Kansas City Barbecue
Kansas City is famous for barbecue. In fact, that's a major reason we stopped for a week in the area. Kansas City, MO, is about 20 minutes from where we were staying at Blue Springs Campground near Independence. We went to three barbecue joints over the course of our week's stay near Independence, MO, and we'll tell you about all of them in this post.
Kansas City-style barbecue originated with Henry Perry serving smoked meats from an alley stand to workers in downtown Kansas City, MO, in the early 1900s. Perry was originally from an area near Memphis, and he worked in restaurants on steamboats before moving to Missouri.
Kansas City barbecue joints feature beef brisket, and some even have beef ribs. Beef on the menu is a reflection of the city's heritage as the location of major stockyards where ranchers took their cattle to sell. Kansas City-style barbecue sometimes also includes things like chicken, turkey and sausage. Of course, Kansas City-style barbecue also has pork ribs and pulled pork.
We researched barbecue restaurants online, and we were overwhelmed by the number of them. Kansas City, KS, which is more or less a suburb of Kansas City, MO, is right across the state line and has its share of barbecue restaurants as well. They say you can't go more than two blocks in either town without running into barbecue. Not only that, but the Travel Channel's Anthony Boudain featured an episode where host Guy Fieri did a tour of three Kansas City barbecue joints, so we added those restaurants to our list of possibilities.
After reading reviews and menus online until we were thoroughly confused, we picked several choices that got good ratings and then more or less flipped a coin. Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City, KS, (an Anthony Boudain restaurant) ended up as our first stop.
Yes, those canopies to the left cover gas pumps - Oklahoma Joe's is in a real gas station. Although the line of people waiting to get into the restaurant sometimes blocked the pumps, some people did come in just to buy gas.
We made the mistake of going to Oklahoma Joe's on a Saturday, and it was VERY crowded. We waited in line about half an hour outside in the 95-degree heat and humidity. Someone finally suggested swinging the end of the line over under the gas pump canopy for some very welcome shade. What you don't know while waiting outside is the line also winds around the inside of the restaurant. It took an additional 45 minutes to get to the order window, but at least it was cooler inside.
We ordered a jumbo pulled pork sandwich and a sandwich called a Z-Man, which was thinly-sliced barbecued brisket topped with smoked provolone cheese and a couple of fried onion rings. The sandwiches are served with a squirt of barbecue sauce, and there is additional regular and extra-hot sauces on the tables. Oklahoma Joe's barbecue sauce was typical of Kansas City-style barbecue sauce. Kansas City-style sauce is a thick, sweet, tomato-and-molasses-based sauce as opposed to the thin, tart, vinegar-based sauce used in North Carolina.
The food at Oklahoma Joe's was worth the wait. Both the beef and the pork were both extremely tender. The pork was extra-smokey, but just a tad dry. A little extra sauce fixed that, and even with extra sauce the smokey flavor was still there. We both liked the Z-Man with the creaminess of the melted provolone and the crunch of the onion rings on top. We shared an order of fries, which, as you can see from the photo below, was huge. The fries were excellent, but there were so many we couldn't finish them.
While standing in line at Oklahoma Joe's, several of our fellow diners recommended Gates Bar-B-Q. There are two barbecue restaurants in Kansas City that can trace their roots back to Henry Perry's original barbecue, and one of them is Gates. In 1946, after Henry Perry had died, his former cook partnered with George Gates to start Gates Bar-B-Q. Based on the recommendations we got and the fact that Gates Bar-B-Q can be traced back to Henry Perry, we made Gates our second stop for barbecue a couple of days later.
Gates Bar-B-Q has six restaurants in the Kansas City area, one of which was conveniently located in Independence, MO, near where we were staying. We stopped there after sightseeing for a late lunch.
Since it was the middle of the afternoon on a weekday rather than a Saturday like when we went to Oklahoma Joe's, we didn't expect Gates to be as crowded. However, the place was almost empty. That should have been a clue.
We had been wanting to try burnt ends, and the photo of a burnt ends sandwich they had posted at the restaurant looked delicious. Burnt ends are a barbecue specialty that seems to be unique to Kansas City. Burnt ends are the dark, smokey, richly-flavored edges of meat that are cut or scraped from the beef brisket. There obviously aren't going to be enough burnt ends to serve as a distinct menu item if you just scrape them from briskets you are going to slice. Not only that, but taking all the richly-flavored meat from the briskets isn't fair to those who want sliced brisket. Therefore, most of the restaurants make burnt ends by chopping up whole smoked beef briskets, tossing the chunks with more dry rub, then placing the chunks in a shallow pan that is put back into the smoker a little while longer.
We ordered a burnt ends sandwich, a brisket sandwich and an order of fries. We cut the sandwiches so we could share them along with the fries.
Unfortunately, the meat at Gates was very fatty. We had to disassemble the sliced brisket sandwich to trim large chunks of fat from the meat. The burnt ends were mixed with so much fat it was almost inedible. We tried to pick through the burnt ends with forks, but the meat was very finely chopped and the fat was dispersed throughout. We ended up throwing most of it away.
On top of that, neither of us liked the barbecue sauce very much. We like tart North Carolina sauce, but that sauce is both tart and sweet at the same time. To us, the Gates barbecue sauce just tasted sour (with lots of pepper in the background) with little sweetness. To further add insult to injury, the sandwiches were swimming in sauce. We prefer barbecue served with little or no extra sauce - other than the dry rub and/or barbecue sauce that was swabbed over the meat while it was cooking. We prefer to have barbecue sauce on the table so we can add as much or as little sauce as we want ourselves.
Although there was a hint of wood smoke in the air when we entered the restaurant, the meat didn't taste very smokey. Of course, the sandwiches were drowned in so much sauce, it was hard to tell what the meat tasted like.
After spending $20 for lunch, it was a shame we left Gates hungry.
For our third barbecue outing, we went to Smokin' Guns BBQ in North Kansas City, MO. It's a small place north of the city in an older, industrial area.
We chose Smokin' Guns because it was one of the restaurants featured in the recent Kansas City barbecue tour on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives (Triple D) and their burnt ends looked delish. We first learned about burnt ends in the Triple D story about Smokin' Guns, but we were a little reluctant to try them again. However, when we asked about their burnt ends, they assured us they trimmed most of the fat from the meat before they cut it into chunks prior to the second smoking. So we ordered a burnt ends platter with a side of onion rings and a pulled pork sandwich with a side of cole slaw.
We shared the burnt ends and the pulled pork sandwich. Both meats were very tender and moist, but neither was very smokey. The pulled pork was good, but the burnt ends were excellent and were loaded with flavor.
The sauce at Smokin' Guns was thick, but not quite as rich as that at Oklahoma Joe's, but we definitely liked it better than the sauce at Gates.
In the photo below, the frames that line the walls are filled with ribbons that Smokin' Guns has won at various barbecue competitions. The front corner of the restaurant had a collection of trophies and plaques.
We liked the burnt ends at Smokin' Guns a lot. However, our overall favorite of the three barbecue places we tried in the Kansas City area was Oklahoma Joe's. The meat was smokier, and we liked the barbecue sauce the best. The Z-Man sandwich at Oklahoma Joe's was also our overall favorite menu item.
We liked the Z-Man sandwiches so much, we went back to Oklahoma Joe's before we left town for more. This time, the place was full, but there was only a short, 5 or 10-minute line inside at the order window in mid afternoon on a weekday. The Z-Man sandwiches were even better than we had remembered. Yum! This time we had a side of onion rings, which were as good and almost as plentiful as the fries we had the first time we were there.
There are still dozens, if not hundreds, of other barbecue places to try in Kansas City on a return visit. We also left more sightseeing for the next time. With a nice campground like Blue Springs nearby, a return visit is highly likely.