Kansas Citians have more than 100 local barbecue sauce brands to choose from. I have highlighted a few that represent traditional legacy sauces, post-traditional contest-era sauces and sauces inspired by other regions.
Keep in mind that sauce is supposed to complement the natural flavors of barbecue meat.
Major supermarkets have expanded their local and national brands over the past decade. A few specialty stores with a hearty inventory of sauces include McGonigle’s, Smoke ‘n’ Fire, the Kansas City BBQ Store and Kansas Sampler.
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So much sauce, so little time!
Arthur Bryant’s: Vinegar base, grainy texture, flavor notes of paprika, chili, curry, tomato and pit drippings. An acquired taste for many but once acquired, it tastes great on everything. The new Sweet Heat, formulated by owner Gary Berbiglia, delivers extra sweetness with a gentle fiery kiss and more tomato to the original base. I love it.
Gates: The original, with a smooth tomato base accented with garlic, celery, vinegar and a touch of sweetness. It’s a long-standing Kansas City favorite, with variations that are sweeter or hotter available.
Rosedale: Barbecue legend Anthony Rieke’s original tomato base with vinegar, pepper and spicy flavor notes, including a hint of allspice. Another Kansas City favorite, it’s served and sold today at Rosedale.
Danny Edwards: Smooth, tomato base, slightly sweet, with molasses, pepper and a gentle chili pepper/cayenne kick. It complements all barbecue meats.
Snead’s: Smooth, thick, tomato base with vinegar, a touch of sweetness, complex mix of spices, with pepper, celery and a touch of Worcestershire sauce.
Jack Stack: Smooth tomato base with spicy, pepper first hint, mellowing to complementary vinegar sour notes followed by molasses sweetness and complex spiciness. The original complements everything.
Zarda: The tomato base with chili pepper, vinegar, molasses, brown sugar, garlic, celery seed, Worcestershire flavor notes and a kiss of smoke. It has earned its stature as a Kansas City favorite since 1976.
Barbecue contest-era sauces
KC Masterpiece: Invented in Kansas City by Rich Davis, this sauce started a new era of Kansas City-style sauces, moving the pendulum from slightly sweet or sour to thick, molasses and brown sugar sweet in a tomato base with notes of pepper and a distinct signature blend of secret spices. Now owned by Kingsford, it is the best-selling sauce in America. I am partial to the 35th anniversary original formula.
Cowtown: Cartoonist Charlie Podrebarac’s dancing cows on the label capture your attention, but the sauce keeps you coming back for more. This delicious blend of tomato puree, molasses and brown sugar seasoned with a hint of mustard, smoke and secret spices is nothing short of famous. Cowtown and its spicy sister, Night of the Living Barbecue, maintain a permanent presence in my cupboard and refrigerator.
Johnny’s BBQ: Johnny White’s restaurant in Mission serves an original sauce that blends sweet and spicy flavors in his smooth tomato base with a hint of smoke. The familiar cinnamon or allspice note is reminiscent of Rosedale’s sauce but distinctly different in flavor and texture. Johnny’s line includes a hickory and a hot barbecue sauce.
Rufus Teague Honey Sweet: The Rufus Teague label on a whiskey flask bottle features a grainy 19th-century image of an old Amish-style bearded gentleman in a Derby hat, dress shirt, tie and suit, looking straight at you with an almost smile. The fictional Rufus’ story is short and sweet. He made some sauce. Everyone liked it and urged him to make more. Rufus’ smooth, sweet tomato base, stick-to-your-bones texture with honey, vinegar and molasses notes up front is a crowd-pleaser.
Eat BBQ: Rod Gray of the award-winning Pellet Envy competition barbecue team shares some secrets to his success in a black label “Next Big Thing” Kansas City-style sauce and a white label “IPO Memphis Sauce That Defected to Kansas City.” Both are sweet with a smooth tomato base texture. The black label is sweet with a peppery, sour finish. The white label is sour with a sweet spicy finish and thinner texture. Both will earn stature in your barbecue seasonings repertoire.
Q39 Classic BBQ Sauce: Restaurant owner and Culinary Institute of America-trained chef Rob Magee knows all things barbecue, including the art of making sauces that complement smoked and grilled meat. His Classic sauce delivers an amazing blend of flavors in a unique apricot glaze/tomato paste base that is gently spicy with a hint of sweetness and a peppery finish.
Hillsdale Bank: Smooth, full-bodied tomato base marries Kansas City sweetness with complementary sour notes, hickory smoke and pepper. Truly lives up to the label “The Sauce.”
Meat Mitch Char Bar Table Sauce: Smooth, slightly grainy tomato base with a peppery hit up front, sour notes complemented with sweetness from sugar and molasses dancing with a hint of celery seed, garlic, lemon juice and secret spices. Original and Naked variations also carry the Meat Mitch brand. Char Bar made a perfect choice of sauce to go with its outstanding meat and vegetable dishes.
Papa Bob’s Crummy Sauce: Like the legendary Amazing Grace Harris who served barbecue at the late, great Grand Emporium for many years, pitmaster “Papa” Bob Caviar of Papa Bob’s Bar-B-Que in Kansas City, Kan., is constantly dreaming up new barbecue sauces. He had at least a dozen for sale the last time I checked with him. My favorite thus far is his Crummy Sauce. Sweet and slightly grainy up front in a tomato base, followed by gentle hits of spiciness fueled with chili pepper.
Mendel’s Kosher Kansas City Style: To be honest, I had low expectations of this, another “Kansas City Style” barbecue sauce. Rabbi Mendel Segal nailed it in spades. Instead of ho-hum, this tomato base, slightly sweet and slightly sour, is an instant palate pleaser. Notes of pepper, molasses, chili pepper, garlic and secret seasonings resonate well on all palates, kosher or not. Try it on everything.
Chow Town-accented regional-style sauces
Bubba’s Hot Vinegar Barbeque Sauce: One of my favorites at Joe’s Kansas City is the Carolina Pulled Pork Sandwich. Joe’s tender, mouth-watering, kissed-with-smoke pulled pork topped with slaw and seasoned with this perfect rendition of the sauce that reigns in western North Carolina rivals the best you’ll find in North Carolina. Bubba adds a bit more tomato puree than most Carolina pitmasters would allow, but it’s a perfect fit in Kansas City.
K&M White: K&M Bar-B-Q in Spring Hill has a white mayo-based sauce that is thick, grainy and spicy with a vinegar and horseradish splash and a peppery finish. Recommended for chicken and fish.
RQ! Ivory Barbecue Sauce: Like K&M White sauce, RQ! Ivory (out of Shorewood, Ill.) is a Kansas City version of white barbecue sauce invented in the 1920s by Big Bob Gibson in north Alabama. Unlike Big Bob Gibson’s sauce, RQ! is smoother and more spicy with a touch of fire at the finish. Recommended for poultry and fish, plus salads and vegetables.
Brobeck’s Mustard Sauce: Mustard is the barbecue sauce base of choice in South Carolina. Doug Brobeck of Brobeck’s Barbeque in Overland Park relies on his east Tennessee roots to set a new mark for mustard barbecue sauce excellence. His uncomplicated blend of mustard, vinegar, sugar, salt, molasses, honey, garlic, pepper and secret spices is an especially good complement to barbecue pork, brats and hot dogs. I also love to use it as a dipping sauce with fries.