Burnt ends have become Kansas City’s most famous example of what a slow, wood-stoked fire can do to a tough cut of meat.
The burnt ends at Pullman BBQ in Parkville display a well-defined pink layer known as the smoke ring and a thin strip of the fat capped by a sturdy band of crust achieved by finishing the brisket over a charcoal fire.
Whether to slather the fatty, crispy chunks is, of course, up for debate. But Pullman’s are served naked, which might seem odd coming from a guy who won the American Royal World Series “Best Sauce on the Planet” in 2013. Instead, plastic squirt bottles of Shannon “Firebug” Kimball’s mild and hot sauces are set out on tables for diners to make their own call.
Kimball was previously the owner of FireBug Grill’n Sauce. He recently sold the brand to a national distributor, requiring him to reformulate his restaurant’s sauce. The Pullman sauce contains fewer ingredients, although the sweeteners — molasses and blackstrap sorghum — remain the same. He dropped the cocoa and blackberries (there are still raspberries, though) and the guajillo pepper in favor of chili powder, cumin and celery seed.
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“We’re trending toward a more Kansas City-style sauce,” Kimball says of the tweak of seasonings.
Pullman’s BBQ opened this fall at 100 S. Main St., next to the city’s train tracks. The building was originally built to house Blue Agave Mexican restaurant in the ’70s. The funky hybrid structure is fashioned from an antique yellow Pullman dining car that holds up to 50 diners and a red caboose tacked onto either side of the wood frame.
The 3,500-square-foot space is big enough for several pits and their requisite ventilation system, plus charming Parkville attracts out-of-state tourists, like the couple from California who stopped by for lunch on a recent weekday. The space can further expand during good weather onto a multilevel patio deck where bands play from 1 to 5 p.m. most Saturdays.
When I popped by unannounced for lunch on a recent weekday, I ordered the Pullman barbecue sampler ($16). The sampler included three meats; a choice of pulled pork, chicken, turkey, sliced brisket, sausage smoked meatloaf or burnt ends, and three sides, including cheesy corn, beans, coleslaw, white bean cassoulet, fried mac and cheese balls, fries, sweet potato fries, a bag of chips or a mini corn muffin.
I went for burnt ends, pulled pork and sliced brisket. The pork is smoked with pecan wood to produce moist strands of meat that melt in your mouth. The brisket was tender and a tad dry, although nothing some sauce couldn’t remedy.
I chose two classic sides. The beans were less sweet than many versions around town and included the welcome addition of the sturdier black bean. The coarsely chopped cabbage slaw was crunchy, with a dressing that straddled the line between vinegar-y and cream-y.
Kimball also offers lightly sweet cornbread mini-muffins soaked in butter and his grandma’s cheesy corn — “less 20 percent sugar” than she used. The cheesy corn is made with frozen corn that gives it an al dente crunch. The corn is mixed with a judicious amount of cream cheese, making it less gooey and fresher than some versions. It is topped with chives.
The Pullman menu is compact but offers many clever, chef-style twists, reflecting Kimball’s prior experience as a caterer and an apprentice to local chefs. He has worked pop-ups with chef Alex Pope of The Local Pig and spent six months working with Joe West when he was executive chef at Stock Hill. And Kimball’s cassoulet is a “tip of the hat to Q39.”
Other items I’m eager to try on repeat visits include smoked meatloaf ($6 and $9), burnt end chili ($8), the smoked sausage chili dog topped with burnt end chili, cheese and sour cream ($7) and brisket sliders au jus with horseradish cream sauce and fried onions ($10).
“People don’t often think to put horseradish with smoked meats,” Kimball says.
Non red-meat eaters can get a salad or the Pullman By the Sea ($11), mixed greens and smoked salmon, toasted pistachios with raspberry vinaigrette. There’s a kids menu, and in the next several months Kimball plans to start selling burnt end beef jerky from an antique store in the caboose.
Despite the many obvious flourishes, Pullman’s is “not a competition-style restaurant,” Kimball says. “I wanted to bring back old-school basic seasonings.” I say based on Pullman’s burnt ends alone, the restaurant is well on its way to becoming a barbecue destination.
Pit: Cookshack, Southern Pride and an Ultra Source multicooker
Fuel: Mostly hickory with some oak, finished with peach and pecan (pork) and cherry (brisket)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., closed Sunday and Monday, live music most Saturday afternoons from 1 to 5 p.m.