reporting from kansas city, mo.
Please don't tell the family this, but they're not the only reason I return to Kansas City whenever I can. I love them, of course, but I can talk to them on the phone. We can e-mail. We can Twitter, for crying out loud.
But barbecue is something you have to do in person. And it is best done here in the Heartland. Sorry, Santa Maria, no disrespect to your juicy tri-tip. Forgive me, Lexington, N.C. Your pulled pork is fabulous. And a tip of the hat to you, Memphis. Ribs at the Rendezvous are always memorable.
But Kansas City has made an art of this science of slow-smoked meats. So when business brought me back for 36 hours last month, I knew I could partake at least five times if I didn't mind barbecue for a late breakfast. And I didn't, mostly. But I'll explain that in a minute.
What I want to explain now is how Kansas City became a barbecue mecca and why you're not going to hear me talk extensively about Arthur Bryant's or Gates.
The barbecue legend started with Henry Perry, who is said to have opened a barbecue shack in the early 1900s in downtown Kansas City, Mo. Perry had an employee named Charlie Bryant who eventually bought him out. Charlie Bryant had a brother named Arthur Bryant, who took over from Charlie, opening what writer Calvin Trillin called the best restaurant in the world: the self-named barbecue apex that's been at 18th and Brooklyn for a half-century or so.
Bryant's has it all: the feel of a joint that's just this side of grubby, the ribs that are just this side of heaven, which is where Arthur Bryant (and his brother and his brother's former boss) now reside, I am certain. Taste the ribs or the sliced meats (or get it to go in the butcher paper) and you cannot help but believe.
Gates, meanwhile, traces its roots back to George Gates, who also is said to have worked with Henry Perry. When you walk in the door of any Gates restaurant (there are six, including one up the street from Bryant's), you're greeted with, "Hi, may I help you?" which some people find off-putting and others find friendly. I am always a bit unnerved, because I'm usually having a mental tussle: Ribs? Burnt ends? Sliced beef sandwich?
There's really not a wrong answer. In nearly 20 years of Gates-going, I have never had anything less than fabulous, smoky, rich and tender.
So in this discussion of barbecue, let's put aside Bryant's and Gates, because you cannot top perfection.
But you can compete with it. And in this last trip (and two before it), I ate my approximate weight in barbecue just to see if I could find a contender or two.
If you're K.C.-bound this year -- and you'll find plenty to love about it if you are, including that prices for these feasts often run less than $15 a plate -- I offer these suggestions, old and new, fancy and not. My list is by no means complete, because there are said to be about 80 barbecue places here, although recent news reports suggest the economy may have finished off a few of them.
As you're planning your barbecue feast, remember that the Kansas City metro area is about 2,000 square miles, about half the size of the L.A. area with about a sixth as many people. That's a lot of ground -- less crowded ground but lots of it. Your choice in barbecue may depend on where you are and which style you prefer.
Also, before you begin your trek, you should know about the three distinct personalities of the areas we'll be visiting.
First, there's Kansas City, Mo. It's the big red dog, the place that was once wild and woolly, where machine politics and the Mafia proliferated. You wouldn't know it by looking at the mansions along Ward Parkway today, which are the height of elegance. KCMO may remind you of your niece who seems so lovely when she's around the grown-ups, then sneaks away to do the fandango at the local naughty place.
Then there's Kansas City, Kan., or KCK. It's sort of the stuttering second cousin to KCMO. It tries hard. Sometimes it succeeds, oftentimes it doesn't. It's not as large and not as prosperous as KCMO, but it does have some great barbecue.
And finally, there's Johnson County, Kan., or JoCo, which is neither of the above. It comprises several towns, has top-drawer schools and multimillion-dollar houses. It's been called cupcake land, but it also has plenty of barbecue, so that counters the accusation of suburban bland.
Depending on your taste, your temperament and your geographic meanderings, you'll find a place that suits you. Here, then, are some places from which the world should take its 'cue.
Fiorella's Jack Stack
If you're not in the mood for a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint but you are in the mood for Spanish Moorish architecture and many of the city's 200 fountains, choose the Jack Stack on the Country Club Plaza.
Up till this trip, I'd eaten at the Stack's at 95th Street and Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park, Kan. (JoCo), and I loved the food. But this time, because I was staying near the Plaza and had business to conduct nearby, I chose the Country Club Plaza location in Kansas City, Mo., for a dinner with my cousins and my adopted aunt.
For every meal on this trip, I ordered burnt ends, which are a tribute to Arthur Bryant, who is credited with figuring out that chopping off and serving the crispy parts of the brisket could delight the masses.
Burnt ends aren't incinerated the way a burger gets when it's too close to the flame. The best ones are, at once, tender in the right spots and chewy-charred in spots. Jack Stack's were right on. (The Poor Russ sandwich is made of burnt ends and previous encounters with that gets my stamp of approval.) Stack's also has ribs: pork and beef, of course, and also crown prime rib and lamb, which I've not tried. The sides are stupendous: The beans have a wonderful smoky flavor, and the cheesy corn bake side dish is so good I'd go just for that.
Stack's Plaza location is the kind of place you'd take out-of-town guests if you were trying to show them everything that's right with Kansas City. The decor is rich and warm and unobtrusive.
The Plaza location will give you a chance to appreciate what's often called the oldest shopping district in the country, dating to the 1920s. Maybe it was preordained that Stack's would put a location here: The Plaza, legend has it, was once part of a pig farm. It has shed its porcine past, though, thanks to a fellow named J.C. Nichols, whose youthful European ramblings influenced his choice of architectural styles. Stucco, tiles, fountains and towers cement the Continental impression.
It's also close to my new favorite place to stay (next to Chez Cousin, of course). The Southmoreland Bed & Breakfast, 116 E. 46th St., (816) 531-7979, is a 12-room (plus Carriage House) beauty full of antiques.
I stayed in the Satchel Paige room. With a business rate of $109 and a breakfast worth getting out of bed for (great muffins, pastries and quiche), I found it more than satisfactory.
Yes, I'd had a full breakfast at the Southmoreland, which I would regret only slightly upon arriving at Danny Edwards a little after 11 a.m. Every one of the 70 or so seats was taken, and when a table opened, we grabbed it.
We, in this case, was me and my college friend Cindy, who was in town for the day and agreed to join me on some of the eating expeditions.
This is a new location for Danny Edwards, whose father, Jake, was a barbecue legend in his own day. Danny (a.k.a. Lil Jake) moved out of an 18-seat shop in downtown a couple of years ago to this exposed-beam spot where "Gary B!" and "Mike W!" ring out as heaping plates of ribs and sandwiches come pouring out.
A bite of the burnt ends explained why Gary B and Mike W and, on this day, Cindy M and I were crowding the place: They were crispy-chewy with just the right amount of sauce. I think I am in love. Again.
Please, purists, don't hurt me. I tried Brobecks in Johnson County, which opened in November 2007, and I liked it. A lot. The problem: Brobecks is not, strictly speaking, Kansas City barbecue. Instead, it relies on rubs and not sauces (although it has sauces too).
So I strayed off the farm and tried this Tennessee barbecue. I had the Tennessee Porker -- pulled pork -- and it was worth every guilty mouthful. But I also did the burnt end dinner (served dry, without sauce) and found it delicious.
We also loved the steak fries and, most of all, the homemade potato chips, and Cindy noted that Brobecks gets extra credit because it offers dessert. We had to skip it because we were headed to our next stop.
Hayward's Pit Bar-B-Que
Minutes before the clock struck 9 p.m., we walked into Hayward's, also in south Johnson County. I'm sure the folks would rather have stuck shards of glass in their eyes than serve one more customer, but they were gracious and we were on a mission.
I've been a big Hayward's fan almost since it opened in 1972 about two miles north of where it is now. I've never had a bad bit of barbecue there, but that night wasn't the best I've ever had (though we did love the sweet potato fries). The 220-seat restaurant is a place you could take the in-laws and have them feel comfortable -- not too jointy, not too snooty. Just right.
We were near Gates (the Leawood location). I wanted to try it again. Or we could have swung over to Oklahoma Joe's in KCK. Maybe we could make it to 85th Street and B.B.'s Lawnside BBQ in KCMO, where the smoking pit is more than a half-century old. But I just couldn't. One more mouthful and I was sure I was going to drop dead.
At least I would have died happy.
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Fiorella's Jack Stack, 4747 Wyandotte St., Kansas City, Mo., (816) 531-7427. Other locations: 13441 Holmes Road; Kansas City, Mo., (816) 942-9141; 9520 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park, Kan., (913) 385-7427; 101 W. 22nd St. Kansas City, Mo., (816) 472-7427; www.jackstackbbq.com.
Brobecks, 4615 Indian Creek Parkway, Overland Park, Kan. (106th Street and Roe Avenue); (913) 901-9700, www.brobecksbbq.com.
Danny Edwards, 2900 Southwest Blvd., Kansas City, Mo.; (816) 283-0880 (on vacation until July 7).
Haywards, 11051 S. Antioch, Overland Park, Kan.; (913) 451-8080, www.haywardsbbq.com.
Gates, 1325 E. Emanuel Cleaver Blvd., Kansas City, Mo., (816) 531-7522; 1221 Brooklyn Ave., Kansas City, Mo., (816) 483-3880; 10440 E. 40 Highway, Independence, Mo., (816) 353-5880; 3205 Main St., Kansas City, Mo., (816) 753-0828; 201 W. 103rd (103rd and State Line), Leawood, Kan., (913) 383-1752; 1026 State Ave., Kansas City, Kan., (913) 621-1134; www.gatesbbq.com.
Arthur Bryant's, 1727 Brooklyn Ave., Kansas City, Mo.; (816) 231-1123; 702 Village West Parkway, Kansas City, Kan.; (913) 788-7500; 3200 N. Ameristar Drive, Kansas City, Mo.; (816) 414-7474, www.arthurbryants bbq.com.
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Know your BBQ styles
The word "barbecue" is thought to have derived from the Taino and Carib peoples of the Caribbean and South America who slowly roasted meats over a bed of coals called a barbricot, which the Spanish pronounced barbacoa. In his book "Savage Barbecue," author Andrew Warnes theorizes that Europeans who encountered this way of cooking mixed the word "barbacoa" with "barbarian," and the word "barbecue" was born. It's not always easy to say what barbecue is, but purists will say what it is not: It is not grilling meat over an open flame. Barbecue is a slow method of cooking -- low heat, lots of time, lots of patience. Sauce may play a part, but might not be part of the cooking process. Here's a look at some of the regional differences.
Kansas City barbecue: The sauce tends to be tomato-based with molasses or brown sugar. It doesn't soak in; it sits on top. Meat may be beef, pork or poultry.
Texas barbecue: Beef brisket is king, and the sauce is spicier and thinner than the K.C. version.
South Carolina barbecue: This is pork (shredded or pulled), and the sauce might be yellow, because it's mustard-based. Coleslaw is part of the picture.
North Carolina barbecue: Sauce tends to be more vinegar-based with pepper. (In the western part of the state, it may have a hint of tomato.)
Memphis barbecue: Relies on spiced rubs; sauce may be an afterthought.
-- Catharine Hamm