I am fortunate beyond belief that practically every one of the best barbecue restaurants in the world is located in my hometown, Kansas City, Missouri. Now, I’m aware there are people in Memphis, and in North Carolina and Texas, who believe their barbecue is better. All I can say is that I’ve lived in Kansas City for almost my entire life, so I know for a fact that these other folks, who I’m sure are smart and perceptive in many respects, are mistaken on this particular point. The best barbecue joints are KC barbecue joints.
You may be thinking, “Well, of course this guy likes the barbecue in Kansas City. He’s from Kansas City!” Let me assure you that my conclusions brook no provincialism. I am fair and balanced.
Let me prove it. You may know that in addition to being a barbecue capital, Kansas City — with its long-gone stockyards and its namesake strip — once made a name for itself as a quality steak town. Unfortunately, it’s been a very long time since this reputation was warranted; nowadays you’d be better served, as a rule, at a steakhouse in Chicago or New York, or even Omaha.
In other words, I’m not just some townie, given to preposterous claims about KC BBQ simply because I’m from Kansas City. You can trust me.
And the first thing you need to know is that the single best restaurant in the world is Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue at Eighteenth and Brooklyn in Kansas City (816-231-1123). But don’t just take my word for it. In his 1974 book American Fried, Calvin Trillin observed: “It has long been acknowledged that the single best restaurant in the world is Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue at Eighteenth and Brooklyn in Kansas City.” See?
Bryant’s can trace its lineage back to barbecue legend Henry Perry, the Mississippian who sold his ‘cue from a downtown cart after he moved here in 1907. Perry’s sauce was reportedly so painfully hot that many customers never returned. Charlie Bryant inherited the recipe for that sauce when he took over Perry’s shop in 1940, and his brother Arthur took it from there when Charlie retired after World War II.
During these transitional years, the Bryant brothers turned down Perry’s heat, in the process turning up its other qualities. I’m willing to bet those qualities are unlike any you’ve encountered, and not just because they add up to a concoction so delicious. For one thing, Bryant’s sauce is not dominated by tomato like most sauces, so it’s brown — almost-but-not-quite an orangey brown, kind of a burnt umber really — instead of red. It’s faintly grainy, and thick too, perhaps because one of its ingredients is lard; it also remains fairly spicy, owing to what my wife Doris guesses is a fair amount of chili powder and hot paprika. If you chanced upon an unidentified bowl of the stuff, you might not recognize it as barbecue sauce at all. After sampling a dab on your fingertip, though, you’d be tempted to dive in with a spoon or a straw, no matter what the stuff turned out to be.
Indeed, Arthur Bryant used to say of his sauce that, “I make it so you can put it on bread and eat it.” It’s good that way, but I’d recommend that you pour it over a slab of Bryant’s ribs, served teetering atop a cookie sheet; or that you slather some over one of their beef sandwiches. Far too large to eat like a sandwich, they’re stacked nearly as tall as they are wide on Butternut white bread. My idea of ambrosia is a plate of Bryant’s sauce, bread and meat — the beef’s hickory smoked for 13 lazy hours — all washed down with an icy red cream soda. A piece of advice, though: In addition to being addictive, Bryant’s has a stubborn tendency to remain under your nails. So if after a visit you find people staring at you disgustedly, it’s likely because you’ve been caught unawares, making sucking sounds with your fingers in your mouth.
Perhaps you’ve begun to suspect that Kansas City is a sauce town? Indeed, KC is sauce crazy, as is revealed by the many local sauces that crowd our grocery store shelves, and by the six-pack sampler of KC sauces you can buy at the airport.
Still, some out-of-towners think you can live by beef alone. For example, the writer John Morthland, who has written passionately in this very space about the alleged excellence of Central Texas barbecue, once evaluated KC for Texas Monthly. He conceded, graciously, that, “the only serious rival to Texas is Kansas City.” But here’s the rub: In a 602-word piece, the word “sauce” appeared exactly once. A critique of KC barbecue that fails to account sufficiently for its sauces is like a review of the Louvre that doesn’t mention any paintings.
So as you finish gorging at Bryant’s, be certain you’ve left room for a taste of the other KC masterpiece, Gates & Sons Bar-B-Q. Ollie Gates has developed his dad George’s business into a little empire over the years, including half a dozen locations, a training facility dubbed “Rib-Tech,” and a career as a local politician. The original shop, Gates Ol’ Kentucky, opened in 1946 at Nineteenth and Vine, a few blocks west of Bryant’s, in the part of town that was once home to all the “crazy little women” Wilbert Harrison lusted for in “Going To Kansas City”. This is the same several-block area where the city’s famed jazz scene thrived with the likes of Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams, Big Joe Turner and Charlie Parker, among many others, and where the Kansas City Monarchs played ball at Municipal Stadium. Today, the city honors this chapter of its history at the Kansas City Jazz Museum and the excellent Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (which share a new building at 1616 East Eighteenth).