Turns out the fire truck parked in the lot behind Jon Russells BBQ was a good omen.
By JILL WENDHOLT SILVA
The Kansas City Star
Inside, teams of firefighters and EMTs gnawed contentedly on plates of smoky ribs. If thats not enough of a ringing endorsement, the Overland Park barbecue bistros walls are covered with satiny ribbons, and there are some boss trophies from partners Jon Niederbremer and Russell Muehlbergers early team competition days.
Muehlberger has a culinary degree from Johnson County Community College. He has cooked in such tony eateries as Argosy Casino and EBT, and he consults with five other restaurants.
Muehlberger and high school buddy Niederbremer have been competition barbecuers for more than two decades: They won the American Royal Grand Reserve Champion in 1991 and the Grand Champion in 1992.
They have continued to compete since opening the restaurant in August 2012.
But Jon Russells lacks the white bread and greasy patina of a typical joint. The website describes their place as a handcrafted micro smokehouse.
And their style of food is traditional Kansas City, but with a few twists, including an array of sweet-heat, fruit-pepper sauces, an array of gussied-up sandwiches, gluten-free smoked sandwich meats, gourmet salads and even a few simple desserts.
And thats just for starters: Muehlberger wants to add more vegetables, fruit salsas and local ingredients such as Campo Lindo chicken and move some items from baskets to plates.
I can take the overalls off and put on a tux, Muehlberger joked, adding that they had recently catered a nine-course Downton Abbey dinner for his dentist.
To check out the goods, I invited barbecue expert Ardie Davis to join me for lunch at Jon Russells.
The co-author of several barbecue books with legendary local pitmaster Paul Kirk, Davis is the one who administers the Kansas City Barbeque Societys Judges Oath. Wearing a black bowler hat and a bib of rib bones, he asks judges to raise their right hand and repeat the oath: I do solemnly swear to objectively and subjectively evaluate each Barbeque meat that is presented to my eyes, my nose, my hands and my palate. I accept my duty to be an Official KCBS Certified Judge, so that truth, justice, excellence in Barbeque and the American Way of Life may be strengthened and preserved forever.
In the same spirit of the oath, I continued to assemble my own team of expert eaters, asking Kevin Fossland and Martin Diggs, former JJs servers who are now working on a Kansas City barbecue documentary, to join us.
The room was crowded, so I asked the guys to snag a table while I ordered food. Nestled into a cramped, strip-mall space, tables are at a premium: There are only 29 seats, although construction is about to begin on an a new all-seasons patio that should fit 30 more.
I ordered up a slew of mostly traditional items for us to sample: a full slab of ribs, the Grand Champion sampler platter (we chose sausage, burnt ends, Cajun coleslaw and Southwestern roasted corn potato salad). I also wanted to try Little Jons pit beans and cheesy corn and for something a bit different, one of the daily specials, an Asian chicken salad.
The centerpiece of Jon Russells menu are the Flower of the Flame Ribs, a reference to Muehlbergers culinary school mentor Karen Putman, a chef and award-wining pitmaster. Her fruit-based barbecue sauces were one of the first of their kind to hit local grocery stores.
Our server brought us what Muehlberger later refered to as a flight of sauce, each labeled so we could compare: honey spice, blueberry habanero, pineapple poblano, raspberry jalapeno and cherry chipotle. Those who want heat can request the Smokin Ghost, a sauce made with the ghost pepper.
My favorite was the cherry chipotle. But sauce or no sauce, barbecue is always a deeply personal matter.
After the four of us loaded our plates and the quiet smacking subsided (judges do not talk to one another at competitions for fear of influencing the results), I asked them to evaluate. Everyone agreed the ribs met a high mark. They were tender, yet did not fall off the bone. Lightly sauced, they also had a smoky rather than sweet flavor. They avoided what I call candied ribs, Ardie said. On the dry side but very decent. Id give them 8 on a scale of 9.
We agreed that the burnt ends were deliciously moist and had a great smoky flavor, although Ardie had recently had what he thought were better at Danny Edwards. We were also unanimously less enthusiastic about fennel-based sausage, which lacked bite.
But when it came to side dishes, we were all over the map. Martin grooved on the pit beans, but Ardie thought they were too thick and overly reliant on molasses, and wanted he a few chunks of meat. Same with the potato salad, which Kevin and I liked because it had fresh roasted corn, but Ardie thought it needed more zing.
There was even more debate about the cheesy corn. Ardie liked the side dish, which I thought had considerably less cheese sauce than Jack Stacks famed version. But I gave extra points for the brunoise (1/8-inch dice) of ham, a knife technique most often seen in fine dining establishments. Martin thought the cheesy corn tasted like it had popped out of a can and did not match the freshness of the rest of the meal.
I loved the salad, Kevin offered.
Everyone agreed. A generous bed of lettuces was topped with smoked chicken, diced mango and covered with a sesame dressing. It was out of the ordinary, and added color and flavor to the main meat. The portion was ample enough to serve as a side for four, but is typically served as an entree.
Were just getting started, Muehlberger said. We kinda want to bring California and Kansas City and blend it together. I definitely want to bring the white coat into barbecue.
Jon Russells Kansas City BBQ
12094 135th St.
Overland Park, Kan.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m Monday-Thursday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Entree average : $
Vegetarian options: Order a salad special and hold the meat.
Handicapped accessible: Yes.
Parking: Prairie Center Shopping Center lot.
Kids: Not your average Little Pitmasters kids menu (and anyone can order): Choices include a smoked hot dog ($3.95), pulled pork sliders ($3.95), baby burnt ends (a smaller portion, $5.95), turkey and cheese sandwich ($4.95), ham and cheese sandwich ($4.95) and kids ribs ($6.95). All meals served with choice of potato salad, coleslaw, pit beans, French fries, chip and a drink.
Noise level: Its a small place so when all the tables are filled, theres plenty of energy but still conversational.
Reservations: First-come, first serve.
Star code: ★ Fair, ★★ Good, ★★★ Excellent, ★★★★ Extraordinary
Price code: $ Average entree under $10; $$ under $20; $$$ under $30; $$$$ over $30.
Code of ethics: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewers. The Star pays for review meals.
Ribs: 2/4/6 bones ($4, $8, $12), half slab ($13.49), whole ($22.99)
Sides: Cajun coleslaw ($1.95), Little Jons beans ($2.49), Southwestern roasted corn potato salad ($2.29)
Sandwiches: Jesse James Melt (smoked turkey, caramelized onion and cheddar) and Jammin Salmon (smoked salmon with chipotle aioli and Cajun coleslaw) $6.99
Desserts: Root beer float, Smore bar $3.95
What to drink: Tea, lemonade, soda, bottled beers