BBQ Wars: Kansas City vs Memphis

In this installment of BBQ wars, Hopper takes a look at two heavyweights – Memphis and Kansas City – and compares how their barbecue stacks up.

Hopper Editors - Oct. 26, 2017

One's a little bit jazzy, and one's a little bit rock and roll. One's got over 100 barbecue joints and a history that spans just as many years; the other hosts the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, the largest pork-smoking contest on the planet. Memphis favors the pig shoulder; Kansas City simply doesn't discriminate, smoking everything from beef to mutton and sometimes fish over a blend of wood while grilling everything else. They plate up their burnt ends. That's the KC trademark.

Those who have traced the barbecue history of both towns know that these two cities are in fact barbecue brothers of nearly Biblical proportions. The father of Kansas City barbecue, Henry Perry, was a native Tennessee boy who worked on the steamboat restaurants on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers before settling down in Kansas City and preaching his gospel of slow-smoked meat over a bed of hickory and oak. It has been over a century since then, and some things have changed, some haven't, and the rivalry lingers.

On this installment of BBQ Wars, we decide definitively: whose melt-in-your-mouth delicacies have our hearts melting? Is it better to do one thing really, really well or offer a wide variety? And just as importantly: dry or wet?

Contender #1: Kansas City, Missouri

Origins: There's a long history of barbecue in Kansas City, but time folds in on itself to reveal three major names: the aforementioned Henry Perry and his disciples Charlie Bryant who later sold his business to his brother, Arthur, and Arthur Pinkard who cooked for Gates Bar-B-Q. Both these restaurants are still around, having each served everyone from visiting celebrities from the Golden Era of Hollywood to Presidents. Arthur Bryant's has the corner on brisket and beef burnt ends; Gates maintains their classic ribs. Only now there are others. Over 100 younger players who have grown up with the sweet and savory barbecue sauce flowing in their veins, all serving a wide variety of different meats, poultry and fish.

Signature style: Kansas City barbecue is distinctive in a variety of ways. Where many states cling to beef or pig, Kansas City goes all out, smoking fish, chicken, ribs, brisket and mutton. While some states eschew the sauce in favor of heavily rubbed meat, the major Kansas City restaurants are famed for their phenomenal barbecue sauce, typically well-rounded tomato-and-molasses-based sauces accented by herbs and spices. Most Kansas City joints also offer burnt ends, the crispy hunks of meat that aren't quite suitable for brisket but are delicious and flavorful on their own.

Notable dish: The burnt ends cut from a smoked brisket are a classic staple: these smaller, semi-charred cubes are packed with barbecue flavor. Because brisket typically takes much longer to cook, these ends are literally burnt. Served plated up smothered in sauce or in a sandwich or even incorporated into other dishes, burnt ends are a truly unique Kansas City experience.

Best BBQ restaurants: Those who want a taste of original KC barbecue ought to head to the obvious choices of Gates Bar B-Q or Arthur Bryant's. However, the current scene is now in the hands of Oklahoma Joe's, which is oddly located in a gas station. They've been listed by Anthony Bourdain as one of the "Places To Eat Before You Die," and have accumulated for themselves a healthy list of accolades as well as a large following.

Something special: They might not have an international festival, but the Kansas City Barbeque Society, founded in 1986, is the world's largest organization of barbecue and grilling enthusiasts. They sanction almost 300 barbecue contests across the country every year and also organize programs and consulting services to preserve the tradition of barbecue.

Contender #2: Memphis, Tennessee

Origins: Perhaps it could be called the traditionalist's barbecue, because Memphis doesn't really mess around with strange sauces, diverse cuts and animals that don't make a slow, churning "oink" as they head into the slaughterhouse. Drawing from the beginnings of Southern Barbecue when the region was running amok with pigs and the meat could be turned into a spectacle from which many people could be fed happily, Memphis barbecue is predominantly ribs and pulled pork from shoulder meat. The first barbecue joints started in the '40s, and with Little Pigs Barbecue
Memphis emerged on the scene and the barbecue scene gained momentum with the 1978 World Championship Barbecue Contest. Now the city of sauce on the side and the dry-rubbed pork shoulder is known far and wide as a major barbecue city. Memphis sticks to what they know and they do it well.

Signature style: It's not easy to make something as tough as a pork shoulder taste and feel succulent, but Memphis really brings the flavor out. Light on the seasoning but heavy on the rub, Memphis cooks the shoulder until it's fall-apart ready and tucks the pulled pork into a sandwich or on a plate with some amount of sauce. Ribs are another heavy hitting Memphis delight – diners can decide for themselves whether or not they want them "wet" or "dry." "Wet" refers to the smoker lathering up their ribs with the Memphis sauce of tomatoes, vinegar and spices before and after cooking; while "dry" means the hunk is rubbed with seasonings and then served with the sauce on the side.

Notable dish: When in Memphis, tuck into the ribs and pulled pork.

Best BBQ restaurants: Charles Vergo's Rendezvous has been cooking his signature paprika-heavy ribs over charcoal since 1948. For a taste of some young blood, Central BBQ is a decade old operation that keeps a tradition of slow-smoking pork for over 14 hours, ribs overnight and brisket for three hours.

Something special: The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest opened in 1978 in a vacant lot near the Mississippi River and has since gathered an army of backyard grillers, foodie corporate sponsors and the media companies that cover them. It is now the largest pork smoking festival in the world.

And the winner is Memphis, but just by an inch

At the end of the day, what it comes down to is whether you favor the spectacle or variety. Visitors to Kansas City could literally hit up 15 barbecue joints a day during their trip and pass out from coagulated arteries well before they finish the circuit, and each stop would be its own flavor discovery. Memphis takes the barbecue back to its original purpose – a gathering of people, passing an afternoon with the air heavy with the aroma of smoked meat. There's a disciplined practice that draws long from the days of yore that at once suits the economical advantages of a wealth of pigs, and simply returns the honor to the noble beast with none of the extra ornamentation.

Unwilling to call this one a draw, we here at Hopper must hand the trophy to Memphis. They don't just barbecue, they throw barbecues, massive block parties inviting folks to come over from all over the country just to pay homage to the pig. And impossible to forget is Henry Perry, the Kansas City barbecue pioneer whose story truly originates in Tennessee, just a few towns from Memphis.

Also see Hopper's ranking of the 10 best cities for BBQ in America

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