From all appearances, Jones Bar-B-Q was just the sort of roadside pit stop Jeff Sanders of Chicago was looking for: a tiny barbecue spot in a former taco stand in a parking lot just off of Kaw Drive in Kansas City, Kan.
Sanders and his eating buddies — nearly two dozen food lovers he met in the roadfood.com forum — were in the midst of a 3 1/2 day food crawl through Kansas City.
Most members of the group — all fans of Michael and Jane Stern’s famous travels to foodie haunts across America — have been to three other cities for themed food tours. Their fourth annual crawl netted folks from eight states and Ontario for an itinerary that included more than 20 eateries.
Their crawl kicked off at Happy Gillis Cafe & Hangout and ended at Stroud’s Oak Ridge Manor, with the bulk of stop-offs, perhaps predictably, at barbecue joints. Conspicuously absent from the list: Joe’s Kansas City, because it is not off the beaten path.
They threw in a few tenderloins and pies for good measure.
“We travel the country and eat the food that is regionally appropriate,” says Joseph Rogo of Pittston, Pa. “You can’t come to Kansas City and have Italian food. Well, you can, but that’s not what you’re known for.”
“Just because we don’t have Italian on this tour doesn’t mean they don’t have good Italian,” Sanders counters. “Just like you may be able to get a good lobster; that’s not the reason you would come to Kansas City.”
They don’t always agree, but a focus on barbecue was unanimous: “Then we filled in with the breaded pork tenderloin at Kitty’s (Cafe). We’re doing Mexican grilled chicken at El Pollo Rey, Bichelmeyer’s for their Saturday street tacos.”
Gregg Pill, who writes about the Chicago dining scene for mysuburbanlife.com, unfolds a color-coded, accordion-style computer print-out that takes four or five guys to unfurl to its full length. It’s a joke, mostly. But the group is sincere about its love of food, and the members are dedicated to its acquisition.
They are also punctual, spending no more than an hour per restaurant. They split plates and bills. They have little interest in the latest restaurant featured in Food & Wine or Bon Appetit or on Eater.com. They pride themselves on sniffing out authentic good eats.
They get a little help from friends (Chow Town blogger Ardie Davis) and someone on the ground (Chris Whitmore of Lenexa).
But in the end, the winners come down to personal preference. “There’s no ranking. It’s not a contest to see who can eat the most. And it’s not contest to see which one is best,” Sanders says. “It’s more just to experience it and expose yourself to it.”
The adventure of it all is trying new foods, but pacing is critical, and restaurant owners need not take leftover food as a slight: “My first trip to Chicago I was full by the second stop and regretted it. You share and you learn you have to leave food on the plate,” says John Nairn, who lives in Canada and drove 1,700 miles with his wife to get to Kansas City.
Jones Bar-B-Q pitmaster Deborah Jones woke up at 2 a.m. to stoke her fires. She wanted to be sure she had enough food on hand. Because her to-go barbecue joint lacks seating, Jones also went to the trouble to set up a canopy, tables and chairs in the parking lot.
“What the Sterns started doing with their book is finding places that are out of the way that in some instances are going away. Like mom and pop places that corporate America is just gobbling them up. So this is kind of fun stuff,” says Gary Gay of Sweetwater, Tenn. “I’m a Kansas City Barbeque Society judge. So doing the barbecue places, everyone asks, ‘What do you think?’ This kind of barbecue and competition barbecue are night and day different. You can’t compare the two.”
Competition cookers buy the best best pieces of meat to woo the judges: “You wouldn’t find (Deborah Jones) cooking waygu brisket. Not for John Q. Public, at three dollars a sandwich,” he says.
Since Jones doesn’t have dessert on the menu, Bobbi Pfefferle of Milwaukee — also known as the Pie Diva — brought along a cashew butter chess pie and a Nutella hazelnut tart that she had baked, and they divvied it among themselves, insisting I take a piece to enjoy later with my burnt ends.
It seemed a fitting farewell for a group that would wind up their day of barbecue with pie flights at Upper Crust Pie Bakery in Overland Park.
Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor and blog curator. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @kcstar.food.