When I type “barbecue nearest to me” into Google, Zarda Bar-B-Q tops the list. It’s a little over a mile from my house, yet I have driven by the 87th Street Parkway location so many times I had become blind to it.
My barbecue blindness was admittedly unfair: There’s always been something to like about Zarda’s, but lots of upstarts have dominated the news in recent years. (Newer players off the competition circuit are often flashier, but Zarda has it’s own claim to fame: feeding the Chiefs players during training camp for nearly three decades)
“Grandpa Norb” Zarda started the family business with a string of hamburger drive-ins. Two sons, Jerry and Mike, opened the family’s first barbecue restaurant in Blue Springs in 1976. Younger brother Steve joined in when the Lenexa location opened in 1979. Steve’s daughter, Suzanne Zarda, who was “born into barbecue” and has been working in the family business since she was 12, is general manager of the Lenexa location.
The menu at Zarda is extensive and I had a hard time deciding between old-school options and newer Ltd. Reserve items, including sandwiches. I started with old-school to get back in the swing.
The $23.99 sampler platter is large enough for two: It has ribs, chicken and a pile of saucy burnt ends and sliced meats on bread, along with a bowl of slender dill pickles and choice of two classic sides. The rib “snack” is fall-off-the bone tender with a nice dose of mild smoke. The quarter chicken was disappointingly dry. But the pork burnt ends — yes, I said pork — were pleasantly crunchy, which I like, but also heavily sauced, of which I’m not a big fan.
(Pork burnt ends are charred, albeit smaller than brisket, chunks from the pork shoulder mixed with ham and sauce. For years, it’s been the only “burnt end” on the menu, but recently they introduced beef burnt ends with a dry rub, which Suzanne later told me “represents what we really have cooking.” I’ll be back!)
For a choice of two meats, I tried ham and beef that reminded me of deli meats, which were fine if unremarkable. Likewise, the sausage was served in paper-thin slices. It was so unusual I wondered why, but the Italian pepper flavor, which I rather liked, might have been overpowering if served in thicker slabs.
The beans were thick and satisfying with very fine bits of beef and ham but more savory than sweet. Next time I would try the Ltd. Reserve Burnt Ends Beans ($3.49) loaded with burnt ends and sold as a side or a meal. The cheesy corn was thick in a base of cream cheese, as evidenced by a few globs that had not fully incorporated. But that’s OK. It only made Zarda’s version more decadent than most served in Kansas City. Last week, they also reintroduced a new and improved cheesy potato bake.
Zarda’s also offers a drive-through window, where 30 percent of their business comes from. I ordered two of the featured sandwiches. The Average Joe ($7.49) is officially a “tip of the hat” to the popular beef-provolone-onion ring sandwich that has achieved iconic status at Joe’s KC. It is Zarda’s No. 1 selling sandwich, followed by the Hog Wild.
The beef was a bit dry but easily remedied with barbecue sauce. Zarda’s offers of six sauces, including an intriguing new harvest apple version that is well-suited for the pulled pork and was tested at Chiefs training camp. The Turkey Crunch ($6.79) was above average, thanks to the addition of provolone, two crisscrossed strips of bacon and a side of chipotle mayo to go with the smoked meat.
The loaded fries might be one of the most satisfying items I tried — and the best value. During November, a half order is $3.29 and a full order is $4.99 (regularly $4.99 and $8.99). Fat steak fries are topped with layers of pulled pork, baked beans ladled with plenty of cheese sauce and crunchy bacon bits served with sour cream and jalapeno wheels. So loaded, in fact, that the box is hefty coming out of the bag. Time in line: Not more than 5 minutes. The order taker at the window apologized for the wait as they dropped some fresh fries.
Atmosphere: With order number in hand, I head to the sprawling main dining room where wood paneling and light fixtures made out of faux wagon wheels set a country tone. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” plays as a silent World Series game gets underway.
Cards advertising free Wi-Fi sit on red wood-rimmed Formica tables. The dinner crowd includes couples, an extended family with small children, a group of guys who looked as if they just got in from a hunting trip and a woman and her elderly mother who choose to balance their meat with fixings from the salad bar.
Smoke flavor: Like any Kansas City barbecue joint worth its rib bones, when you open your car door, a distinct hickory perfume should hang in the air. And it does.
Pitmaster: Each location has their own. Juan Carlos oversees Lenexa’s Southern Pride pit ovens.
Sauces: Original (27 spices), Mild, Bold & Spicy, KC Classic, Sweet Hickory (thick with brown sugar and molasses), and Apple Harvest (sweet and tart Washington apples, “warm” spices and “mild” chilies).
Don’t miss: Pork burnt ends, sausage, beans, cheesy corn, loaded fries, and watch for daily or monthly Ltd. Edition specials
Locations: 11931 W. 87th St., Lenexa, and 214 N. Missouri 7, Blue Springs.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday