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Where is Kansas City's best barbecue? Fans aren't reluctant to voice opinions

By JOYCE SMITH
The Kansas City Star

There’s an old saying that in polite social circles one should never discuss religion, politics or sex.

In Kansas City you might add barbecue to the list.

Almost nothing gets barbecue fanatics riled up as a discussion of Kansas City’s best.

Take the recent reports on the closing — then reopening Wednesday — of Famous Dave’s Legendary Pit Bar-B-Que in the Kansas City Power & Light District.

Dozens of readers rang in on The Kansas City Star’s business blog, economy.kansascity. com, with such comments as “it turns out Famous Dave’s is actually better than a lot of KC BBQ places” to “a Minneapolis BBQ joint in the BBQ capital of the world — Kansas City? What a joke.”

But there’s no debate that Kansas City is a barbecue town.

Zagat Survey even selected three barbecue places — Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue, Danny Edwards Blvd. BBQ and Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue — in its list of top 10 area restaurants for 2008.

So this week I stopped at those restaurants, and more, to get the inside scoop from pit masters themselves on what makes great barbecue.

Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque, Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan.

The technique: “The sauce, the tradition, the way we prepare our meats — slow-smoke it over hickory and oak. The key to barbecue is the pit master. We have three here and all of them have been here over 15 years. We try to prepare it the way Mr. Bryant did 80 years ago,” said Eddie Echols, general manager.

Also on the menu: turkey, sausage.

Danny Edwards Blvd. BBQ, Kansas City.

In 1980, Danny Edwards went head to head with legendary Gates Bar-B-Q and Arthur Bryant’s. Not only did it survive, it often makes top barbecue lists, right along with them.

“I didn’t worry about what they have, just worried about what I sell,” he said. “You just do your best. I’m the one back here doing the cooking. It really makes me happy seeing all these people at the door every day, even in a depressed economy. They just want a good product at a reasonable price.”

The technique: Juicy slow-smoked brisket using hickory wood.

Also on the menu: Mexican chili, sweet potato fries.

Famous Dave’s Legendary Pit Bar-B-Que, Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City Power & Light District.

“Minneapolis, that’s where our company is based, but our flavors and our cooking processes and all that came from all over the country,” said Mat Eastlack, general manager of the downtown Famous Dave’s. “Our founder, Dave Anderson, spent 25 years developing his recipes from all over the country — Kansas City, Memphis, the Carolinas, Texas — and so he takes the best from all those areas.”

The technique: Signature rubs, meat smoked for 2½ to three hours, then cooled. The next day it’s brought up to 160 degrees to help break down the fats and loosen the meat up so it falls off the bone easier. It’s charred on the grill, then sauce is added and the meat is grilled until caramelized.

Also on the menu: chicken Caesar salad, catfish fingers, smoked salmon spread, Cajun chicken sandwich.

Gates Bar-B-Q, Kansas City, Kansas City, Kan., Leawood and Independence

George Gates II calls Gates a specialty house that concentrates on just making great barbecue.

“Barbecue is an art, it’s a feeling,” he said. “Everybody can paint, but not everybody is an artist. That’s what makes Kansas City so great, because you have so many styles of painting — of artistry of barbecuing.”

The technique: The pit has to be at the right temperature with the right moisture. Ribs start off on the bottom of the pit, close to the fire. The meat is seared to keep the juice in, then moved away from the fire to finish.

“Directly over the fire, not indirect, is what gives us our Gates flavor, along with our Gates spices,” Gates said.

Also on the menu: mutton, turkey, yammer pie.

Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, Country Club Plaza, downtown, Martin City and Overland Park.

“We really try to focus on the quality of our raw ingredients and preparing all our products fresh from scratch,” said Case Dorman, president.

The technique: Authentic brick pits using 100 percent wood — 60 percent hickory, 40 percent oak — with meat seared at 350 degrees, then moved to a rotisserie smoker to slow-cook and hold the moisture.

Also on the menu: Rack of lamb, seared tuna, vegetable kabobs, entree salads and cheesy corn bake.

Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue, Kansas City, Kan., and Olathe.

Started as a competition barbecue company, Oklahoma Joe’s opened as a restaurant in 1996.

“There’s a big difference in cooking barbecue in your backyard, cooking barbecue at a competition or cooking barbecue in a restaurant,” said Jeff Stehney, co-owner with his wife, Joy Stehney. “The most important thing when you go from cooking competitively or in the backyard to the restaurant is you obviously have to figure out a way to make money at it … but you do need to stay true to your belief that quality comes first.”

The technique: “Our barbecue rubs are what makes our barbecue stand out. The most important thing is how the barbecue rubs interact with the smoke and the heat,” Jeff Stehney said. “And we use only Missouri white oak to smoke with.”

Also on the menu: Red beans and rice, smoked chicken gumbo, Z-Man sandwich (smoked beef brisket, barbecue sauce, smoked provolone cheese and onion rings).

Cityscape runs Tuesdays and Fridays in the business section. To reach Joyce Smith, call 816-234-4692 or send e-mail to jsmith@kcstar.com.

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