THE GREAT KANSAS CITY BARBACUE MARATHON
by Judith Fein
photos by Paul Ross
|Some people dream of climbing Everest or Kilimanjaro. Others want to run the Boston marathon or burn rubber on the Indy 500 track. For my husband and me, the great challenge was testing our human endurance in Kansas City by eating in as many great barbecue places as possible over a four-day period. Our only equipment wasS Tums and Rolaids.
We began at friendly, upbeat KC Masterpiece in Overland Park. We decided to first taste the meat dry, so we could enjoy its quality, and to drink only water, because anything else might interfere with the flavor of the food.
One of KC Masterpiece’s biggest fans is the President. When he plans to stop in Kansas City, his White House staff arrives at the restaurant the day before to check out the kitchen. On the day of his arrival, the ‘cue is delivered to the footsteps of Air Force One, where the secret service staff goes through every box before it reaches the Presidential lips.
The 13-rib slab that arrived at our table was cooked slowly with a spice rub; the taste was rich and smoky. We wanted to do a little tasting, but we ended up pigging out.
Our next stop was Wyandot BBQ, in an older area of Overland Park. It was more of a “joint” –down-home, inexpensive, no frills, just good food. Everything is hickory smoked, they don’t use any gas, and their sauce is very tomato-y– it almost has a cinnamon flavor. The meat falls off the bones of their tender spare ribs.
After our third rib, we were ready to call it a night, but we opened our belts a notch and headed to Fiorella’s, which locals call Jack Stack. We knew from the spacious layout and tasteful, woody décor, that we were in for an upscale dining experience.
The varied menu includes shrimp, salmon and yellowtail, which are cooked in the same oven as the barbecued meats so they can pick up the meaty flavor. There are four different sauces–original (sweet and tangy, without too much pepper), spicy (a stronger flavor with more pepper), fire sauce (palatable, but with heat) and southwestern (it has a real kick, and is mixed with home-made salsa).
In order to insure consistent quality, the restaurant only buys “vertically engineered pigs”–they are all born on the same day, fed the same amount of the same food, and slaughtered at the same time.
At Jack Stack’s, the art of their cooking is such that they work with an oven with no temperature control. We savored their burnt ends and baby lamb ribs. And then we begged off for the night. We felt like rank amateurs. We couldn’t eat another rib.
The next day we tried a new place called Brett’s, after its owner. Brett had a highly successful insurance business with 300 people working for him when one of his college buddies said to him, “You don’t look happy.” He wasn’t. He went home, poured his wife a glass of wine and told her he was selling the insurance operation and fulfilling his dream of being a chef. He invested in a huge wood-pellet-fired smoker that uses hickory pellets and is like an enormous convection oven. He started serving pulled pork, smoked chicken that is moist, succulent, and falls off the bone, and the clients started coming.
We then headed for Hayward’s, the brainchild of Hayward Spears. He was born in Hope, Arkansas, and he built his business by using the family recipes. His pork sausages were plump and juicy, and when we met his pit boss we felt like we had just encountered a great artist.
We staggered into Boardroom BBQ, which opened about a decade ago, holding our bellies. I began to think about going on Lipitor. But my mood lightened when I saw the chalkboard sign in the waiting area: “Who’ll slab you baby?” The restaurant is decorated with bottles of about 1,000 different bbq sauces which owner Scott O’Meara traded for free meals.
Nuclear wings are the Boardroom specialty, and their scrumptious sweet ribs are hickory and apple smoked with some sugar in the dry rub. My husband concluded his meal with a taste of turkey. I finished my meal with my head on the table, taking a breather.
A few hours later, my mate and I were sitting at a table at Zarda’s, a very popular family eatery. The meat was very good, but the beans won raves; they are so popular that they are distributed by Sam’s Club in all its stores. I raised my eyes and thanked the Great Spirit for their salad bar; I was rapidly going into ketosis from all the meat and protein.
The following day, after nocturnal digestion, we drove to the Missouri side for the most unusual barbecue: breakfast at Southmoreland B&B. The current owners of the 1913 mansion, Nancy Miller Reichle and Mark Reichle, were labor negotiators who dropped out of the corporate life about four years ago, when they opened up a 13-room B&B. Mark is a chef, and he works his miracles at an outdoor barbecue pit, on a vast hardwood deck, surrounded by gorgeous silver maple trees.
Breakfast began with a green margarita frappe, which won a competition run by Gourmet Magazine. It is a heavenly blend of low fat yogurt, bananas and fruit juice. When we asked for egg white omelets (as a concession to our arteries), Mark whipped up a foamy white mixture, which he laced with onions and peppers. He accompanied it with pork chops and grilled peaches; barbecued fruits are his specialty.
A few hours later, even though I protested, we were seated at Gates BBQ, tasting their unusual mutton ribs and their savory spare ribs. I wept with gratitude when I was served three-bean salad because my body craved alternatives to meat.
Gates BBQ, which many locals rank high on their list, puts its meats through a four-stage cooking process–from searing hot to very low flame. The piece de resistance of our meal was a sweet yam pie, served in individual portions, which made me forget how stuffed I was.
A few hours later, I steeled myself for more ‘cue and we headed to what is many peoples’ fave joint: Arthur Bryant’s. The plastic laminate tables were packed with diners, and behind a glass window, the staff cut and wrapped the ‘cue in butcher paper for takeout. As in many places, the food was accompanied by a stack of white bread and pickles. I cannot comment on either, since I was physically unable to eat them. I nibbled at the scrumptious ribs, and dipped my fork in the fairly liquid sauce, which was laced with pepper and vinegar.
That evening, I dropped out of the race. My husband went to a neighborhood joint called “Smokin’ Joes” where he pronounced the beans and burnt ends excellent. He slept next to me with a grin of satisfaction on his face. I was secretly planning to order an echocardiogram for him when we got home.
It had finally happened. I had hit what locals call “the barbecue wall.” I couldn’t eat another rib. I couldn’t look at another smoked chicken or turkey.
When we headed for the Kansas City airport to return home, we had one suitcase and one carton full of barbecue rubs and sauces. “I have just one more place to try,” said my husband. I groaned and turned green.
He stopped off at Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ, and came out with a huge brown bag filled with goodies for the plane. He was very popular at the airport, because everyone could smell the ‘cue seeping through the bag. When our plane took off, he pulled out a pulled pork sandwich, and started to eat it. First, I looked at him with horror. Then it changed to curiosity. By the time the plane had reached its flying altitude of 33,000 feet, I was devouring pulled pork and pronouncing it the best I had ever tasted in my life.
IF YOU GO:
(Ask for nationwide shipping at many of the restaurants)
Fiorella’s Jack Stack 95th and Metcalf (Overland Park) 913-385-7427
13441 Holmes 816-942-9141
Boardroom Bar-B-Q 9600 Antioch Rod (Overland Park) 913-642-6273
Zarda Bar-B-Q 87th and Quivira 913-492-2330
135th and Metcalf (Overland Park) 913-681-1118
KC Masterpiece 4747 Wyandotte 816-531-3332
9537 Alden (Lenexa) 913-888-5210
Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue 1727 Brooklyn 816-2311123
8201 NE Birmingham (Station Casino) 816-4147474
Gates Bar-B-Q (five locations) 3201 Main 816-753-0828
1221 Brooklyn 816-483-3880
Brett’s BBQ and Steakhouse 8550 W. 151 Street (Overland Park) 913-685-1200
Southmoreland on the Plaza 116 E. 46 Street (KC, MO) 816-531-7979
Wyandot Barbecue 8441 State Ave 913-341-0609
Smokin’ Joe’s Bar-B-Q 101 Southwest Blvd 816-421-2282
519 E. Santa Fe (Olathe) 913-780-5511
Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ 47th and Mission 913-722-3366
Hayward’s Pit 11051 S.Antioch (Overland Park) 913-451-8080
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