Food & Wine // 5 min Read

Barbecue Is Home

Written by Palmetto Bluff

Sep 20, 2021

Kansas City doesn’t really roll off the tongue in the company of places like Penang or Lisbon or Finland.

And yet, there it is along with these others as the featured destination of its very own episode in the penultimate season of No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain’s itinerant foodlogue that ran for nearly a decade on the Travel Channel.

In the summer of 2011, I received a call from the Emmy Award-winning show’s producers. Bourdain was coming to film in my hometown. And of course, he was coming for barbecue, which I had the gall to tell the producers was morbidly cliché—everyone comes to Kansas City for barbecue. Sure, our per capita density of barbecue is unrivaled, but wouldn’t they rather showcase our second-tier city’s mildly burgeoning independent restaurant scene instead?

No. “Tony wants to do the show to end all shows on barbecue.”
I rolled my eyes, fully aware that I’ve never been near an Emmy, let alone produced a television show.

They wanted to film two segments with me. For one of them, Bourdain wanted to meet me at my favorite barbecue restaurant in the city. That was easy, I told them, it’s Oklahoma Joe’s (which has since changed its name to Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que). But Bourdain said no; he had already written about it a couple of years earlier. In fact, he was the one who arguably launched the humble gas station restaurant into orbit when he named it one of the “13 Places You Must Eat Before You Die,” alongside a glittering constellation of Michelin-starred destinations for gastronauts, including The French Laundry in Yountville, California; El Bulli on the Costa Brava of Spain; and the dreamy sushi counter at Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo (Bourdain’s article appeared in the July 2009 issue of Men’s Health).

But, I protested, Bourdain was right—Oklahoma Joe’s was the best barbecue I had found in the city. And if he was asking to feature my favorite spot, that was it. Whether it was my honest flattery or my stubbornness that prevailed, I don’t know, but they relented.

If I look nervous in that segment, it’s because I was. Eating barbecue—especially Kansas City–style barbecue—isn’t exactly what you want to be doing on national television. As I explained to Bourdain (with sticky fingers and feeling terrified of eating the rib in my hand), while the Gulf Coast and Texas rely on dry rubs, Kansas City barbecue is wet. Whereas Carolina pitmasters mop their whole hogs with a thin, vinegary marinade, ours slather everything from beef to pork to chicken to turkey to catfish with a thick, dark, sweet, and sometimes spicy sauce and serve it with a walloping dollop of sauce on the side. And unlike other regions, in Kansas City, your meat always comes with pickles and two slices of white bread slapped on top. It’s the type of barbecue that most people, foreign and domestic, associate with America.

I like Joe’s Kansas City because it does everything well. You have to if you’re going to win the Grand Championship title at the American Royal World Series of Barbecue.

It’s the world’s largest and most prestigious barbecue competition, which has been hosted annually in Kansas City since 1980. The owners of Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, Jeff and Joy Stehney, and their team, Slaughterhouse Five, have won two Grand Championship titles and have placed first in nearly every meat category, including lamb and sausage.

What they do especially well at their restaurant, in my opinion, are ribs, dirty rice, and chicken. No one ever thinks of ordering barbecue chicken, because let’s be honest, it’s usually dry. But the chicken at Joe’s Kansas City, I tell everyone, is de rigueur.

Kansas City’s pantheon of barbecue is crowded. There’s a reason Bourdain wedged it in between trips to Mozambique and the Croatian coast and why it’s known as the capital of American barbecue, an honor that my Southern friends have a strangely difficult time accepting. Perhaps, I tell them, they wouldn’t object as strongly if they also accepted my very well-reasoned argument that the great state of Missouri belongs more in the American South than in the Midwest. But they will have none of it. Well, sorry friends, you can’t have your burnt ends and eat them too, especially if you’re in the South, because you won’t find them there. Burnt ends are specific to Kansas City. If you encounter them anywhere else, you’re in the wrong place.

Although Calvin Trillin made Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue and its burnt ends famous in an article he wrote for Playboy magazine in 1972, celebrating the scraps of brisket bark that the counterman would lay out for customers while they waited to order, I go to LC’s Bar-B-Q for them instead. Arthur Bryant’s is good for slaw—I like my cabbage chipped, not shredded—but LC’s has far better burnt ends. LC’s also has my favorite baked beans, chunky with shaggy scraps of meat and full of flavor, owing to the fact that the trays of beans are set at the bottom of the smoker to catch all of the drippings from the meat smoking above. I also prefer LC’s sauce, which is high in vinegar, an important foil for the fattiness of the meat and beans.

LC's
LC’s

Although Kansas City has welcomed younger guns to the scene in the last decade—places including Q39 and Slap’s BBQ—the old guard still holds its own. Much of the appeal is the throwback charm at institutions such as Gates BBQ, where everyone on the line screams “Hi, may I help you?” when a customer opens the door. It’s comically aggressive yet bizarrely heartwarming. Like the greeting, the barbecue lamb ribs there are not only uniquely Kansas City but also taste of a bygone era.

But isn’t that true of barbecue everywhere? Whether you’re from the Lowcountry or from the northern corner of Alabama, where the sauce is milky white and zippy with horseradish, or you’re from China like my parents, barbecue is suspended in nostalgia. Having lived in the US now twice as long as he did abroad, my dad has yet to discover an American food he likes, except barbecue. In fact, he loves it. The meeting of sweet and salty, sour and spicy, with a hint of smoke overlaps with much of Chinese cuisine. Familiar and comforting, it was far better than any Chinese food he could find when he first arrived on these prairie plains half a century ago. In a land of strange flavors—he’s exasperated by the ubiquity of cheese, for example—this saucy pastime has become a trusted companion for him.

It’s doubtful that the second episode of the eighth season of No Reservations brought down any curtains on America’s romance with barbecue, as Bourdain hoped. I think that’s a good thing. He had asked me during those days of filming what I liked about barbecue. At the time, I couldn’t say. I told him I’d think about it and get back to him. A decade on, the answer is obvious: clichés and all, barbecue is home.

Read the original story in the Fall / Winter 2021 edition of the bluff.

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