As the story goes, a young Tennessee Native named Henry Perry found himself in Kansas City at the age of 33 and began serving smoked meats out of an alley stand to workers in the Garment District. His fame grew with the popularity of his trade, and soon he occupied an old trolley barn where customers from all walks of life gathered to pay 25 cents for a hunk of meat smoked over hickory and oak. It was his students that continued the legacy through restaurants like Gates Bar-BQ and Arthur Bryant’s, both establishments that still stand today, both still slow smoking religiously over hickory and oak. Now there’s around 100 barbecue joints in the Kansas City area, all offering up flavorful burnt ends, a KC tradition, and and smothering their meats with savory-sweet barbecue sauces, sometimes before throwing it back into the smoker. For a real taste of the best Kansas City has to offer, check out these five legendary barbecue restaurants.
A rite of travel to Kansas City is a stop Arthur Bryant’s – before anyplace else, visitors should first pay homage to the legendary King of Ribs. Past celebrities who have made the pilgrimage to this nearly century-old barbecue joint include Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson and Presidents Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter. Since 1930, Arthur Bryant’s BBQ has been slow smoking meats in a mix of hickory and oak woods and splashing the tender meat in their guarded secret sauce. In fact, it was the first proprietor of this barbecue joint, Charlie Bryant, who truly started the Kansas City barbeque tradition of dousing the versatile sweet tomato and molasses based sauce on whole slabs and sandwiches. Visitors who really like it can take a little bottle of Arthur Bryant with them in the form of their still secretive barbecue sauce.
Another revered barbecue joint that helped put Kansas City on the map is Gates Bar-B-Q, which opened up their first shop in 1946 and grew to six locations on the popularity of their barbecue sauce – a tangy, spicy punch of flavor made with tomato and simple spices (a rare departure from the molasses-based sauces) best served smothered over a rack of ribs. One of the most recognizable franchises in town, one can always spot a Gates Bar-B-Q by its a red-roofed buildings and retro logo.
Visitors driving down to Kansas City who prefer a side of blues with their barbecue will be sure to find their perfect balance at B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ. Since 1990, the husband-and-wife duo behind the grill have gained traction in their enterprise, playing host to Food Network and Travel Channel shows like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives as well as No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain. Their passion to serve up new and ever-improving barbecue mixes perfectly with their enthusiasm to promote and engage with local talents. Barbecue and blues fiends who just want to languish on a deck with a beer listening to some live music and tucking into a massive combo of ribs, sausage and pulled pork served right from a 60-year-old grill have really only one place to go.
It took two people who really liked barbecue, a talent that came from intuition, a sense of responsibility and some sheer serendipity to open Oklahoma Joe’s, the barbecue joint in a gas station. While the location might not seem great, fans of Oklahoma Joe’s (a group that includes Anthony Bourdain and food writers at the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, USA Today and even more publications) make their way to this barbecue joint for a simple reason: because their barbecue is the best. The Z-Man, a delicious monstrosity of a sandwich, is a kaiser roll packed with sliced smoked brisket, smoked provolone cheese, onion rings and barbecue sauce and has the supreme honor of being one of the best sandwiches in the United States according to Zagat Guide.
Jack Stack Barbecue is one of the big guns in town – a local and national favorite, Jack Stack has four locations (including one in Overland Park, Kansas) and appeals to the steakhouse haunt, seafood eater and, of course, barbecue aficionado. The ‘cue is on in their hickory smoked brick oven while everything else is grilled fresh on their hickory grill. However, just because they do a lot of stuff outside what would normally be considered the KC BBQ style, it doesn’t mean that their roots are any flimsier. They deal with a lot of meat but there’s still utmost respect for the noble burnt ends, which is offered as a plate on its own (diners get to choose two from a list of brisket, ham, pork and sausage), and their sampler combo offers barbecue chicken, pork spare ribs, beef burnt ends and polish sausage. For a meal that’s a little more upscale and a little better known, Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue is a unique player on the Kansas City BBQ scene.