This dispatch is not a declaration of the superiority of Kansas City barbecue. It is not a disparagement of or a challenge to barbecue from Texas, the Carolinas, Memphis or other areas known for barbecue.
I’ve never had proper versions of the goods from Texas, having been in the state merely to spend too much time waiting for delayed planes during layovers at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, and driving the expanse of the state as quickly as possible while moving across country more than a decade ago.
Though a diehard North Carolina Tar Heels fan – hooked for life only because my dear parents got me a pint-sized UNC basketball when I was even smaller than my current pint size – I have no experiences to speak of in the Carolinas, or Tennessee for that matter.
Sure, I’ve tried different versions of “authentic” barbecue available outside the respective home regions, but I’d be fooling myself if I thought they were the real deal. For that one must go to the source.
This dispatch is a hopefully respectful response to “Going to Kansas City,” a column written by Courthouse News’ editor Bill Girdner about a recent trip with yours truly and a fellow bureau chief to that city in the Middle.
While my boss praised the revitalization of downtown Kansas City, Missouri, with its walkable core of decent restaurants, cafes and bars – including some speakeasies and still-rollicking music clubs, or so we were told (we, sadly, did not try to visit either) – and remarked that the locals were all very friendly, he made passing reference to barbecue ribs “dripping in sugar syrup.” Having shared that meal with him, I assure you, dear reader, that was not a compliment.
I’m not going to say that was the best barbecue I’ve ever had. It was not the worst, either. Having splurged for the sampler (thanks Bill!) instead of the lamb ribs chosen by my suddenly more frugal boss, I had more items on which to base my opinion, though I swear I offered to share everything I had.
I shall also not claim to have loved the sauce.
As a journalist, I’m trained to speak truth to power. Even if that power is what seemed a rather fancy restaurant for a barbecue joint.
The large chunks of thick beef brisket were delicious, though they made me feel I might have a coronary after only a few bites. The rest of the sampler was decent if unremarkable, and the sauce was acceptable though there was too much of it for my liking.
While the meal was far from a disappointment, I left convinced we hadn’t experienced the best Kansas City had to offer.
I spent the next couple days saying I wanted to get barbecue, served on paper, by someone who looks like they eat plenty of it, perhaps with a gnarly beard and a dirty apron covered in meat bits and sauce stains. Alas, it didn’t come to pass on that trip.
I did leave convinced we’d seen the best of Lawrence, Kansas, however, where we took in a basketball game at Kansas University after touring the bustling little downtown. Thanks to my fellow bureau chief – the most rabid college basketball fan I know – for having the foresight to get tickets to what must have been the cultural event in Kansas that night. (Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk!)
While training the new reporter based in Olathe, Kansas, on a subsequent trip a few weeks later, I asked him about a barbecue spot I’d seen advertised on billboards.
While that place was decent, he said, he wanted to bring me to Joe’s Kansas City BBQ. It turns out the reporter we’d hired in Kansas City, Missouri, had also recommended that spot to my fellow bureau chief.
When I met the Kansas reporter there days later, I was hopeful this was the spot I’d been seeking. The board listing the food was to the left of a metal line with kitchen workers behind it. An old man with an impressive beard and a stained apron took orders. I asked our reporter what was good. He recommended the Z-Man Sandwich, comprised of sliced slow-smoked beef brisket, provolone and onion rings on a toasted Kaiser roll. Since I’m lactose-intolerant – some would say hostile – I asked for the sandwich without cheese and with a side of beans, also a recommendation from the reporter.
While moving down the line I peered at the cooks busy cutting meats, dishing out sides, plating food. At the other end, we paid and then waited for a cook to call our order.
The modestly priced fare came served on a slab of brown paper placed on cafeteria-style trays. I grabbed a plastic cup and filled it with water and maneuvered us to a table where we could eat our food and watch the first day of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament while talking about the job.
Joe’s tables come equipped with a plastic dispenser if one wants to add sauce, and extra napkins in case things get messy. I took a bite before realizing my sandwich could benefit from a dollop or two. The dark brown sauce squirted out, some of it missing the burger and hitting the plate. I took another bite. The supple Kaiser roll blended gracefully with the crunch of the onion rings. The sauce gave just the right amount of zest to the ever-so-slightly smoky brisket.
I had to call the boss.
“We messed up,” I fairly yelled into the phone.
Slightly startled and perhaps a bit concerned, Girdner asked what I meant. I assured him the reporter did well during training and shared my experience at my new favorite barbecue spot in the Kansas City area, explaining that in hindsight we should have opted for a more economical option a few weeks before.
Later that night, while watching the end of the first day of the tournament and munching on a delicious fried catfish po’boy, I told the other bureau chief the story of Joe’s Kansas City BBQ and said I wanted to check out Carolina barbecue next.
When I asked if he would consider letting me join our Southeast bureau chief if we ever have to hire in the Carolinas again, he refused to consider the notion, quite loudly and firmly.
Fair enough. Based in New York, he is much closer and I’m usually the one arguing on the side of logic and prudence.
I’ll just have to use some of my cherished vacation time, making sure to schedule the trip around a home Tar Heels game.
I’ve also made plans with an uncle who lives outside of Dallas to make my next scheduled layover an overnighter so we can catch up and enjoy some local beers together. If he didn’t know I’d insist on getting some barbecue as well, he does now.
Hopefully I won’t manage to offend you, dear reader, when my research is complete, but I make no promises. Speaking truth to barbecue power and all.
Courthouse News Service has covered courts in western Missouri and eastern Kansas for more than a decade. CNS recently began daily in-person coverage of the Johnson County District Court in Kansas and provides regular coverage of all state courts in Missouri as well as multiple Kansas courts including those in Sedgwick, Shawnee, Wyandotte, Douglas and Riley counties.
Jackson County, Missouri Facts
County Seat: Independence (Kansas City serves as second county seat and government seat.)
Named After: President Andrew Jackson
Greene County, Missouri Facts
County Seat: Springfield
Named After: American Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene
Clay County, Missouri Facts
County Seat: Liberty
Named After: Secretary of State Henry Clay
Read more CNS coverage of western Missouri news
Johnson County, Kansas Facts
County Seat: Olathe
Named After: Missionary Thomas Johnson
Sedgwick County, Kansas Facts
County Seat: Wichita
Named After: Union Army Major General John Sedgwick
Shawnee County, Kansas Facts
County Seat: Topeka (also the state capital)
Named After: Shawnee Native American Tribe
Read more CNS coverage of Kansas news