Sadie Piper fell asleep on the second leg of both of our flights to Texas last month, and since there were extra seats, she was in her car seat. That gave me unexpected down time on the flights. I hadn’t packed anything to read, so I was stuck with either SkyMall or the American Airlines magazine. I went with the AA mag and this was it’s cover story…of course I had to read this!
“But seriously, y’all, it’s hard to have a food rivalry when you’re busy wiping to-die-for sauce off your chin.
Clutching my tray, fragrant with smoky meat but top-heavy with a tumbler of sweet tea, I gingerly edge my way through an exuberant lunchtime crowd packed into Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue and Catering, a jumping joint in Kansas City. Someone bumps me, and my tea nearly drenches a teenage girl who, blissfully unaware in cupcake pajama bottoms and a Kansas City Royals T-shirt, is plowing her way none-too-daintily through a sizable rack of pork ribs. After saving the tea from spillage, I nab the last open seat in the place, parking myself roughly two inches from the next customer at a tight counter lining the front window, where the view is of gas pumps serving Joe’s adjacent convenience store.
Tucking into my sublime barbecued-pork sandwich, I’m pulled midswoon back to my surroundings as the dude with the waist-length braid next to me tells his buddy, through a mouthful of sliced beef brisket and crunchy french fries, “Me and my brother are buying a cow. Yep, she’s only eleven hundred dollars.”
The same conversation could have been overheard back home in Fort Worth, and in truth, the whole scene could have been plucked from any number of meat palaces around the Lone Star State. But my palate told me I really wasn’t in Texas anymore.
In Kansas City, with its more than 100 barbecue restaurants — said to be the most per capita in the nation — barbecued pork and beef get equal billing, whereas in Texas, beef brisket is the king of barbecue and pork ribs are runner-up. Texas smokehouses will often offer sausage, ham, chicken, and even bologna, but Kansas City boasts more magnanimous menus, replete with all of those plus lamb, catfish, and pulled pork. “If it moves, we’ll barbecue it,” promises Carolyn Wells, executive director of the Kansas City Barbeque Society. And it’s not that the fundamental flavors differ radically either. In both Texas and Kansas City, barbecue is smoked over any variety of woods, with hickory being among the favorites, and Wells says that assorted hardwoods and fruitwoods come into play too.
Indeed, I keep running into hints of the stuff I love at home in Texas, but then, I stumble onto noshes that bring back vivid barbecue experiences I’ve had in the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Alabama. Much more present in Kansas City than in Texas is the lavish African-American influence, especially at renowned establishments like Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque and Gates Bar-BQ, where the barbecue resonates with lush soul-food charisma.
The reason for this, says Ollie Gates, who runs the business his dad started in 1946, is that “there’s a difference between cooking and barbecuing. It’s a feel, an emotion. You have to have TLC to do it right.”
As it dawns on me that Kansas City functions as a crossroads of methods, Wells confirms it, explaining that “KC is the melting pot of barbecue. It’s where the Southern and Texas influences converged to form their own style.”
The most notable distinction between Texas’s and Kansas City’s barbecue, of course, lies in the sauce. Texas’s best barbecue comes from little towns around Austin, where the legacy of early German and Czech settlers lives on in intensely smoked meat bearing so much flavor that sauce isn’t an essential component — and therein lies the stark contrast with Kansas City’s barbecue. In Kansas City, it’s all about the sauce.
A tomato-based creation, Kansas City’s sauce can be sweet or spicy or a combination thereof. It’s often the consistency of ketchup, and its color ranges from bright orange to dark brown. Most barbecue restaurants offer at least three varieties of sauce, and some specialize in no fewer than five kinds. In grocery stores there, the barbecue-sauce aisle, its shelves stocked with dozens of choices, reminds me of the salsa aisle in Texas.
Intrigued, I make it my mission to try as much barbecue and sample as many sauces as possible during my whirlwind trip. Here are the best of the lot:
Gates Bar-B-Q: You can smell the burning hickory before you’re even in the parking lot of each of the six locations. Although Gates is a big operation — they feed up to 500 people daily at each restaurant — there’s a personal touch that’s been a trademark since 1946: The moment you’re inside the door, staffers holler, “Hi, may I help you?” I loved the messy, wonderful lamb ribs slathered in the classic sauce — a slightly spicy concoction of medium thickness (there’s also a sweet-mild sauce and an extra-hot version) — with sweet baked beans on the side and a “yammer,” or baby sweet-potato pie, for dessert.
Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque: Founded in the 1920s, this is the place that beloved food scribe Calvin Trillin called the best restaurant in the world. A cornerstone of the 18th & Vine Jazz District, which is steeped in African-American heritage, this humble barbecue place with celebrity-guest photos on the walls has a line out the door by 11:15 a.m. daily. I get burnt ends, a monster mound of crunchy, flavorful brisket tips — truly a Kansas City original — melded in a dark tomato sauce atop two slices of Wonder Bread and alongside a tower of lard-crisped french fries. (That’s gluttonous enough, but when I see an order for “the combo” being filled, my jaw drops as a counter worker piles a mountain of sliced beef atop a bunker of pulled pork, slaps five to six slices of Wonder Bread on top, and then crowns the works with a huge handful of sliced dill pickles and a hillock of french fries. The whole thing is then rolled up in a bundle of butcher paper, taped closed, and handed over.) Of the three sauces, I’m mad for the Original, which is thick and velvety in texture, brick-colored by paprika, and blessedly not sweet. It’s wonderfully balanced by a tall glass of tart homemade lemonade.
Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue: The third of the triumvirate that includes Gates and Arthur Bryant’s, this family operation first opened in 1957 and has since grown into a destination for upscale barbecue. Giant ovens burning a mix of hickory and oak hold a ton and a half of meat at a time, and meat juices drip from racks into pans where the signature beans are cooking. On an adjacent grill, salmon and steaks are simmering, absorbing the smoke flavor too. Prime-beef short ribs send me into a sort of reverie, as does the rich, cheesy corn bake. Of Fiorella’s four sauces, I’m taken with the spicy one, which has a bit of heat to foil the sweet.
Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue and Catering: One bite into my visit, I realize it’s no mystery how Oklahoma Joe’s, a local venture with ties to its southern neighbor Oklahoma, has won so many major barbecue competitions. The Carolina Style Sandwich is easily the best version of pulled pork ever to reach my tongue — layers of smoke flavor imbue the tender shreds of meat, which bear peppery, crusty ends that are tempered by a cool and crunchy but cayenne-spiked coleslaw. Lacing the works is Bubba’s Sauce, a thin vinegar-based dressing with a perky finish. Alongside the sandwich, a bowl of red, black, and navy beans in a tomato-based sauce with onion and mild peppers makes me question the boring beans back home. Were I in need of real heat, I could knock myself out with Night of Living Bar- BQ Sauce, a dark, rusty-brown liquid with loads of chipotle pepper.
Instead, I nurse my sweet tea and note that the teenage girl in her jammies, having laid waste to her slab of ribs, is now tackling her burly basket of onion rings by dragging them through the milder barbecue sauce. My neighbor has finished up his feast and presumably is off to buy his cow. It’s almost like a day at home — only better.