Chow Town

Excelsior Springs’ Wabash BBQ draws on its tie to railroad history

Wabash brisket, ham, ribs, turkey and burnt ends
Wabash brisket, ham, ribs, turkey and burnt ends Special to The Star

The Big Rock Candy Mountain was a vision of hobo heaven in the 1930s when unemployed workers rode the rails in search of work and the kindness of strangers.

It was a place where bulldogs had rubber teeth, police had wooden legs, trees were laden with fruit, and hens laid ready-to-eat eggs. There were other amenities, all free.

Some imagined that their ride to the mountain or whatever else was in store for them in the hereafter would be on the mythical death train they called the “Wabash Cannonball.”

Wabash Cannonball aside, there really was a Wabash Railway Station. It lasted for a few years linking passengers from Excelsior Springs on a branch line to St. Louis and elsewhere. In 1933, the Wabash branch line and station were closed.

The solidly built brick Wabash station building with immaculate landscaping was temporarily abandoned until a local dairy farmer bought it and converted the building into an ice cream, soda and burger shop with an add-on room for dairy operations.

Eventually the entire building was devoted to dairy operations. Later it was converted to a printing business until the building was sold to the current co-owners, Jim and Cheri McCullough, and Mitch and Malinda Dickey.

Behind the restaurant a large smokehouse with two chimneys pumps out hickory smoke. Up the hill a ways is the ice house bar and stage for live blues performances during shirtsleeve months.

The nonsmoking dining room in the original building is appointed with Midwestern agribusiness signs and other memorabilia, plus framed posters from the American Royal Barbecue. The adjacent bar room has a historical feel. The south side dining room is more modern, with red brick walls.

A good entrée to try on your first visit is the Piggyback Combo with an add-on order of burnt ends.

If you’re solo you’ll have take-home leftovers; otherwise, two to four can graze on this combo with ease.

Sliced beef brisket, turkey, ham, sliced pork, ribs and burnt ends deliver the full Wabash barbecue flavor profile: distinctly different meat flavors, each kissed with smoke and complementary seasonings.

With or without the Wabash lightly seasoned, smooth, tomato-based sauce, it is all delicious. The combo comes with two sides. I especially like Wabash fries and beans.

Wabash “Conductor’s Favorites” sandwiches are a big hit with customers. Each is named with railroad jargon: Iron Horse, Roundhouse, Depot, Wabash, Golden Spike and Steamer.

Most feature single or multiple portions of barbecue. I wish Cheri and Mitch would add a smoked bologna “Gandy Dancer” sandwich with raw onions and dill chips to the menu in honor of the railroad workers who kept the rails safe for travel.

Your Wabash Cannonball can wait. Go feast.

The original Wabash BBQ & Blues Garden is at 646 S. Kansas City Ave. in Excelsior Springs. Its telephone number is 816-630-7700.

There is a second location at One Elm St., also in a former train station, in Chillicothe, Mo. Its telephone number is 660-646-6777.

The barbecue restaurant’s Web page can be found at wabashbbq.com.

Ardie Davis founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on food shows and writes for barbecue-related publications. His most recent release is America’s Best BBQ (Revised Edition), with chef Paul Kirk.

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