Here’s an assertion I’d like you to consider: Rob Magee’s Q39 Restaurant has forever changed the barbecue landscape in Kansas City.
I truly believe that. And even if you don’t buy that, think of the possibility for a moment — one restaurant altering one of the country’s, nay, the world’s, greatest culinary scenes!
“I wanted to take barbecue to the next level,” Magee told me recently during a sampling of new menu items at the restaurant. “Are we creating haute cuisine with dishes using nitrogen? No. But, are we taking the best of competition barbecue and a wood-fired grill to create a really interesting, delicious menu? Yes!”
Magee has carved out a niche while amassing a large local, regional, even national following in less than three years. And with a second restaurant on the way in the old Hayward’s location in Overland Park just months away, his business is about to double.
With $7,000 worth of brisket alone in his refrigerator at any given moment and a staff that has quadrupled since opening, some would be fearful of growing too big too fast. Not Magee.
“It’s really important no matter what you’re doing in business that you are constantly staying on top of what’s going on. We need to represent Kansas City as being the best barbecue in the United States. We need to continue to take the necessary steps to constantly improve on what we do and how we present it,” Magee said.
I’ve been a fan of Kansas City barbecue since 1989 when KMBC-TV’s News Director and General Manager at the time, Brian Bracco and Paul “Dino” Dinovitz, took me to lunch at Arthur Bryant’s during my interview for an anchor/reporter position.
I didn’t care for the sauce (still don’t), but the meat, brisket as I recall, was unlike anything this Chicago native had ever experienced. Slow-smoked brisket over hickory wood created meat so tender it melted in your mouth.
The meal set me on a path of discovery — learning everything I could about Kansas City barbecue, judging The American Royal and other local barbecue contests dozens of times, meeting and befriending some of KC’s and the country’s greatest pitmasters, traveling to Texas, Memphis, and the Carolinas to see, smell and taste their barbecue in person, even becoming a decent smoker myself.
I love barbecue, Kansas City barbecue in particular. Even after traveling the globe in production of my television show, “Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert,” in which I met and profiled some of the greatest chefs in the world and dined in their Michelin-starred gastronomic palaces, I can say barbecue rates right up there with my favorite cuisines. And yes, I call it a cuisine.
I’ve had dozens of meals at our local barbecue establishments. Everyone has their favorites, and they all deserve their place in KC’s barbecue mosaic, but Magee has done something different.
Magee has taken his background as a chef, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and his years on the competition barbecue trail to create a total dining experience where barbecue plays a lead role.
But the supporting cast — inventive, creative appetizers, salads, sandwiches and side dishes, a top-notch wine, craft beer and cocktail program, skilled service and a faster, more efficient way of cooking and serving the meat, has revolutionized the way Kansas City barbecue will be seen.
“I want to be the face of barbecue in Kansas City. I think we’ve done a good job. I think we’re on our way. We need to keep our edge, so that when people come in a second time they say, ‘Wow, there’s something I haven’t tried yet,’ ” Magee said.
I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, back to the first time I tasted Magee’s smoked/grilled pork belly over cassoulet (the best appetizer in town?).
I thought about it some more when I read The Star’s food editor Jill Silva’s excellent article on Magee last October in which he talked about taking the barbecue experience from “low and slow” to “hot and fast.”
Magee boasts that his briskets are done in seven hours, about half the “normal” smoking time. Magee also enjoys using the words “scratch kitchen,” “in house,” and “by hand,” all three of which apply to my most recent personal reflection on what Magee has accomplished — the introduction of eight new menu items for the new year.
Eight new menu items? At a barbecue restaurant? When’s the last time you heard of something like that? Never. And, that’s when it really struck me. Q39 isn’t a barbecue restaurant. It’s a restaurant that serves barbecue along with a bunch of other items that revolve around smoked and wood-fired food. Magee agrees. Sort of.
“It’s not a barbecue joint. It’s not fast casual. It’s not too formal, so it falls right in the middle. We’re breaking into a new market that has not been established in Kansas City,” Magee said.
As for the aforementioned new menu items. I tried all eight, and encourage you to do the same, though not in one sitting like me.
The new dishes include:
▪ Pork Belly and Sausage Corn Dogs — pork belly, sausage, classic BBQ sauce and maple syrup.
▪ Bacon Wrapped Shrimp with jalapeno-cilantro slaw and chipotle mayo.
▪ Spinach Salad with warm goat cheese, pickled onions, pecans, Granny Smith apples and a balsamic herb vinaigrette.
▪ The Triple Threat — sausage, pulled pork, pork belly, apple coleslaw and zesty BBQ sauce on a toasted bun.
▪ The Short Rib Griller — pulled short rib, provolone cheese, caramelized onion, mushrooms, toasted bread and smoked beef jus.
▪ Pulled Pork TaQos — flour tortillas, jalapeno-cilantro slaw and chipotle mayonnaise.
▪ The Kickin’ Chicken Sandwich — smoked fried chicken, chipotle mayo and spicy pickle slaw on a toasted bun.
▪ Jumbo Beef Short Ribs served with white bean cassoulet, seasonal vegetables, and Q39’s classic BBQ sauce.
I liked everything (really), but the Short Rib Griller, which strikes me an amalgam of a patty melt and a French dip, and the Jumbo Short Ribs were the standouts. I can’t wait to try them both again, nor can I wait to see what Magee does with his new restaurant.
I’m sure he’s got some tasty treats up his competition barbecue chef’s coat sleeve!
Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.