The Mount Rushmore of Kansas City BBQ
The 4 restaurants atop the mountain that is Kansas City BBQ
With all the recent hype around plant-based foods, vegetarians, vegans, freegans, pescatarians, beyond meat, impossible meat, and whatever else floats your gastronomic boat, I thought it was high time to bring a local meat-centric debate to the masses.
It's a common conversation that every Kansas-Citian engages in on a weekly basis. A source of friction, or fellowship between friends, family, co-workers, and complete strangers:
"What's the best BBQ in Kansas City?"
They're on every block it seems. Whether walking or driving around the city you're greeted by the permeating, savory smells of brisket, ribs, chicken, sausage, and more being slowly smoked, hour after hour. Most BBQ in KC begins life in the wee hours of the morning. By lunch time it's been smoked for well over 10 hours.
But a successful BBQ joint is more than just delicious smoked meat. Other considerations can be identified as contributing to the popularity, validity, and longevity of a BBQ restaurant; sides, sauce, ambiance, novelty, and more.
Out of the dense, smoky fog of KC BBQ spots, 4 have risen to the top and are generally considered the mainstays of the region (in no particular order):
1. Joe's KC Bar-B-Que
My journey begins at Joe's KC. Arguably the most famous of the KC BBQ restaurants, the original Joe's is located in a gas station on the corner of Mission Road and West 47th Street. Born out of an award-winning BBQ competition team named "The Slaughterhouse 5," they purchased the gas station store-front in 1996 to showcase their recipes and the rest is history.
The original Joe's KC BBQ grew out of a gas station, and still shares the space to this day
In 2014 I was standing in line at Joe's in the days after the Royals lost the World Series to the San Fransisco Giants when a man wearing a Giants cap and jacket exited Joe's carrying 3 gallons of sauce. He told me he had to stop in and stock up before his flight back to the City by the Bay.
Joe's is known for their pork ribs, and for their famous Z-Man sandwich. The Z-Man, named after a local sports radio host with a passion for BBQ, consists of sliced smoked brisket, smoked provolone cheese, a couple of onion rings, and a bit of barbecue sauce on a Kaiser roll.
Not liable for damages caused by readers drooling on their keyboards
For more on the Z-Man, read up on the legend of the Z-Man.
If you're interested in sinking your teeth into a Z-Man at the original gas station location you'll have to get there early. It's a daily tradition where people from all walks of life, in all types of weather come together to stand in the long line at Joe's. But don't let the line deter you, orders are quickly filled. When you get to the front of the line you place your order on one side of the counter, and by the time you walk to the other end it's waiting for you by the register. A Z-Man will cost you $8.29. Add a side of seasoned fries for $3.29 and you've got a lunch that could satisfy the hungriest among us (total: $11.58).
If you're not close to the gas station original don't worry, Joe's has expanded and has 2 more locations, one in Leawood, KS and another in Olathe, KS. Having been a satisfied customer at all 3 locations, I can say with certainty you won't be disappointed.
2. Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue
Jack Stack's Freight House location is perfect for an upscale BBQ experience
Next stop on our BBQ Tour takes us to Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue. Established in 1957 by Jack Fiorella's father as a simple storefront evolved to a full restaurant in 1971 when Jack branched off to create Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue located in the small South KC suburb of Martin City.
Jack Stack is known for their hickory wood smoking method, burnt-ends, and for their delicious sides. Billed as a more luxurious BBQ option, the dim lighting, well-dressed wait staff, and top-shelf liquor menu mean Jack Stack is no stranger to the suit-and-tie crowd.
For the best sides in town it's hard to beat Jack Stack. The local favorites include the Hickory Pit Beans - baked beans with brisket trimmings and original bbq sauce mixed in, and the Cheesy Corn Bake - creamy cheddar cheese, corn, and chunks of smoked ham. *chef's fingertip kiss*
You can literally buy Jack Stacks's delicious sides by the gallon
My go-to order at Jack Stack is a two-meat Kansas City Combo ($15.50) with Burnt Ends, Pulled Pork, Hickory Pit Beans, and Cheesy Corn Bake ($4.00). The combo comes with one side, but you always have to add the second side despite the extra cost. It's just too good to pass up (total: $19.50).
Jack Stack has several locations around the KC area including Overland Park, The Plaza, Martin City, Lees Summit, and the Freight House next door to Union Station. No matter where you are in KC, you're never too far from a Jack Stack BBQ, and the Kansas City public wouldn't have it any other way.
3. Arthur Bryant's Barbeque
One of the oldest BBQ joints in KC is Arthur Bryant's Barbeque. Tracing it's lineage back to Henry Perry known as "The Father of Kansas City barbecue." He used to serve his smoked meats in 1908 to workers in the Garment District in Downtown KC for 25 cents per slab. Arthur Bryant worked at the restaurant and officially took over in 1946. In 1958 Arthur moved the restaurant to it's current location at 1727 Brooklyn, where it's still located today.
Over the years, it hasn't changed much. Walking into Arthur Bryant's is like walking back in time to the late 50's or early 60's. Red, white, and black checkers decorate the tile walls and floors.
Familiar vinyl chairs and formica tables fill the dining area. Patrons order their lunch or dinner cafeteria style and pick up their napkins and silverware at the end of the bar.
Arthur Bryant's is as familiar, and as American as Mom's apple pie
Known for their ribs and burnt ends, Arthur Bryant himself was known as the "King of Ribs." But the real star of the show is the sauce. AB's has some of the best sauce you'll ever taste. What makes it special is it's distinctness. It's different from the average smokey-sweet BBQ sauces Kansas City is known for. It has a more vinegar and paprika taste that helps it stand out from the crowd of tomato-based sauces.
Truly a beautiful site to behold
Their menu is the smallest, and simplest of the bunch, and my favorite is the Baby Back Ribs ($8.95) and a side of fries ($1.90) and cole slaw ($2.75). Taking a bite of perfectly cooked rib meat, then following it up with the starch of the fries and the crisp, cool cole slaw and you're in heaven. Or maybe you're just in Kansas City.
The ownership at AB's have built a wildly successful BBQ empire. Sure, they could update the interior, replace the lighting, tables, chairs, decor, etc. But their joint and recipes have stood the test of time. When I eat at Arthur Bryant's I'm reminded of that age-old saying - "Don't mess with success."
4. Gate's Bar-B-Q
"HI, MAY I HELP YOU?!" The shouted greeting from the staff can only mean one thing. We're ending our tour at Gates Bar-B-Q. Walk through the doors of any of the several Gate's establishments around town and you're immediately greeted with a loud and hearty "HI, MAY I HELP YOU?" from the staff.
Dining at Gate's isn't just about the food, it's about the experience. There's no computer ordering system here. When you tell your order to the cashier he or she immediately turns over their shoulder and shouts it back to the kitchen. The men and women preparing the food shout it back to the cashier to make sure it's correct, and you'll have your food in no time.
Gate's is another mainstay in Kansas City. Originally opened in 1946, the founders also trace their roots back to Henry Perry, as one of the founders worked for Henry Perry alongside Arthur Bryant. Today, you can enjoy Gate's famous hospitality and food at any of their 6 locations.
The newest location on Emanuel Cleaver Boulevard was built in 1997 and features a statue of Gate's "Struttin Man" in full tuxedo and top hat.
My personal favorite is the Burnt End sandwich. It's a large hoagie stuffed with chopped burnt ends served with crisp dill pickles. Add a side of seasoned steak-fry style Gate's Fries for a meal that's hard to finish, but you'll fall asleep dreaming of the leftovers you get to eat the next day.
I used to pass a Gate's on my drive to and from work every day and I swear I had to work overtime to finance my addiction to the Burnt End sandwich and fries. Whether you're eating in or carrying out, the folks at Gate's have perfected their craft.
Be careful. It's seriously addictive.
What have we learned?
The question we started with was "What's the best BBQ in Kansas City?" and I think my answer is this; BBQ in Kansas City is the best BBQ in Kansas City.
What? Let me explain. I traveled to Wichita, KS recently and ate at a BBQ joint down there. I won't name names because it was an awful experience. I walked away totally disappointed, and I asked a Wichita native friend of mine about it. He told me "People don't eat much BBQ here." And that's when it hit me. The Best BBQ in Kansas City is the best BBQ not because our style of sauce is better than the Carolina's, or because our smoking methods are better than the Texas Pit Smoking methods. The KC BBQ is the best because of the intense competition between them.
With so many BBQ options, every restaurant has to bring their best everyday to win their share of the BBQ consuming public.
The real winners in the battle for BBQ dominance in Kansas City, are the eaters.
Other notable BBQ joints in KC are:
4. LC's Bar-B-Q