If you know only one thing about Kansas City’s food scene, it’s that we’re known for our barbecue.
Proudly so. Rightly so.
We are home to the American Royal, considered the Super Bowl of barbecue, and the Kansas City Barbeque Society, a membership of 15,000 enthusiasts worldwide and the sanctioning body for more than 400 contests in the U.S. each year. All of which provides an excellent training ground for the rise of an army of citizen barbecue critics.
To keep up, I’ve taken the Barbeque Society’s certification class and judged both the invitational class and the open sauce competition. I’ve also had the privilege to school out-of-town writers trying to get a handle on the best of our barbecue scene: taking Kansas City-born/New York food essayist Calvin Trillin to LC’s Bar-B-Q; “Parts Unknown” CNN personality Anthony Bourdain to Oklahoma Joe’s; and former Gourmet editor and “Delicious” novelist Ruth Reichl to Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue in the Crossroads’ Freight House.
They all came away impressed. As my good buddy and local barbecue icon Ardie Davis always says, naming a favorite depends on what you like. Do you prefer the gritty sauce, tender brisket topped by a slice o’ white bread and overall joint ambiance of Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque on Brooklyn Avenue; the snappy patter, tangy beans and familial dynasty that is Gates Bar-B-Q; or the pulled pork, sweet potato fries and lucky pig statue at Danny Edwards Blvd Barbecue on Southwest Boulevard?
If you’re already familiar with such venerable landmarks, then it’s time to move on to one of a new breed of chef-driven barbecue restaurants. Notice, I didn’t use the word “joint.”
A trio of barbecue competitors has jumped off the competition circuit to create brick-and-mortar concepts, including Jon Russell’s Kansas City Barbeque, which has rapidly expanded to four locations in the metro area, and Plowboys Barbeque, which opened last summer in Blue Springs. The newest, Q39 on 39th Street, just north of Westport between the University of Kansas Medical Center and Southwest Trafficway, is owned by Rob McGee, a Culinary Institute of America grad and long-time member of the award-winnning Munchin’ Hogs.
McGee kicks thing up a notch with a 5,623-square-foot space. The “urban rustic” dining room features an open kitchen and a full-service bar. The napkins are cloth and the $3 sides include apple coleslaw, hand-tossed to order and dotted with cubes of green apple.
The “competition-style” plates are, thankfully, not served in Styrofoam containers as they are at the Royal, but the ribs do, indeed, allow the taster to bite to the bone without the meat falling off, an indication the meat has been properly cooked. (And you thought the meat should literally melt off the bone. Not so in competition.)
Meanwhile, Oklahoma Joe’s Z-Man ($6.99), a nationally popular brisket sandwich with a slice of provolone and topped with an onion ring, may have met its match with the Burnt End Burger ($11.50, no side), a ground brisket, ground chuck and Black Angus burger, topped with rosy slices of burnt end and a spicy pickle slaw on a house-made toasted bun.
Among the city’s ’cue afficionados, burnt ends, the bits cut from the point half of a smoked brisket, are a delicacy akin to black gold. (Keep in mind, you have to smoke a whole lot of brisket to get a decent amount of burnt ends to offer up, so some restaurants serve them only on certain days of the week.)
Q39 also offers salads, such as a Smoked Chicken Cobb ($12) and a Wood-Fired Grilled Salmon ($14), as well as gluten-free options and a vegetarian burger ($8.50), to accommodate those not up for a purely carnivorous outing.
Just don’t try to please special diets at the old-school joints. They’ll laugh you right out of the house.