Those who have been raised with burnt ends in their mouths for as long as they could eat solid food appreciate the desperation many Kansas Citians feel when life’s circumstances require them to leave the city.
That’s why when Kansas City natives Martin Blair and Cindy Steineger Blair were transplanted to San Diego in 1981, the wood smoke of their hometown’s many barbecue joints traveled with them.
“Right away, we missed the feeling of those neighborhood barbecue joints, and we certainly missed the food,” Martin Blair said.
In fact, fans of the movie “Top Gun” will find plenty of clues to the passions of the couple if they look closely at a couple of scenes, filmed in their KC home-away-from-home: Kansas City Barbecue om Sam Diego.
Martin Blair was born in Prairie Village and moved to California with his family as a child but returned to the University of Kansas for his MBA. He then worked for the Martin Company, a real estate development company in Topeka.
Cindy Steineger Blair is a Turner High School graduate and fourth generation Kansas City, Kansan. Her father was the late Jack Steineger and her brother is Chris Steineger, both of whom represented the sixth district in the Kansas Senate. Her “Uncle Joe” Steineger is the former mayor of KCK.
After graduating from the KU School of Architecture and Design, her first professional job was at the company that is now SJCF Architecture in Topeka. The professional worlds of the Cindy and Martin intersected and eventually, opportunities took them to California.
When the owner of a dive bar not far from Cindy’s new office decided to retire, the Blairs seized the opportunity.
“To Martin, it just looked like a barbecue joint,” said his wife. “Coupled with the fact that we missed barbecue, the idea was born.”
Although downtown San Diego had not undergone the redevelopment that now makes the waterfront so desirable for tourists and locals, the Blairs could not have scored a better location.
Just a few blocks from the sea port and within walking distance of the USS Midway Museum and famous Unconditional Surrender sculpture, theirs is a large lot where Harbor Drive curves toward the ocean, graciously surrounding their property on two sides.
On a bright red awning visible to everyone who passes on this busy roadway are the words “Kansas City Barbeque.”
“The building totally reflects the Midwest barbecue joints we’re familiar with and love,” said Cindy, who grew up eating Wyandotte BBQ, Rosedale’s and Arthur Bryant’s. “That’s our explanation to Californians, particularly those who think barbecue is synonymous with grilling.”
After opening in 1983, business moved along at a comfortable pace with Cindy holding down her architecture job and Martin working in property development. Then, one day, a location director for Paramount Studios stopped in for some barbecue and a beer. He thought the place was perfect for a little movie he was working on.
That movie was the 1986 hit “Top Gun,” starring Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer, Tom Skerritt, Kelly McGillis and Meg Ryan. Look closely at the bar scenes and you’ll see plenty of Chiefs and KU memorabilia on the walls.
Pay particular attention to the scene where Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards are seated at the piano singing “Great Balls of Fire.”
“My mother bought that piano at a garage sale in Kansas City for $20,” said Cindy, whose mother died in 2014. “I have no information on when or where, but if anyone has some clues to the piano’s history, I would love to hear from them.”
That piano was badly damaged and many original artifacts from the movie destroyed in a 2008 fire that began in the barbecue pit.
The Blairs quickly rebuilt with the help of friends and family from Kansas City who contributed Chiefs and Royals posters, pennants and more. Dozens of Kansas and Missouri license plates cover the walls, along with an actual sign from Interstate 35. Even though Boulevard Beer is not distributed in California, a neon sign for Kansas City’s best-known beer lights up the bar.
“We have a Kansas room devoted to KU and K-State,” Cindy said. “It’s two-thirds blue and one-third purple.” During football and basketball season, the room is reserved for watch parties for alumni who now live in southern California.
The Blairs also have a K-State graduate working as a bartender. “She only gets to wear purple on the days K-State plays,” Cindy said.
Kansas City Barbeque is located at 600 W. Harbor Drive, San Diego; 619-231-9680; kcbbq.net