The restaurant got its start as Smokestack in 1957 when Russ Fiorella hit hard times in the grocery business. Son Jack struck out in the 1970s to start his own Martin City location and added Jack Stack to the name. Although the original location is gone, the fourth generation is poised to take the reins.
The majority of Jack Stack’s menu items are cooked using a traditional brick pit. When I arrive for a menu tasting with Jack’s son-in-law Case Dorman — now president and CEO — I ask what had changed most over the years: “The restaurant industry has evolved,” he says. “There were no chains 60 years ago.”
Locations/atmosphere: Five locations throughout the city; I sampled at the Freight House.
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Pitmaster: Each restaurant has its own pitmaster.
Smoke flavor: Hickory can be harsh, but here it’s dialed back, never overpowering.
Sauce style: Tomato-based but with a black pepper bite and mild vinegar tang that follows; presentation is lightly drizzled or sauce on the side.
Don’t miss: The uptick in the number of Kansas Citians eating barbecue each week has required pitmasters in it for the long haul to figure out ways to speed up cooking times: “A lot of people say low and and slow,” says Dorman. “I say seared and tender.”
It’s a mantra that is most evident as I bite into one of the cartoonishly oversized Crown prime beef short ribs, a signature dish that can be purchased by the bone: one ($25.99), two ($35.99) or three ($45.99). The succulent, marbled meat passes the Kansas City Barbeque Society rib test — just-short of falling-off-the-bone tender.
Beef short ribs are a rarity in Kansas City, but they seem so right — a vigorous nod to our city’s stockyard history. It’s the kind of dish that might seem like overkill unless you were willing to share, or trying to impress someone from out of town. If you should manage to clean three bones, you will have consumed a little over 3 pounds of meat.
We bypass the pork spareribs and baby backs for a slab of Denver-cut lamb ribs ($22.49). They were a revelation: a more petite bite than the beef short ribs, with an earthy, long lingering flavor. Imagine a fattier gyro meat with barbecue spices.
The sides: Since the early days, the hickory pit beans ($4 or $5) which include ample shreds of brisket, are smoked at the bottom of the drip hierarchy to take on the flavor of the pork butts and ribs cooking above. The giant sweet onion rings hand-breaded with a cornmeal crust and cleverly presented on a copper spike (3 for $6.99, 6 for $9.99 and 9 for $11.99) are crowd pleasers.
But it is the cheesy corn bake that stands out — a cream cheese-based casserole credited to Jack’s wife, Delores, that first appeared on the menu in the early ’80s. It has been widely imitated, routinely showing up on the competition barbecue circuit. The Jack Stack version is among the creamier, more garlicky versions and is built around toothsome kernels and bits of ham.