas cooker will his briskets. Everybody knows that brisket is barbecue’s ground zero: It’s just not that hard to cook those other meats acceptably, but it takes skill and savvy to get a huge, tough brisket right. So if your brisket doesn’t stand out—well, as we say in Texas, that cow won’t hunt.
Most places in K.C. cut brisket with deli-style machines, which slice it as thin as school cafeteria bologna during the Reagan years. The slices aren’t thick enough to hold their smokiness like good brisket should; you might as well be eating roast beef. Furthermore, I couldn’t taste any significant difference between their idea of barbecued ham and any other ham. But to be fair, I found it hard to get bad pork ribs in K.C. And the sauces are generally hotter and thus more to my personal taste (despite the fact that, with the added firepower, you must accept such aromatic spices as anise, allspice, and even—I’m convinced, though everyone I asked denied it—cinnamon).
That said, I can heartily recommend Snead’s Bar-B-Que, about thirty minutes south of town near Belton, where the brisket is hickory-smoked for fourteen to eighteen hours, the other meats are tender and smoky, and the brownies are a carnivore’s candy. Downtown, Lil’ Jake’s Eat It and Beat It hand-cuts its savory brisket so you get something you can sink your teeth into. The ribs and chicken are so juicy the meat threatens to swim right off the bones, and even the ham tastes barbecued. You’ll never have pork ribs with more character than those served at the BBQ and Rib Tip House (known as Boyd ‘n’ Son until recently). And Gates Bar-B-Q is a reliable enough local chain; though it has the soul of, say, Denny’s, the food is always better than average, if rarely great. Clearly, some of the K.C. cookers are on the right track. A few more like ’em and they may yet close the gap between here and there. But first, they gotta do something about that brisket.
Arthur Bryant’s, 1727 Brooklyn, 816-231-1123; The BBQ and Rib Tip House, 5510 Prospect, 816-523-0436; Gates Bar-B-Q, 1221 Brooklyn, 816-483-3880 (six other locations); Lil’ Jake’s Eat It and Beat It, 1227 Grand, 816-283-0880; Snead’s Bar-B-Que, 1001 E. 171st, Belton, 816-331-9858. JM