Professional chefs who expect to win big at the American Royal are often disappointed when they don’t tally at the top of the pack. But trophy-toting weekend barbecue warriors receive no guarantees of success when the tables are turned.
When the best of both worlds collide — as they have with Q39 — everyone wins.
Instead of a thumbprint in my white bread — and I do believe there is a time and a place for that in our hallowed barbecue hall of fame — a Q39 server described how the Granny Smith apple-tinged coleslaw was “hand tossed to order” and the tart acidity of the fruit “cleanses the palate.” Such descriptions might have proved precious if they weren’t spot on.
The freshly made coleslaw does not have time to become watered down. And a similar chef-driven vision extends to innovative and well-executed items such as smoked and grilled pork belly over a meaty cassoulet flecked with fresh thyme, smoke-kissed wings and drumettes glazed with a sweet chipotle sauce and a sophisticated “liquid dessert” called the Bourbon Ball, a wicked mingling of Woodford bourbon, dark cacao and Frangelico.
Q39 gets its particular thumbprint from Rob Magee, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and the pitmaster of Munchin’ Hogs. The team’s trophies and awards line one wall of the new 39th Street restaurant, and the menu is dotted with blue-ribbon icons. At its peak, Munchin’ Hogs won two national titles and placed seven consecutive years in the Kansas City Barbeque Society’s Top 10.
Now Magee has turned his attention to building a restaurant chain, including another Q39, and he has other barbecue concepts up his sleeve, although he will make time for an appearance at the Royal this fall.
“The reason professional chefs don’t do well at the Royal is, they really need to be on a barbecue team where they learn the layers of flavor needed to score really well with the judges — and those flavors change every year, from sweet through savory,” Magee says in a telephone interview after my visits. “When (the Food Network’s) Bobby Flay was hot, spicy, aggressive flavors were in.”
Tucked into a strip mall that once housed a Chinese buffet, the 180-seat restaurant and full-service bar opened in April. Magee used the same designers as Bread & Butter Concepts (the homegrown restaurant chain responsible for BRGR, Urban Table, Gram & Dun and Taco Republic) to create a trendy, country-chic space with concrete floors, dark rustic wood tables, chalkboards, domed light fixtures and an open kitchen. Instead of plastic foam plates, diners enjoy tableside service that includes presentation on pottery plates, mini cast-iron skillets or bamboo cutting boards. Instead of wet naps, diners get cloth dishtowel napkins for wiping their sauce-stained fingers.
On a busy Saturday night, my family and I were seated facing the open kitchen where Magee, a portly man with wavy brown hair and a mustache, directed a crew of cooks in starched black chef jackets. Magee’s wife, Kelly, worked on the opposite side of the line. To keep fresh barbecue all day long, the smokers kick on at 3 a.m., and he starts putting stuff on the hickory smokers at 6:30 a.m., with another round going on around 3 p.m. The ribs, sausage and other meats are cooked to a holding point, then reheated on the oak-fired grills before serving. There is no microwave in the kitchen, and the freezer is quite small by restaurant standards, both part of a plan to keep fresh food rotating through the kitchen.
The menu starts out with “share-able” appetizers, soups and salads, then transitions to burgers, specialty sandwiches, wood-fired steaks and competition barbecue plates with your choice of two or three meats and sides. The plates are one of the best ways to get an overview of Magee’s barbecue chops.
The first time I ordered a competition plate, I went for pork spare ribs, brisket and pulled pork. Housemade chipotle sausage and smoked chicken were also options. (Magee is considering requests for a four-meat version.) The ribs were spot on — tender but not falling apart, leaving a distinct bite mark — just as they should be, according to KCBS standards. The brisket was tender and moist, and you could see smoke rings on the slices of brisket. The pork butt was tender and succulent.
Choosing your sides can be a bit of a challenge: There are so many choices, I couldn’t quite work in the smashed potatoes or seasonal vegetables. The apple coleslaw was definitely one of my favorites, although the size of the dice on the apples did get larger on my subsequent visits. (A lovely brunoise is my preference. In competition terms, that would be one-eighth-inch fine dice.) The mayonnaise-based potato salad was creamy, with bits of fresh tarragon. If you’re after less traditional sides, skip the baked beans and try the white bean cassoulet, a French classic. There are some ways to double up, though. For instance, the pork belly is served over white bean cassoulet and garnished with onion straws.
The mac and cheese proved irresistible, but I found it more a selfish kind of side dish than shareable, since it doesn’t divide neatly. The “Best Wings on the Planet” — tender wings and drumettes dressed in a rich and slightly spicy chipotle sauce — were some of the best wings I’ve had and easier to eat than many I’ve encountered in the city. My son noted, however, that if you’re not into sweet and smoky, best to skip the wings as well as the chipotle ketchup that accompanies the fries. (You can ask for plain ketchup.)
Specialty sandwiches include the first-place No Jackin’ Around, a pulled-pork sandwich with jalapeno jack cheese and barbecue sauce on toasted bread. There is also a Midtown Veggie Burger, but I could never get myself to order it with so many meaty choices. I did dabble in salads with a prize-winning Wood-Fired Grilled Salmon Salad, tender-sweet Bibb lettuce with strawberries, pickled onion and toasted almonds topped with a plank of grilled salmon and dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette.
A wood-fired 12-ounce KC Strip steak served with sauteed button mushrooms and french fries also did not disappoint. But it was the burnt-end burger that I couldn’t stop thinking about. This is a decadent burger for the record books: a combination of ground brisket and black Angus beef topped with sliced burnt ends, a spicy pickle slaw and classic barbecue sauce on buttery buns delivered daily from Farm to Market. It’s a burger that joins a local sandwich pantheon of excess that includes Oklahoma Joe’s Z-Man and food truck Beauty of the Bistro’s Bam Burger.
You probably won’t have room for dessert after a burnt-end burger, but order a few to share. The Champion Cheesecake is a light and fluffy version drizzled with chocolate sauce and sprinkled with peanuts. The made-to-order doughnut holes are hot from the fryer, rolled in cinnamon-sugar and served with a chocolate and raspberry dipping sauces. I was less enamored with the flourless chocolate cake, which arrived cold and with plastic wrap designs on the icing.
To keep the barbecue fresh, Magee is not afraid to run out. When my daughter ordered a Q Bacon Club with smoked turkey, our waiter returned to apologize profusely that the kitchen was out of turkey.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “Please order anything else on the menu, on the house.”
In my book, that’s just the kind of service that wins blue ribbons.
1000 W. 39th St.
Food: Three and a half stars. Competition pitmaster and professional chef creates a barbecue menu that is both innovative and well-executed, with something for everyone.
Service: Three stars. Polished servers are both knowledgeable and attentive.
Atmosphere: Three stars. A trendy, urban, country-chic design includes an open kitchen, full bar and a wall of trophies.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Entree average (including nightly specials): $$
Vegetarian options: Midtown Veggie Burger, Caesar salad (eggless), apple coleslaw, seasonal vegetables, house-cut fries, smashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, onion straws, potato salad
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Parking: Lot for retailers in the area
Kids: There is a separate kids menu for those 10 and under. Meals are $4.95 and sides are $2. High chairs available.
Noise level: It’s an open room with concrete floors, so if the room is full, it can get noisy. On my visits, conversation was pleasant, and there was a nice hum of activity.
Reservations: Reservations are highly recommended on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Book a table on the website, through Yelp’s Seat Me and by phone.
Star code: Fair, Good, Excellent, Extraordinary
Price code: $ Average entree under $10; $$ 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.
Smoked and grilled pork belly, $12
Best Wings on the Planet, $10
Burnt-end burger, $11.50
Southern Pride pulled-pork sandwich, $8.25
Q spare ribs (full rack), $29
Judges plates (pick three meats, two sides), $19.50, Pick two $15
Made-to-order doughnuts, $5
Apple crumble, $6
What to drink
Chef/owner Rob Magee has hired Otto Miller of Otto’s Malt Shop fame to watch over Q39’s bar operation. Miller’s hamburger diner was a popular 39th Street destination in the ’90s.
The beer list at Q39 shows eight beers on tap, as well as a long list of craft beers, including options from Boulevard, Free State, Tallgrass and Mother’s. Shandies and sangria served up in glass canning jars were also popular summer options. And there are wine options that pair well with barbecue. Be sure to at least browse the dessert cocktail menu, which includes a stunning Bourbon Ball, with curacao and Frangelico, a vanilla stout float with Tallgrass cream stout, and a hazelnut latini with brandy, Kahlua and Frangelico.
In recent weeks, Magee has moved his Q2GO operation from the bar. Now to-go customers pick up from a separate pickup entrance with a waiting area that includes tables, planters, sconces and speakers.