My infatuation with the smoky meat started with a former boss of mine who was from Austin, Texas. He taught me all about Texas barbecue and we made a point to try every single barbecue restaurant in south Denver on our lunch breaks. Through that experience, I learned what I liked and what I didn’t like about barbecue.
Before I started traveling, my barbecue options were limited to whatever I could find in Denver. My city has some decent barbecue restaurants, but it is certainly not one of the legendary barbecue destinations such as Memphis, Texas, the Carolinas, or Kansas City. Now that I’ve started traveling, I’ve made a point of trying barbecue everywhere I go. From a Korean fusion barbecue restaurant in Atlanta to an outdoor barbecue restaurant in Norfolk, I’ve eaten it wherever I could.
When I found out I’d be going to Kansas City, my salivary glands started working overtime. I knew Kansas City was home to some world class barbecue, and I was excited to eat it all in one gluttonous, sauce-laden weekend.
In order to add some drama and intrigue to the whole scenario, I decided to make a competition out of it by measuring each of the restaurants in three different categories – the meat, the sauce, and the intangibles – and assigning a final grade based SOLELY on my own, highly biased opinions. The winner will be crowned as the first official Travel Rinse Repeat Kansas City Barbecue Champion, a title that I’m sure all of the restaurants have been coveting since they first fired up their smokers.
Without further ado, I’d like to introduce the competitors of the First Annual Travel Rinse Repeat Best In Barbecue Showdown:
The Meat – I ordered the burnt ends sandwich. Burnt ends are a specialty in Kansas City and serve as a good baseline to judge the merits of one BBQ joint versus another. The sandwich came out quickly and I dove in. The meat was slathered in sauce, so it was hard to distinguish the flavor between the two. The burnt ends were a bit too fatty for my liking. Don’t get me wrong – I like a little fat on my meat. But when I bite into an sauce covered cube of what I think is meat, it’s quite unsettling to find it’s all fat.
The Sauce – The sauce was sharp and served by a massive pump. If I had things my way, my burnt ends wouldn’t have been dripping in sauce before I had the chance to bite into the sandwich. I like to taste the meat on its own first. That being said, the sauce was good but Gates wasn’t winning any points with me by drowning the sandwich in it.
The Intangibles – Gates has a real old-school atmosphere. Every customer is greeted with loud and boisterous, ‘Hi may I help you?’ dripping with attitude. It’s barbecue from another era and it’s a Kansas City institution. This is probably my favorite aspect of Gates – it just feels like a barbecue joint should.
The Verdict – The food at Gates was a major disappointment. It is one of the legendary Kansas City barbecue restaurants and it seems like they’ve rested on their laurels somewhat, knowing that the customers will continue to stream through the door based on reputation alone. The menu options are fine, but executed poorly. Higher quality meat and more attention to detail in the kitchen could one day put Gates back on top again.
Final Grade- C-
Bear’s Smoke Shack
Unlike the other contenders on this list, I had never heard of Bear’s before my last visit to Kansas City. I only found it by Yelping for a decent barbecue place near the airport. Bear’s doesn’t come with the fanfare of the other competitors – there are no lines out the door here.
The Meat – In trying to keep consistent, I ordered the burnt ends platter at Bear’s. The meat was prepared just the way I like it – black bark on the outside followed by a smoky pink layer, and tender interior. Bear’s differentiates themselves by removing all the exterior, fatty pieces from their cuts. After finding so many fatty pieces in my burnt ends at Gates, it was refreshing to have every bite contain a solid chunk of meat.
The Sauce – Bear’s has three unique sauces and they leave it up to the customer to decide which sauce to use and how much to add. Bear’s Sauce is their standard and they have two different hot barbecue sauces – Ragin’ and Mankiller. Both were excellent and neither was so hot that I couldn’t taste the meat.
The Intangibles – The staff at Bear’s was incredibly friendly. My server made recommendations, told me all about the history of the restaurant and even gave me a free soda. Bonus points here.
The Verdict – Bear’s Smoke Shack was a pleasant and unexpected surprise. While the other legendary barbecue joints can rely on their name alone to attract customers, Bear’s works hard to create delicious tasting meats, sides, and sauces to attract their customers. If I lived in Kansas City, it’s likely that Bear’s would be one of my default Barbecue joints.
Final Grade - A
Arthur Bryant is quite possibly the most famous name in Kansas City BBQ. It is a name I had heard long before I visited Kansas City and before I was even interested in barbecue. The restaurant is a legend. Old celebrity pictures line the walls and a line out the door forms daily around lunchtime to pick up some of the world famous barbecue. Unfortunately, the substance did not live up to the hype.
The Meat – I ordered a brisket and burnt ends platter; the meat on both was dry and tough (two words that should NEVER describe barbecue). No amount of barbecue sauce could save it. I’ve had much better barbecue in places like Colorado and California – destinations certainly not known for their barbecue.
The Sauce – The sauce at Arthur Bryant’s is unique – a vinegar based sauce in a town mostly populated with sweet, thick, tomato sauces. Unfortunately, all the meat was served dripping in the sauce.
The Intangibles – There was a huge line when I visited, and when I got to the window the service was extremely rude. I realize that service at a barbecue restaurants can be a little rough-around-the-edges (and that’s part of the charm), but Arthur Bryant’s made their visitors feel bad. Their employees were scolding customers who asked for items that they were out of, complained excessively about credit cards, and seemed to have a genuine disdain for the people they were serving.
The Verdict – Arthur Bryant’s comes with significant hype and lofty expectations to live up to. Unfortunately, the restaurant fell flat on its face during my visit. Everything about it was bad and all the ancient awards they had hanging on their walls couldn’t change my mind. I don’t know if Arthur Bryant’s was ever good or if my taste in barbecue is completely unaligned with what they consider decent. Either way, I won’t be going back.
Final Grade – F
Fiorella’s Jack Stack
Okay, enough negativity. Time to get to back to the good barbecue restaurants. Unlike the other establishments on this list, Jack Stack is actually a high end, sit down restaurant – a major departure from the other blue collar joints in town. The lights are low and the servers are formal, but the barbecue is serious.
The Meat – Again, I went with the burnt ends. Jack Stack had very high quality meat (with high quality prices) and it was prepared just the way I like it – good smoke flavor, not too much fat, decent char on the outside. It was the first barbecue I had in Kansas City so I might have been a little barbecue deprived, but I thought it was fantastic.
The Sauce – The original sauce provided a good balance between sweet and tangy, and the spicy provided just enough extra kick to the burnt ends. The meat arrived pre-sauced which I generally frown against, but it was not swimming in it.
The Intangibles –During my visit, there was a wait of almost an hour. Thankfully, I was at their Country Club Plaza location and I was able to walk around admiring the beautiful fountains and European architecture. One side effect of Jack Stack’s high end service is high end pricing. When it was all said and done, I ended up paying well over $25 for my meal.
The Verdict – Jack Stack is an excellent barbecue restaurant – the atmosphere might not be what is commonly associated with barbecue restaurants, but that doesn’t interfere with how good the food is here. But the higher prices and wait time associated with eating at Jack Stack ultimately ended up hurting its final grade.
Final Grade – B+
First and foremost, no good Kansas City BBQ restaurant should have ‘Oklahoma’ in the name. Also, most of the best barbecue restaurants have been serving customers for generations; Oklahoma Joe’s opened in 1996 and is a baby by comparison. Finally, Oklahoma Joe’s is located in a gas station! No good restaurant should be in a gas station. But despite all that, Oklahoma Joe’s delivers.
The Meat – I opted for something different at Oklahoma Joe’s. Unlike many of the other barbecue joints in Kansas City, Oklahoma Joe’s doesn’t specialize in burnt ends. They have them, but most of the people in line were ordering the Z-Man, so I followed suit. The Z-Man is a barbecue sandwich (pulled pork or brisket) topped with provolone cheese and two onion rings; I opted for the pork version. The meat was high quality and had a good smoky flavor.
The Sauce – Oklahoma Joe’s has what could possibly be my favorite barbecue sauce ever – Night of the Living Dead. It is a sweet and spicy sauce, and if it weren’t for TSA carryon restrictions, I’d have bought 6 or 7 bottles to bring back to Denver with me. I tried their original sauce, which was delicious as well, but after tasting the spicy version it was hard to go back to the original.
The Intangibles – Oklahoma Joe’s is immensely popular and the lines can get prohibitively long. Their posted hours are 11:00am – 9:30pm, but when I went at 10:45am, they were already serving to a quickly growing line. I hopped in line and was able to get my sandwich and sit down within 15 minutes, but by the time I had finished eating the line was well out the door and over a half hour long.
Verdict – While Oklahoma Joe’s may not offer traditional KC barbecue, they make up for it with their inventive and adventurous spirit. I never would have thought to put melted cheese on barbecue, but it works well at Oklahoma Joe’s. Non-traditional sides such as spicy slaw and red beans and rice also win points for the restaurant, as do their phenomenal fries.
Final Grade – A
In my self-arranged battle of Kansas City barbecue titans, there was a clear delineation between the great barbecue restaurants of today and the have-beens of yesteryear. Arthur Bryant’s and Gates were both mediocre at best by my personal barbecue standards, and they absolutely pale in comparison to the places in Kansas City that actually know how to make good barbecue and aren’t coasting on their name and brand recognition alone.
With that being said, I promised you a winner of my completely arbitrary barbecue showdown, so here goes.
3rd Place – Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue – The food was excellent – if it were a competition solely based on food alone (and not overall experience), Jack Stack would be extremely competitive with Oklahoma Joe’s and Bear’s Smoke Shack. However, the high prices and long wait ultimately hurt Jack Stack in my final rankings.
2nd Place – Bear’s Smoke Shack – Bear’s has the potential to become the best barbecue restaurant in Kansas City – it is that good. Their meat was the best I tried and their sauces definitely held their own. But it was the friendly service that really won me over.
1st Place – Oklahoma Joe’s – The walls at Oklahoma Joe’s are covered in banners from barbecue competitions that they’ve won, and with good reason. I enjoyed my Oklahoma Joe’s experience so much that I actually went back once more before I left Kansas City. Instead of the Z Man, I ordered the ribs and brisket, and both were extremely delicious, cementing their position as my #1. It doesn’t matter that Oklahoma Joe’s doesn’t fit the mold of what a typical Kansas City barbecue restaurant should be; they still execute at the highest level across all aspects of their operation and for that, they take the First Annual Travel Rinse Repeat Best in Barbecue Showdown.
Part of what makes eating barbecue such a great experience is that everyone seems to have a different opinion on what good barbecue should be. Barbecue loyalists are very defensive about their favorite barbecue region or restaurant.
So now I want to know your thoughts on barbecue. Have you ever eaten at any of these restaurants (or any others in Kansas City)? Also, what is your favorite city for barbecue?