Nicholas and I have just wrapped up our barbecue tour of Kansas City. Between arriving Sunday evening and Wednesday, we hit the following seven places in this order: Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue (Freight House location), Arthur Bryant’s, Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, Danny Edwards BBQ, Q39, L.C.’s Bar-B-Q, B.B.’s Lawnside Blues & BBQ.
The Short Version
Before I get into the details, some of you might just want to know the answer to the following question: If I only have time to hit one place in Kansas City, what should it be? That’s an easy answer. Joe’s Kansas City. Some people might say it’s touristy or mainstream, but these are the sort of people who start hating a band simply because it becomes popular. Joe’s is popular for a reason. It’s got perhaps the best ribs I’ve ever eaten, the pulled pork was delicious and the beans weren’t sickly sweet like they were at a lot of places.
Texas barbecue has been and still is my favorite. I’m a fan of meat flavored with salt, pepper and smoke, slow cooked to perfection. Brisket, in particular, is my north star. Kansas City cue joints serve brisket, but none of it is a match for Texas brisket. KC brisket is fine for sandwiches with plenty of sauce, but isn’t the thick-sliced, falling apart, fatty beef goodness you’ll find at the better joints in the Austin area.
I’m also suspicious of sauce, which is too often used to cover up substandard cooking. One of the things that put Kansas City cue on the map is sauce. It’s what the KC in KC Masterpiece stands for! And it’s the type of sauce that most people in America (outside of Memphis, the Carolinas and Louisiana) think of when they think “barbecue sauce.”
How We Did It
Saying you’re going to do a barbecue tour is one thing. Pulling it off is another. Two of the biggest challenges, aside from picking your places, is figuring out a schedule and literally cramming all that food in.
Pro-tip 1: Don’t assume seven-days a week or late-night hours. In Austin and Kansas City, a number of places are closed on Sunday. In Memphis, quite a few are closed on Monday. And in both places, old-school barbecue places are lunchtime operations, open from 11 to 3 (or until things run out). Try to figure out which places have sit-down dinner service and pair an old-school lunch place at day and one of these at night.
Pro-tip 2: Don’t fly solo and, unless you’re a pro football player (or the size of one) and unless you’re a huge sandwich freak, share combo plates. It’ll get you the most meats and won’t fill you up with the needless bread on sandwiches. (This doesn’t apply to many places in Texas, where you order meat by the pound.) And skip breakfast. A lot of these places open at 10 or 11, so you can do without the supposed most important meal of the day.
Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue (dinner)
We walked up to the Freight House location of Jack Stack at 7 p.m. on drizzly Sunday night and were confronted with a 45-minute wait. This would turn out to be a thing at our evening outings in KC. Jack Stack is a solid KC option and has a huge following in town and out of town. As far as barbecue joints go, this is upscale, a proper sit-down restaurant with menus. It also makes a killing shipping barbecue around the country. (Father’s Day is coming up.)
We ordered a combo plate that included brisket, sliced pork, ribs and burnt ends. The brisket was a precursor of what we’d get at many places in town: thin-sliced on a machine and definitely improved by the sauce, which itself was solid. The ribs were good — if a little too soft — as was the sliced pork (which also needed saucing). The burnt ends were okay, but would end up being surpassed by others. They were a little chewy for my liking, and didn’t have much of the burnt flavor.
Burnt ends, for what it’s worth, are the outer parts of the point of the brisket that tended to get overcooked, so they had a bit of char on the outside. Apparently some places now just chop up parts of the brisket and smoke those and call them burnt ends.
Sides: I basically stuck to beans at each location. All of the places put burnt ends in the beans. Most of the places make beans that are as sweet as what you’d get out of a can of baked beans — or sweeter. Jack Stack’s started out okay, but the sugar became overwhelming.
If you want serviceable barbecue in a restaurant setting, this is your place.
Arthur Bryant’s (lunch)
I found the burnt ends at Arthur Bryant’s much better than those at Jack Stack, even if they were covered in sauce. They didn’t have much charred flavor either, but they were moist and tender.
Arthur Bryant’s, it should be pointed out, is probably on every barbecue nerd’s bucket list. Way back in 1974, Calvin Trillin called it one of the best restaurants in the entire world. Yes. In the world. Maybe it was at the time. It’s not any longer. But it’s definitely worth a trip. It’s a lunch-counter place. Stand in line and order.
The brisket here is also thinly sliced by machine and needs a good saucing, but it does make for a damn fine sandwich.
Arthur Bryant offered three sauces. The house regular is more tangy than sweet and takes some getting used to. I liked the Sweet Heat and the Bold & Spicy better.
The beans here were super sweet, too.
Go for the history, stay for the sandwiches.
Joe’s Kansas City
Formerly known as Oklahoma Joe’s, Joe’s is the one location that everyone who’s been to Kansas City seemed to agree on when I asked them where I absolutely had to go. Some people, including Joe’s, make a big deal out of it being located in a former gas station, but some of the best restaurants you’ll eat in in Louisiana are in current gas stations (in Joe’s defense, it does still have a convenience store section and two working pumps). And Payne’s in Memphis is inside a former body shop that you’d be hard-pressed to call “converted.”
We arrived at 6:30 on a rainy Monday to find a line out the door. (That might have been partly due to a rained out Royals game.) In that line was a drunk and stoned guy who thought he was hilarious. Thankfully, he gave up and went to the take-out counter. (That might have had something to do with the cop on premise).
The scene looks chaotic and intimidating, but it all runs pretty much like clockwork.
We ordered a combo plate with brisket, pulled pork and ribs. They were out of burnt ends. This made me sad, considering how good everything else was. The brisket was perfectly okay. The pulled pork was delicious.
And the ribs, as stated above, might have been the best ribs I’ve ever eaten. They were smoked to perfection, seasoned just right and with just a touch of sauce that seemed to be cooked into the meat rather than slathered on. Put simply: This is the ideal rib.
Sauce. I don’t think I tried Joe’s standard sauce. Instead, I tried Kansas City’s Cowtown Night of the Living Barbecue Sauce, which was the best sauce of the trip.
The beans were good, too. More savory than sweet and I believe had black beans mixed in.
Don’t skip this place.
Danny Edwards (lunch)
Arriving at 11:30, we just beat the lunch rush at Danny Edwards, an order-at-the-counter joint, where the woman working the register not only greeted us with a smile, but told us what to order since it was our first time. She suggested a combo plate, substituting the ham for burnt ends. (A lot of other places didn’t seem to eager to substitute burnt ends in as they seem to be a hot commodity.)
We ordered a combo plate that had ribs, burnt ends, brisket and chicken. The burnt ends were tender but a little too fatty. It was one of the only places where the brisket seemed sliced by hand, though it wasn’t the fatty, moist brisket that I’m a fan of. Fans of lean Texas brisket would not be disappointed. The ribs were solid, but could have used a little more salt, as could the chicken. But both had a good dose of smoke flavor. The sauce was … interesting. Good, though.
These beans, too, were more savory than sweet (but I did get the spicy version, so that may have been why they weren’t as sweet as other places).
A third night, another mob scene. At 6:45. On a Tuesday. The wait at Q39, which promises chef-driven barbecue, was over an hour. But Q39 was one of the only places to accept reservations (Jack Stack does, but only for parties of 8 or more) and I’d had the foresight to book reservations. So no wait for us!
Q39, like Jack Stack, is “fancy” as far as barbecue goes. It’s got signature cocktails and a wine list and craft beer and even serves steak, which I was sorely tempted to try. But we were here for barbecue.
Q39 offers burnt ends as an appetizer but they were already out of them. So another combo plate, this one consisting of brisket, ribs and pulled pork. The brisket was thick and the ribs good, but the sauce put it on the sweet side. The pulled pork was the star, since it had enough vinegar to balance out the sweetness.
The beans were sweet, but not too much so, and on the creamy side.
This is the joint that I wanted to try a lot of other options, including the burgers and the grilled options. But there was no room for any of that.
LC’s Bar-B-Q (lunch)
Reading the Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews for this place might scare off the barbecue rookie. Lots of complaints about it being a dive and seedy or them running out of things (though the owner seems to reply to all of the complaints).
Of the KC joints we went to, LC’s — a low-slung place with barred windows and located next to a used car lot — was the one most like a Memphis barbecue place. And that’s meant as a compliment. Not a lot of out-of-state tourists at this working class joint. Half the crowd seemed to be locals who work in the area. There were a lot of Royals fans, as the place is convenient to the stadium and there was an afternoon game kicking off at 1 p.m. We arrived at 11:45, just beating the lunch rush.
LC’s can be a bit overwhelming to the uninitiated (like us). The menu board, such as it is, is very bare bones, but you can pretty much just walk up and tell them what you want, as long as it’s meat, all of which you can see being held in the giant smoker right behind the counter.
We ordered ribs and burnt ends. LC’s pours on the sauce, to the point that I was a little worried they’d ruined our barbecue. But the sauce was a thin one and actually worked well with the characteristic of LC’s that was lacking at most other places — char. The burnt ends actually had some burnt parts, and managed to be tender as well. The ribs, too, had a little char that people more accustomed to grilled (as opposed to smoked) meats might expect from barbecue.
The beans weren’t overly sweet, though by this point I was reaching bean saturation.
For old-school cue fans who like it down and dirty, I’d highly recommend LC’s.
BB’s Lawnside (linner)
With the Royals dispatching the Red Sox a little faster than I thought they would, we were done with sportsball and out of the parking lot by 4. But we’d gone a while without eating, and didn’t feel like driving back to the hotel, then heading out again and getting caught in a line. So we headed straight to BB’s Lawnside. (I also figured BB’s would have a wait, since it also has live music pretty much every night of the week.)
BB’s is a sit-down and menu place, but one with a road-house vibe. Lots of concert posters on the walls, buckets of beer, red-checked table clothes. It’s also got a Louisiana influence, though how they get gumbo into a wrap I was too polite to ask.
The ribs were good, if a little over sauced, and the pulled pork decent (but it needed a little more sauce). The smoked Italian sausage, though, was, well, it was weird. I’m a fan of grilled Italian sausage, but smoked doesn’t do it for me.
The beans were good, but the battered fries were a stand-out. Come to think of it, all of the French fries we ordered in KC were excellent. Go figure.
We didn’t have anything one could consider bad barbecue in Kansas City. I’m sure it’s out there. And there were places — Gate’s, Woodyard, Plowboys — that we didn’t get to due to time (and appetite constraints). Gate’s I kind of regret missing, but I had an irrational bias against it because it had six locations. Basically I punished them for being successful!
Can you rank them?
Ranking this many places is hard, especially since a lot of them had different strengths and weaknesses. So I’ll put them in the order in which you should go if you only had limited time. As in if you could only make it to one, go to Joe’s. If you could make it to two, go to Joe’s and then … etc. Some of this is based on food, some of it on the overall experience.
Joe’s (for the food and the experience)
Arthur Bryant’s (because you kind of have to in KC)
LC’s (if Arthur Bryant’s didn’t have the history and name-recognition, I’d put this second)
Jack Stack (it’s good, but to me it feels like the mall).