Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Barbecue 101

This was the title of the afternoon adventure Jack and I took during the Central States SATW conference in Kansas City. We hit four of the top-rated spots in less than five hours. Here are the results of my research. Keep in mind that barbecue is subjective -- my faves are my faves; you may or may not agree.
For me, it's all about the flavor and the sauce. For this reason, many folks' favorite, Arthur Bryant's, wasn't so high on my list. The place has the requisite ambiance -- none -- it couldn't be plainer. Visitors here aren't looking for frills.

We sampled brisket, turkey and ribs and the meats were all good. The brisket was wonderfully lean. It was the sauce that left me cold. It contains vinegar, paprika and other spices and has a bit of a grainy consistency. Other sauces are offered. White bread and pickles are on the table. Sides include potato salad, baked beans and French fries are about as fancy as it gets.

Calvin Trillin proclaimed Bryant's as "the single best restaurant in the world." Bryant's has a long history and is certainly is iconic in Kansas City barbecue history. I could happily eat there again -- it just wasn't my top pick.

Some of the writers in our group rated Oklahoma Joe's best. We were there about 4:00 on Saturday afternoon and there was a line out the door. So a lot of people must agree. Ambiance gets a bit of a kick -- this busy eatery shares space with a gas station! There's an obvious joke there, but I'll let you do it yourself.

With its roots in Stillwater, Oklahoma, I felt a pull of loyalty. And their pulled pork was wonderful -- they take credit for putting pulled pork on the K.C. barbecue map. Not that it was unknown before, but they set the bar. They serve it plain or Carolina style, topped with coleslaw. Servings are whopping.

We had a sampler plate. The fact that this was our last stop may have blunted our enthusiasm. I'm a ribs and brisket fan -- not so much burnt ends. I thought these ends were a bit rubbery. This eatery ranks #3 on my list.

There was a tie for first place and I could go either way on these. Gates Barbecue started over 60 years ago on Kansas City's east side. The third generation of the family is now involved and the business has grown to half-a-dozen locations across the metro area and their barbecue sauce is becoming widely available nationally.

Meat choices are extensive, including mutton ribs. Their barbecue beans are cooked in the pit, catching the drippings and flavor of the cooking meats. If you have any room, don't miss the yammer pie (sweet potato).

George Gates could sell snow to Eskimos. We asked what made barbecue different from place to place. His answer, "Personality." This 'cue had personality and then some. And we loved dining outside. Their sauces were great -- sweet/mild, extra hot, mild and original classic. And they're organized from bottom to top -- running their own College of Barbecue Knowledge which all their employees attend. This spot is a winner.

Jack Stack is what you get when barbecue goes uptown. This is another family business with a solid history in the food industry. Company presiden Case Dorman gave us a quick course in burnt ends and a tour of the kitchen.

Their menu is huge and offers some options -- salads, steaks, fish -- that the more traditional spots don't have. But their barbecue can hold its own with any of their competition. In addition to ribs, brisket and burnt ends, and other expected items, they also have crown roast of pork and rack of lamb.

The sides push Jack Stack into a spot of its own -- the beans are the best I ever ate. Like Gates, they're cooked in the pit and are well-laced with bits of burnt ends -- a ratio of 20 % meat to 80% beans and sauce. Don't pass on the cheesy corn bake -- totally nummy in the tummy! And the onions are all hand-cut and battered and breaded with secret ingredients. The barbecue sauce comes in original and spicy. I like a sauce with a touch of sweet and Jack Stack's sauce really hit the spot. There are four Jack Stack locations -- we ate at the Freight Yard, near the Union Station.
It's really a toss-up for me between Jack Stack and Gates -- but Bryant's and Oklahoma Joe are certainly good choices, too. My best recommendation -- try them all.


Michelle said...

I am really hungry for some brisket now, and I am reading this at 6 o'clock in the morning. Looks like a great trip.

Libba said...

These pictures made me puke in my mouth a little bit, but I'm sure Geoff Burton would appreciate them :)