Kansas City BBQ Pilgrimage
Hardcore BBQ fans pray towards Kansas City, their smokey “mecca” that boasts the most BBQ joints per capita in the nation. It may be the only city where tourism actually centers around a particular cuisine. Foodies of all walks of life acquaint themselves dreamily with this city through TV, books, and the internet well before making their pilgrimages. The Fun Foodie recently had the opportunity to spend two days in this BBQ bastion. I was commited to visiting the three biggies: Arthur Bryant’s, Gates, and L.C.’s.. I had also hoped to make a couple surprise discoveries.
With The Fun Family in tow (my wife plus four kids, 13 and under), the first stop was a relative newcomer, Gregory G’s just around the corner from the Truman Presidential Library. Reviews were very promising, but our experience was mediocre at best. Supposedly a “mom and pop” establishment, but the mom and pop were missing. Had they grown so quickly in such a short amount of time? If they ever served legit ‘que, it was a thing of the not-so-distant past. Their food felt commercialized and sterile, lacking any personality or soul. The ribs were nice and tender, with just a slight hint of smoke. Decent, but forgettable. The brisket was sitting pre-sliced in the steam table and was a bit on the dry and bland side. The sausage was no better than the vacuum sealed links you can find at the grocery store.
My highest hopes rested in Arthur Bryant’s, probably the most famous BBQ restaurant in the nation. This legend came into existence in the 1920′s and has been the focal point of countless television specials, magazine articles and blog posts. Its locale in a run-down industrial area of downtown may be off-putting to some, but it really isn’t all that bad. Regardless, the smell of their unique blend of hickory and oak will be comforting.
You’ll think I’m exaggerating, but my heart went all a-flutter upon entering this holy shrine. We arrived at just a hair before 5:00 pm and were lucky to beat the dinner rush. I walked right up to the counter guy who was behind a plexi-glass barrier that told me the area probably was as bad as I had read. I ordered a sausage sandwich and burnt ends with fries. Burnt ends are a Kansas City delicacy that is difficult to find elsewhere. The fattiest, smokiest, most charred pieces of the brisket are lovingly trimmed off, drowned in sauce and re-smoked. We’ve found them at one place in California (check out my cyber-alter-ego review here) and they were really good. Arthur Bryant’s burnt ends were quite the let down. The problem was the sauce and the method. The meat was super tender, but was more like a pot-roast then smoked brisket. Cooking in all that sauce amounted to more of a braise than BBQ. Most importantly, the sauce tasted weird. It had a sharp flavor that was really out of place and overwhelmed the burnt ends. Just couldn’t get passed it. Not terrible, just … weird.
The sausage was also weird, but in a good way. It was sliced thin and, thankfully, served without sauce. Very savory, smokey and moist. Arthur Bryant’s lard-cooked, fresh-cut fries are some of the most talked about sides anywhere. But what we were served were luke-warm and a bit soggy. Definitely not fresh. They were tasty enough to let me know that they would be quite special right out of the fryer. All-in-all, Arthur Bryant’s was a pretty good experience, but pretty good is disappointing when you’re on a pilgrimage.
Not even ten minutes after finishing up at Arthur Bryant’s, we were being yelled at at Gates BBQ. They have this strange tradition of yelling, “May I help you??” to customers as they walk in. Some may find it welcoming, I see it as contrived and fairly annoying. As we were quite full from our first dinner, the six of us split one burnt ends sandwich and a couple orders of fries. After ordering, I watched a guy pull a blackened hunk of meat out of the pit and heard him do the meat cleaver boogie for what seemed like hours. He hacked and hacked and hacked away and placed a huge pile of burnt ends on a roll. I was shocked at the size of the sandwich, easily enough for two hungry adults. It comes unsauced, which tells me they have nothing to hide. The meat was great, crispy and smokey, but just a tad on the dry side. Sauce is a must, not to make up for any short-comings, but because their sauce is excellent! Well balanced, with chiles, cumin and garlic making for a savory accompaniment. Gate’s Extra Spicy BBQ Sauce is right up there with the very best I’ve ever had.
Alas, the time had come to leave mecca. But I still felt empty. Figuratively, speaking, of course, as I had eaten enough to feed a small third world country. I had eaten some very good BBQ in my short time in Kansas City, but I was looking for something more along the lines of a life-changing religious experience. Heading south out of town, my final hope was L.C.’s BBQ, a smallish joint that was a bit off the beaten path. It’s billowing smokestack was like a lighthouse drawing me to safety. The air inside the restaurant was smokey and delicious. The BBQ pit was right behind the service counter, and I looked lovingly into the heart of this humble joint as each order was filled. Our order? Pork spareribs, brisket sandwich, burnt ends and fries. I don’t remember where I started, all I know is that I didn’t want it to end. The ribs were amazing! The meat pulled easily off of the bone without falling right off of them, had a great spice rub encrusted on the exterior and were wonderfully smokey. The sauce complimented the meat nicely without overpowering it. It was as close to a perfect rib as I’ve ever had. The brisket was amazing! Sliced thin, tender and smokey. The burnt ends were — you guessed it — amazing! They were chopped up into perfect little bite-sized pieces, with just the right balance of lucious fat, crispy crust and succulent meat. Somehow, these tender morsels would just melt away upon contact with my mouth, but still had some substance and bite to them. I felt like bowing my head to honor this meat after each bite. Remembering the barred windows outside of the restaurant, I felt like I was in a BBQ prison … but with no desire to escape. Wow.
And the fries cooked in lard were quite epic, too.
L.C.’s = Best. BBQ. Ever.