The Kansas City barbecue scene can sometimes feel like a family reunion, with a number of the more iconic restaurants familiar enough to be known on a first name basis. While the Arthur’s, Jack’s and Joe’s may dominate many local and national discussions, it’s always welcome news when a fresh face enters the fray and even better when the food is good enough to make a name for itself.
The barely two-month-old Slap’s BBQ is tucked neatly away in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan., a short jaunt across the state line from downtown, but feeling much farther than that. Luckily, that hasn’t stopped a steady flow of traffic from finding and lining up at the door of this lunch-only barbecue newcomer.
Slap’s is the brainchild of co-owners Brandon Whipple and brothers Mike and Joe Pearce, who all cut their teeth in the barbecue circuit as members of the Squeal Like a Pig competition team. It falls squarely in the realm of the barbecue shack tradition rather than white china and sit-down service.
The combination of the small seating area and lunch hours means table space is at a premium, so be advised that dining in will have you in close quarters with other eaters, whether they’re in your group or not. This is not necessarily a problem, but it isn’t ideal if you’re looking for a spot for a working lunch or intimate conversations.
Whatever Slap’s may lack in ambiance, it more than makes up for with the food — and make no mistake, the food is the star here. The dine-in or carry-out counter service adds an element of theater to the ordering process. As you approach in line you see the man taking orders slicing each cut of meat by hand. If your appetite hadn’t quite been whetted with the intoxicating aromas, the visuals of a sharp knife through fork-tender ribs and melting layers of brisket should do the trick. This front row meat show seems to double as a menu advertisement, as I noticed more than one group in line change or add to their orders as they watched the assortment of meats being cut.
The menu is minimalist but highly customizable, breaking down into a group of combos and plates featuring either one or two meat selections and sides, or a choice of meats and “bones,” the barbecue vernacular for ribs. Sandwiches come in regular and large sizes, either on white bread or bun, and include a side. I had already heard from people in the know that the ribs, burnt ends and brisket were not to be missed, and on my first visit these whispers were more than confirmed.
My dining companions and I wanted to give Slap’s a thorough run-through, so we ordered the largest sampler plate, which is basically every meat plus burnt ends, three ribs and two large sides. At $27.99, it is the most expensive item on the menu, but to be quite honest, it is an absolute steal. The selection of brisket, turkey, sausage, pulled pork, burnt ends and ribs is a mountain of food that could easily feed three to four people or more, depending on the voracity of the eaters.
After paying and getting our drinks, we scored a few seats at one of the precious few tables right before the heaviest flow of the lunch rush hit at noon. Served all on one tray, the sampler plate has the best of Slap’s on display.
There was a variance in the thickness of slices between each meat, which I’d noticed while watching the man slicing them at the counter. The turkey and brisket were thicker than you find at many area barbecue establishments, and large chunks of smoked sausage and burnt ends made for big, but luscious bites. I would suspect that these choices are not made by accident, but rather from finding the sweet spot of texture for their meats through trial and error in past barbecue competitions.
The pit masters work with an adept touch here, perhaps on best display in their remarkably tender, smoke ring-tinged ribs that yield at the softest contact but are not sloppily falling off the bone — which can be a sign of overcooking. The sandwiches pack good value for the price, though a subsequent visit toward the end of lunch yielded a brisket sandwich where both meat and bun were trending on the dry side. Slap’s is only open until 2 p.m. or until they run out of meat, so I would say the earlier you go, the better off you are.
It can be argued how much weight should be given to each portion of the barbecue trinity — meat, sauce and sides — and Slap’s strengths fluctuate across that spectrum. They only feature one sauce, a translucent, pepper-flecked sweeter number that is somewhat different than the thicker, tomato-based sauces Kansas City is traditionally known for. I found it vaguely reminiscent of a General Tso’s sauce from a Chinese restaurant, and my dining companions were divided on its merits. Luckily, the subtly seasoned and expertly smoked meats do not need a drop to shine.
The sides at Slap’s are all solid with a few very pleasant surprises mixed in. The fries, beans and slaw are well seasoned but not entirely distinctive, and I’m not generally a huge fan of cheesy corn, but this version had understated flavors of smoke and meat that seemed universally appealing to the people I dined with.
The unexpected pleasures lie in Slap’s two more unique offerings, an indulgent warm baked potato salad and refreshingly light hush puppies. The large chunks of this rich potato salad are to a loaded baked potato what burnt ends are to brisket — a delightful way to spend a few hundred calories.
One kink I noticed in Slap’s service is a notable lack of beer selection — as in there is only one choice and sadly, it is Bud Light. This is bad news for those people who like to wash down their barbecue with local beer, and is hopefully something they will consider changing in the future.
Though it is still in its infancy, Slap’s BBQ has the feeling of familiarity and solid food that many restaurants work years to attain — a testament to the good work being done by the Pearce brothers, Whipple and their friendly team. They are already receiving national attention, being named alongside another local upstart, Q39, to Zagat’s list of “Hottest BBQ Joints Across the U.S.”
That is great news for local diners and Kansas City’s edible tourism, as Slap’s is a delicious new destination to add to the city’s barbecue map.
553 Central Ave., Kansas City, Kan.
Food: Three and a half stars.The smoked meat is the star here, which Slap’s smartly lets shine with minimal sauce and subtle seasoning, while sides range from solid to very good and unique, as with the warm baked potato salad and hush puppies.
Service: Three stars. The counter service is equally attentive, very friendly, and efficient for dine-in or take away, quickly moving lines that often extend beyond the front door.
Atmosphere: Two stars. Spartan interior mixes meat-themed wall art and scattered barbecue awards with small, close quarter tables to make for an appealingly casual and communal “barbecue shack” experience, if you can score a seat. Only one, non-local beer offered limits option of full beer and barbecue experience.
Hours: 11 a.m.– 2:00 p.m., or until food runs out, Monday through Saturday.
Entree average (including nightly specials): $$
Vegetarian options: Sides, French fries, hush puppies, coleslaw.
Handicapped accessible: No.
Parking: Small lot in front and street parking.
Kids: No separate kids menu, but a variety of combo meals offer multiple options for family friendly sharing.
Noise level: Small, open room can get loud when crowded at lunch rush, but isconsistent with the overall ambience.
Star code: Fair, Good, Excellent, Extraordinary
Price code: $ Average entree under $10; $$ 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 reviewer’s. The Star pays for review meals.
Large Turkey Sandwich, $8
Sausage Plate With Two Sides, $11.50
Brisket and Burnt End Combo, $14
Three Ribs and Brisket, $13.25
Sampler Plate Add Burnt Ends and 3 Ribs, $27.50