The 10 best Kansas City BBQ spots — we ate at 50-plus spots to pick ’em
We spent the last year eating ribs, brisket and cheesy corn at 50-plus barbecue pits from Weston to Ottawa. Here are the 10 best barbecue spots in Kansas City right now.
How We Picked the Top 10
We hit the pits. We’ve eaten at 50-plus Kansas City barbecue restaurants in the past year to compile this list. Any place in the top 10 was visited at least twice. We do not announce our presence and always pay for our food.
We judge each place on its own merits. Rather than seeking to impose irrational order by ordering the same things everywhere, we let each restaurant tell us what it’s about. We tend to order burnt ends and pork ribs, but we’re also drawn to anything unique.
We like plenty of smoke. And brisket that’s neither too lean nor too fatty, with nice bark. We like sauce with genuine character and not just sweetness, pulled pork that’s not hiding anything, ribs that have been properly trimmed and hand-ground sausage with no filler and the right ratio of fat. We are skeptical of “burnt ends” that are merely square-cut brisket cubes.
We tend to prefer traditional pits. Great barbecue can be made with a variety of methods, but we admit a preference for meat smoked on traditional wood-fired pits over contraptions that use electricity or gas to bake the meat.
We don’t get hung up on the decor. We embrace both the romance of a gritty greasehouse and the comforts of an upscale establishment, and have no preference for one over the other.
10. Porky’s Blazin’
His pit out on the hilly, lightly populated eastern fringe of Jackson County is only open on weekends, but you’d do well to avoid asking Scotty Roberts what he does with the rest of his week.
“Everybody asks me that,” Roberts says with a chuckle that betrays a hint of exasperation. “Man, you need to come hang out with me! I’m up here working all week long.”
That’s no surprise given the obvious care taken with everything Roberts, 50, cooks at Porky’s Blazin’ Bar-B-Q. His Grain Valley shop, purchased from the original owner in 2016, makes some of the most immaculate “bar-be-que” (Roberts’ preferred spelling) you’ll find in these parts. Roberts trims his ribs like they’re headed to the Louvre and makes only lean brisket flats, which are trimmed tight and smoked nice and slow for up to 16 hours. The fruit of his labor is a quarter-inch pink smoke ring, twice as thick as you’ll see at most other places.
“We do everything start to finish with hickory and cherry,” he says. “We don’t use propane at all.”
Roberts stays busy by doing everything himself, with the help of a couple family members.
“I’m just that guy, man,” he says. “You don’t see an owner doing what I’m doing. It don’t matter, I’ll clean the stools, I’ll slice the meat. I’m not into having a bunch of people I don’t know, don’t trust. I just feel like I have to be here to make sure everybody’s pleased with what they got.”
Roberts was raised in tiny Urich, Missouri, an hour southeast of the city. He served in the Air Force then worked in the construction business for 25 years before learning that the former owner of his neighborhood barbecue spot, Porky’s, was looking to sell the business and retire. He drove over and found the former proprietor back by the smoker, drinking a beer. The men struck a deal. Roberts kept the restaurant open under the same name because “hell, I liked Porky’s.”
Like almost everybody on this list — the exceptions are Q39’s Rob McGee, a graduate of the nation’s top culinary school, and two former industry executives — Roberts grew up around barbecue, as his father owned a pit called Mozarks out of Clinton, Missouri.
“When he died, I inherited his smoker,” Roberts says. “I figured, I’m just going to keep the legacy going. I was raised around it and enjoyed doing it.”
Porky’s is patriotic, with American flags lining the front porch and a discount for first responders and veterans. They run an especially brisk takeout business and are deservedly the pride of the area. There’s not a lot out here; I’d recommend combining your trip to Porky’s with a visit to Missouri Town 1855.
Roberts doesn’t do competitions (“I’m not into the trophy thing,” he says. “I’m just here to cook good food, man.”), and if he had his druthers, he’d be open even less than he is now.
“Three days is a lot. Any more and it’d just kick my butt — it really would,” he says. “If I could go to the two-day mark, I would.” — Martin Cizmar
GO: 9515 S. Buckner Tarsney Rd. Grain Valley, Mo. 816-566-0203, porkysblazinbbq.com. Open Fridays-Sundays.
There’s well-documented lore surrounding homegrown New Yorker scribe Calvin Trillin’s visits to Arthur Bryant’s, “the best restaurant in the world.” Lesser known is Trillin’s trip to KC’s current consensus favorite barbecue spot.
Roundabout 2002, Trillin rang up the Kansas City Star’s ’cue guru, Doug Worgul, to arrange visits to the new places — by which he meant “anything that’s opened in the last 50 years.” At the top of Trillin’s list was “Arkansas Jim’s,” which Worgul understood to be Oklahoma Joe’s and which is presently known as Joe’s Kansas City.
Trillin insisted they drive to the restaurant without crossing into the “cupcake land” of Johnson County. Worgul accommodated this request, and their party of four was soon seated in the gas station with two pounds of brisket and some fries. When that was gone, Trillin asked Worgul how the pulled pork was. Three pounds of pork later, he wanted to know about the ribs.
“He basically ended up eating everything on the menu except turkey and ham,” says Worgul, now the marketing director for Joe’s. “He begrudgingly admitted that Joe’s is pretty good barbecue. He wrote about it in a book and gave it a backhanded compliment: ‘I wouldn’t throw rocks at it.’”
Nothing about this is surprising given Trillin’s preference for gritty, old and black-run barbecue restaurants — or the undeniable quality of Joe’s.
Sandwiches like the brisket-based Z-Man and the fried-jalapeno topped Rocket Pig are well-designed and reliably satisfying. Joe’s consistently does everything right — including the outrageously good fries, which are pre-blanched, drop-fried to order and topped with a spice blend that includes everything from celery seed and brown sugar to paprika and powdered beef stock.
As barbecue restaurants go, even the original Joe’s has no pit. As such, there is no pitmaster. “People always want to talk to our pitmaster, and we don’t even have a job with that title,” Worgul says. “We have a smokehouse crew, and there are about a dozen employees at each location that have the skill set to make the barbecue.”
Joe’s is owned by De Soto ranchers Jeff and Joy Stehney, who both had restaurant business experience. Jeff Stehney was a regional sales manager for Kraft foods.
“He was visiting restaurants, and he noticed that there seemed to be things that restaurants that fail have in common,” Worgul says.
Experience as a vendor gave Jeff Stehney a window into common traps, such as poorly managed food costs and lack of efficiency from staff.
“[Jeff] has said to me 100 times: ‘It doesn’t matter if you make the greatest food in the world; if you don’t make business decisions, the quality of the food won’t matter,’” Worgul says. “You might get some positive reviews. People might post on social media that you’re doing well. But if you’re making bad decisions and you’re getting good reviews, that might just hasten your demise.”
Joe’s obsesses over consistency. For example, everything Joe’s makes is smoked on Missouri white oak — you won’t find so much as a toothpick of hickory on the premises. “It’s not too harsh or bitter, like hickory can be, and it burns consistently, whereas hickory can sometimes burn hot,” Worgul says. “Consistency is our brand.”
Missouri white oak also happens to have a great flavor.
“That’s the same wood that whiskey makers use in their whiskey barrels,” Worgul says. “So some of the same flavonoids that flavor whiskey as it’s aging when it’s in the barrel impart to the barbecue — and that’s good stuff.”
Pro Tip: Go to the original location inside the gas station at Mission and County Line roads. (The other locations don’t have quite the same magic.) Arrive at 10:45 am, when the restaurant starts serving. If you show up at 11 am, the official opening time, there will already be a line. Order the Z-Man or Rocket Pig, and ask for extra seasoning on your fries. — Martin Cizmar
GO: 3002 West 47th Ave. Kansas City, Kan. 913-722-3366, joeskc.com. Closed Sundays.
For nearly 30 years, Scott Umscheid was the kind of guy who thought about restaurants in millions of dollars. In 1989, a young Umscheid hooked up with a “little company called Applebee’s” and helped the chain open restaurants all over the country. But none of them were that barbecue spot he always carried around in his heart.
“I spent most of my life chasing money, prestige and titles,” Umscheid says. “And I achieved a lot of those.”
Things changed for Umscheid when his wife, Dana, was diagnosed with breast cancer. He realized time was not the plentiful commodity he thought it was.
“How much longer are you going to talk about opening your own place?” Scott asked himself.
His wife beat the cancer. And now the two sell some of the best barbecue in Kansas City. He stopped waiting for investors or an ideal location, and two years ago he pulled the trigger on a brick building near the airport that seems like it should house a dentist’s office.
Two-year-old Scott’s Kitchen and Catering sports a logo that looks like an airplane crashed into a highway sign for I-29. Almost nothing on its exterior would clue you in to the smoked heaven within: 12-hour-smoked brisket cut thick, thick-barked, seasoned with a savory rub Umscheid “used the whole spice rack” to make, and smoked overnight on pecan, oak and hickory. He’s still dialing in the sausage, but the turkey is as good as the brisket — smokey and moist and deep, with none of the sandwich-meat quality you find in far too many birds.
All those years opening restaurants did help Umscheid decide that every part of the plate matters. Jalapeno apple-slaw matters. Richly smoky baked beans matter. And his barbecue comes not just slapped on a tray but in rice bowls, slaw-topped tacos and voluminous burritos designed for lunchtime crowds.
“I thought, ‘Gosh, Kansas City, what are we doing?’ We’re smoking this amazing meat. It’s great to stick it on a piece of white bread in all its glory. But imagine what it can do with some freshly prepared ingredients.” — Matthew Korfhage
GO: 11920 N. Ambassador Dr. Kansas City, Mo. 816-270-0505 , scotts-kitchen.com. Closed Saturdays and Sundays.
For a long time, Gates BBQ would not serve burnt ends. This isn’t true anymore and hasn’t been for two decades. But the confusion lingers, a factoid that still pops up when a casual observer of KC ’cue wants to explain the rivalry between Gates and Arthur Bryant’s, the place that found fame by offering fatty brisket trimmings as an amuse-bouche to customers waiting in line.
The official explanation was that Gates doesn’t burn its meat. But it’s also true that George Gates, patriarch of the six-strong chain, “didn’t care too much for” the Bryants, according to his son Ollie Gates.
Now, Gates does make burnt ends — somewhat ironically, they’re more authentic than the cubed brisket Bryant’s now has to serve to meet demand. If you order Gates’ burnt ends, they’ll make them to order by trimming off the fatty edges of the brisket. It always comes on a hoagie roll to absorb some of the greasiness.
And so it goes for Gates, a chain deeply enmeshed in the culture of the city at a time when so many new barbecue places are popping up.
“You cannot lose your identity,” says Arzelia Gates, 66, granddaughter of George and daughter of Ollie. “You might want to tweak a few things because the competition out there is so steep, but you have to remain in your niche. We had someone come in here from somewhere — Canada, I think — and they asked for ranch, and we’re going ‘What? What do you put ranch on in a barbecue restaurant?’”
As a fourth generation makes its way into the family business, Gates is working to introduce itself to “the kids coming up,” Arzelia Gates says. And for those who learn to feel the rhythm of it, Gates is a special place. But some find there’s a learning curve to the menu, which opens with various cuts of ribs and the greeting of “Hi, May I Help You?” which can come across as a friendly welcome or a terse demand for information, depending on the moods of everyone involved.
“It’s not hollering; it’s projecting,” Arzelia Gates says. “Some people, they don’t understand it.”
Kansas City is changing, she says, and Gates will change with it — partly by growing and diversifying the business to include more real estate ventures.
“We were a steak and potatoes kind of town,” Arzelia Gates says. “Everybody was eating steak. As time went on and the stockyards moved and the [Future Farmers of America] left Kansas City, barbecue became more pronounced. It’s become more trendy. It makes competition stiffer, for sure. If you want to stay here in the community, you have to kind of bend.”
Some things they won’t change, though. At a time when most competitors operating several restaurants have switched to gas and electric-assisted pits, Gates still uses only wood in pits built by Ollie Gates himself. And ketchup is still for suckers.
“We tell people, if you’re new here, don’t put ketchup on the french fries,” Arzelia Gates says. “Use the barbecue sauce!” — Martin Cizmar
GO: 1325 Emanuel Cleaver II Blvd. Kansas City, Mo. 816-531-7522, gatesbbq.com. Other locations in Leawood, KCK, Midtown, the Jazz District and Independence.
6. Big T’s
Best-case scenario for everyone involved, you walk into Big T’s on Blue Parkway on a Saturday afternoon and see a tall guy standing by the blackened doors of an ancient brick pit, patiently feeding brisket through a meat slicer. That’s Timothy Jones, 61, and he’s right where he wants to be — not doing paperwork for his two restaurants or managing employees in an era where the workforce is “just terrible.”
“I don’t mind getting back there and slicing meat, serving people food,” he says. “The paperwork part of it, no — I don’t care about the paperwork part of it. I enjoy the customers. I don’t care how busy we are; I’m enjoying all that. I enjoy people coming to my restaurant, I enjoy serving people good food, I enjoy people giving compliments.”
It goes back to how Jones grew up. Timothy’s father, Oscar Jones, came up from Mississippi. The elder Jones placed second at the American Royal in its early years and opened his own place, Oscar’s Barbecue. You’ll see a photo of the teenage Timothy working at Oscar’s in an old news clipping hanging on the back wall. But if you ask Timothy Jones, his barbecue goes back to his childhood years off Swope Parkway.
“My dad had a big backyard and had a barbecue pit built,” Jones says. “We would start off on Fridays when he got off work, and we’d cook all the way to Sunday evenings, all the way through. Everybody in the neighborhood would come over and bring some meat.”
Any writer who goes to 50 barbecue restaurants, as I did for this project, is hoping to uncover an underappreciated gem that’s somehow been wrongly overlooked on other lists. That’s Big T’s. Everything I had on my four visits was great, but the sliced brisket sandwich dipped in the spicy orange sauce — a family recipe that Timothy Jones won’t discuss beyond saying it came from his dad and doesn’t get that mule’s kick of spice from cayenne — is magic on a bun. That brisket starts with a homemade rub, with which they “season it up pretty good,” and continues through a smoking process out of a different era. Big T’s cook times on brisket can vary by four hours; the meat’s done when it’s done.
“No gas, no electricity — I know a lot of barbecue places these days are going to gas or electricity,” he says. “You go to a lot of barbecue places, you don’t even smell the barbecue.”
That approach makes sense from a business perspective, Jones says, but it’s not the same as “original barbecue.”
“When you’ve got the wood pit and you get the fires going, sometimes you scorch some meat, sometimes you lose some product because things can get out of control pretty quick if you’re not watching it pretty good,” he says. “If you can get one of those gas burners or something like that, cook some barbecue and get a little wood flavor in there, you’re gonna do pretty good because you’re not going to lose anything.”
That’s a compromise Timothy Jones could never consider — it’s just not how he was raised.
“Kansas City has a reputation for barbecue, and people are taking advantage of that out here,” he says. “I think if people really knew what they were getting with Kansas City barbecue, they’d eliminate a lot of the other places.” — Martin Cizmar
GO: 6201 Blue Pkwy Kansas City, Mo. 816-923-2278, bigtsbarbq.letseat.at
Very few restaurants make you feel like a better American just for eating there. The original Arthur Bryant’s at 18th Street and Brooklyn Avenue — with a barbecue heritage that stretches back more than a century to the godfather of Kansas City barbecue, Henry Perry — is a place like that.
Arthur Bryant’s is democracy itself. Presidents have sat down here ever since Harry S. Truman was a regular. White-collar, blue-collar and no-collar people eat together on formica tables and wait in the same line to pay at the restaurant’s sole register for an impossibly thick stack of hickory and oak-smoked brisket or ham. Back in the ’70s, when he called it the best restaurant in the world, writer Calvin Trillin figured Arthur Bryant’s must have also been the first integrated restaurant in Kansas City because white people couldn’t stay away.
The history is this: Arthur learned from his brother, Charlie, and Charlie learned from Henry, who gave him the restaurant in 1940. In 1982, when Arthur Bryant died single and without heirs, it passed on to his niece and then was bought by restaurateur Bill Rauschelbach, who passed it on to his son, Jerry. Jerry says he still thinks of the place as Arthur Bryant’s restaurant, and he still calls him “Mr. Bryant.”
Kansas City’s famed burnt ends, the story goes, were invented here and were given out free as a form of caramelized meat snack, smoked from the fattiest part of the brisket.
Customers just reached their hands in to get some. Rauschelbach says he has asked the health department if he could do the same, but the health department declined his request.
Burnt ends are still what most tourists order. If you want them made the old way, you’ll find them not in the order of burnt ends — which now uses whole brisket and a lot of sauce — but in the baked beans, or as a part of the triple-meat 3 B sandwich.
For the signal experience, get the brisket sandwich, Kansas City’s thundering answer to Katz’s Delicatessen in New York.
Your smoked meat is cut thin on a deli slicer and stacked a mile high, and the only real way to eat it is on white bread, with pickle slices kept by the soda machine and a slathering of the original spicy sauce so full of cayenne and vinegar it glints orange in the light. One bite evokes vertiginous nostalgia for generations that aren’t even yours.
Arthur Bryant’s is probably not the best restaurant in the world. But in its own way, it is perfect. And it is immovable. It is only what it is, a world heritage site like the Washington Monument.
Jerry is now 58 and knows he’ll need to sell the place to another suitable steward — he may even renovate soon — but he takes that heritage seriously.
“What is my legacy?” he wonders. “When I die, did my wife say I’m a good husband? Did my kids say I’m a good father? And when I get to the pearly gates, is Mr. Bryant gonna say to me, ‘You did good?’”
Pro Tip: Go to the original location, in the Jazz District, for an early dinner on a Thursday. (On weekends, tourists swamp the place and the food is inconsistent.) Don’t bring anyone so fussy they’re put off by sliding around the floors of this “greasehouse” like an ice rink. Avoid the “burnt ends” — instead, get the sliced brisket sandwich on white bread or the 3 B sandwich. Load your sandwich with plenty of pickles and a hard squeeze of Mr. Bryant’s original sauce. — Matthew Korfhage
GO: 1727 Brooklyn Ave. Kansas City Mo. 816-231-1123, arthurbryantsbbq.com. Second location in Kansas City, Kansas.
4. Q39 South
I cook my briskets faster than anybody else in Kansas City,” Q39 pitmaster Rob Magee says, with no small amount of pride. “I don’t believe in low and slow.”
This is a rare brag in barbecue, where pitmasters often crow about a brisket’s overnight stay in their offset smokers. But Magee has never been a typical barbecue cook — he’s a former fine-dining chef and graduate of the venerated Culinary Institute of America, whose competition barbecue team bagged more trophies than a game hunter in a Rudyard Kipling story.
So if he tells you he’s hacked the mainframe on smoked meat, you listen.
“According to the purist, I’m breaking every rule,” Magee says. “A purist says you shouldn’t wrap your briskets. But all I know is you can always add flavor, but you can never add back moisture.”
So to keep that moisture, Magee puts his brisket in foil through much of its 6-hour stay in his restaurant’s hickory-wood smokers. He rubs his brisket in 14 herbs and spices and wraps it up with au jus from brisket stock they make in-house.
This is the same way he did it when he won national barbecue trophies, he says, and he does it at his upscale-casual Overland Park restaurant, even though naysayers told him he’d never be able to use his expensive, laborious process in a real restaurant.
“My foil is my second largest expense,” Magee says. “First is brisket, second is foil.”
He smokes hot and fast, he says, so he can always serve up fresh brisket — unlike restaurants that have to reheat their meat for dinner.
“I do my brisket faster so I can have briskets at lunch and briskets at dinner,” he says. “We make chicken all day long, ribs three or four times a day, sausage all day long. Who wants old meat if you can’t get there at 11 am?”
The key to much of Q39’s success is doing what other people don’t do — but each deviation has its reason. If Magee’s high-ceilinged, open-kitchen barbecue spot serves craft beer and makes a mean Manhattan with large cubes, it’s because Magee did the market research and found a niche for a thoroughly modern barbecue spot somewhere between fine-dining and greasehouse.
The napkins are linen — because linen is nice. And the appetizers are well considered, including a salty and deliriously decadent brisket poutine, with white-cheddar curds and gravy made from that very same brisket.
And if Q39 hand-cranks and hand-mixes its pork-butt sausage, there’s science behind it: it’s so the fat won’t dissolve into the machine mixer. The result is perhaps the best smoked sausage in town, gritty with its large-bore grind.
The barbecue sauce veers more balanced than sweet. Magee spent years quietly nodding as other barbecue chefs told him that “sweet sauce wins competitions,” but that’s not what he did. And his savory-sweet sauce was the one that kept winning the trophies.
There’s one modern innovation, however, that Magee says he’s not open to.
“No microwave,” he says. “Once you buy a microwave, somebody will find a reason to put something in it.” — Matthew Korfhage
GO: 11051 Antioch Road Overland Park, Kan. 913-951-4500, q39kc.com. Original location in Westport in Kansas City, Missouri.
Every hour Jones Bar-B-Q is open, there is a line — hungry humanity from all walks of life curling like hickory smoke around outdoor picnic tables.
That hour comes only once each day, not counting Sunday or Monday.
Almost as soon as Jones is open, it is closed. The red-painted barbecue shack starts serving by 11 am and routinely runs out of meat by noon. By that time, Deborah “Shorty” Jones has already put in a 12-hour day babysitting the no-name thrift-store smoker whose fires she stoked at midnight.
In an industrial zone of KCK punctuated by the screaming of train whistles, Jones tends individually to the blackening of each brisket in a smoker that lacks even a temperature gauge, judging meat with her eyeballs and cooking ribs till they “slap.”
Her sister, Mary, who goes by “Little,” trims and cleans the meat and slathers on that tangy, secret-ingredient sauce whose recipe goes back to their father, Leavy B. Jones Sr., who also taught the sisters “carpeting, furniture moving, grass cutting, sheet rock, all sorts of things.”
When some guy in a pickup truck places a to-go order for his whole worksite, the line behind him gets nervous: Did he get my rib tips? Did he take my burnt ends? Because there are no burnt ends like the ones at Jones. They are excess and indulgence, salty and saucy, sweet and fatty and crusted in bark. They are not brisket cubes; they are the fabled Kansas City meat candy of old.
“I feel bad about it,” Deborah says about having to hang up that red-and-white “Sold Out” sign so early. They’re building a big new barbecue pit — still no indoor seating, so dress appropriately — but for now Deborah wakes up hours early just to keep up with demand. She used to sleep in till a luxuriant 3:15 am.
Shorty and Little can’t help it if they’re suddenly famous after nearly 40 years working the smoker and cleaver. The Lifetime network came calling. Comedian Steve Harvey rode them around in so many limos, Deborah called her sister to say she was “limo’d out.” And then there’s Netflix’s Queer Eye, which catapulted both their sauce line and their nationwide fame.
“Steve Harvey started it,” Deborah says. “Queer Eye came and took it off the Earth.”
A lot of that attention has come because they are — in the words of Queer Eye host Karamo Brown, “two strong black women” in a barbecue world where attention too often lands on white men.
There was already a line to get their barbecue before TV knocked on their door. Hundreds came so often the sisters knew them by name.
Sure, they came for that now-famous sauce, which sold 11,000 bottles in a single weekend this March. And they came for hand-stuffed sausage and shattery ribs whose fat has not been trimmed for barbecue competitions, cooked to perfect caramel on their bark.
More than anything, the Jones sisters are guardians of an ancient barbecue art that only really travels in families. It is something less taught than lived. When you taste it, you know it. And then you come back. — Matthew Korfhage
GO: 6706 Kaw Drive, Kansas City, Kan. 913-788-5005, jonesbbqkc.com. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
In 1981, Jack Fiorella almost lost it all. After opening a successful spinoff of his father’s Smoke Stack BBQ in Martin City, Missouri, the oldest son of Russ Fiorella wanted to blaze his own path with a downtown Overland Park restaurant called Hatfield & McCoy’s.
“That was going to be his deal, that was going to be his separation from Smoke Stack,” says Case Dorman, Jack Fiorella’s son-in-law who now owns the company.
A brutal economy pulled the fledgling restaurant under in just two years. Worse, Smoke Stack in Martin City was also faltering.
“Jack was so focused on Hatfield’s that he had no choice but to neglect Martin City, and he almost lost Martin City, too,” Dorman says. “He went back to Martin City and had a sign painted that said ‘Jack’s Back.’ He threw himself into that thing like he was fighting for his life.”
The “Jack’s Back” era changed Kansas City barbecue forever — and not just because cheesy corn migrated from its birthplace at Hatfield & McCoy’s to every menu in the city.
Jack Stack started experimenting with lamb ribs and fish, driven by a fighter’s spirit.
“We call it grit,” Dorman says.
Jack Stack doesn’t feel gritty, of course. The ambiance recalls an upscale steakhouse, and the menu includes trout, salmon, chevre-topped salads and creme brulee.
But behind that polished veneer, there’s an old brick pit where the day starts at 4 am, when a pitmaster builds a fire using cardboard and wood. Every protein starts in that pit before moving to modern contraptions. It’s why the restaurant won’t pick from 100 bottles of ranch dressing, instead making its own from scratch every day, and why they bake their own croutons every morning.
“We make basically everything from scratch every day in our kitchen,” company president Ricky Paradise says. “Our mission is to create remarkable barbecue experiences. The key word is ‘remarkable,’ and it means it has to be so good somebody remarks about it.”
That’s the ethos behind the show-stopping crown prime rib, a Flintstones-size beef short rib laced with fat and hickory smoke that’s perhaps the most decadent and wonderful dish served at any KC ’cue spot. During the Jack’s Back era, they were begging providers for any new protein they could experiment with.
“Somebody brought it to us and we cooked it and said, ‘Oh my God, this is the coolest thing we ever cooked,’” Dorman says. “We kept it on the menu even though we run a [sky-high] food cost because if anybody has it, they tell all their friends, ‘You have to try this.’” — Martin Cizmar
GO: 9520 Metcalf Ave. Overland Park, Kan. 877-419-7427, jackstackbbq.com
1 . Harp Barbecue
It’s 5 pm on a Saturday in July, and Tyler Harp hasn’t slept in two days. He stands in the back room of a Raytown brewpub, lathered in sweat and soot. Harp is about to shred the meat from a whole 150-pound hog, prepared with the help of second-generation Tennessee pitmaster Zach Parker in a pit made from cinder block and cardboard.
“You used to be able to drive 10 miles in West Tennessee and find whole hog barbecue, and now you drive 100 miles and you can’t find it,” Harp tells the crowd assembled for a sandwich. “Not a lot of people want to do that kind of work anymore. It’s not an extinct style, but it’s definitely endangered.”
Welcome to the best barbecue experience in Kansas City right now, courtesy of 33-year-old Independence native Tyler Harp. Kansas City has long prided itself on borrowing the techniques and traditions from other regions, and Harp takes it to a new level with his Saturdays-only project in the gravel parking lot of Crane Brewing. Harp is a keeper of the old ways, sneaking naps on a Walmart cot on Friday nights as he feeds red and white oak into his 375-gallon offset smoker.
Harp Barbecue developed its following off tender and fat-marbled Texas-style sliced brisket with a perfect pink smoke ring below a thick bark, a quantity otherwise unknown in these parts. The salt-and-pepper-crusted brisket eats like a smokey steak; saucing it feels sacrilegious.
“I get a lot of thank-yous and handshakes from people from Texas who have relocated to Kansas City,” Harps says. “Basically saying, ‘Hey, I miss home and it’s quite a bit different here. Thanks for bringing a taste of home to Kansas City.’”
That brisket has only gotten better in the past few months, even as Harp’s added menu items like juicy jalapeno-cheddar sausage in a snappy case and fun oddities like bacon “burnt ends.” And this being Kansas City, you can get this great meat with rich cheesy corn and tangy baked beans instead of a packet of saltine crackers.
As his project has grown, Harp has found himself making whole hog in San Francisco and Chilean asado-style whole lambs in Texas. He flew to Los Angeles to cook Kansas City-style burnt ends. Up next, he’s looking to learn about barbecue in Argentina and the mysteries of Korean charcoal, all of which he’ll bring back to KC with him.
“Growing up, you’d always hear that, in Kansas City barbecue, we do a lot of different things at a high level and that we do the best of every region,” he says. “I really wanted to take the time to go to those regions, study them closely, build relationships, understand them both philosophically and just how everything works.”
Harp’s approach is on display in the whole hog. Only about two dozen places in the country still smoke and shred whole hogs, and Harp managed to get the pitmaster from Lexington, Tennessee’s, B.E. Scott’s BBQ to come here. Our city’s barbecue tradition traces its roots to West Tennessee — KC ’cue godfather Henry Perry grew up in Shelby County before boarding the steamboat that carried him west to smoke squirrel and raccoon in a Kansas City alley — a fact certainly not lost on Harp, who rattles off obscure facts about local barbecue like he’s driving a tour bus.
Although Harp doesn’t intend to grow into a “proper” brick and mortar any time soon — he says it’d be impossible to take the care he does if he’s open for more than a few days of the week — he has a new 1,000-gallon smoker set to arrive in November and hopes to open on Fridays soon.
He also continues to learn about things like the history of barbecued lamb in Kansas City. He’s recently been thinking about Rosedale’s early years, when the city’s oldest existing pit would serve lamb after exhausting its supply of beef and pork.
“That’s something I would like to be a part of paying homage to at some point,” he says. “We want to carry forward the Kansas City tradition, and it’s important to understand and be respectful of the past and be knowledgeable. We have a deep barbecue history for a reason.”
However, he draws the line at going full Henry Perry.
“I don’t think we’re going to have opossum or raccoon anytime soon,” he says with a laugh. “But if you could go back in time for some day, it’d be so cool to go back to that time period and see his little food cart, down in the Garment District.” — Martin Cizmar
GO: Crane Brewing Co. 6515 Railroad St. Raytown, Mo. 64133. instagram.com/harpbarbecue. Open Saturdays.
Angry River BBQ, Bate’s City (Shawnee), BB’s Lawnside, Blind Box, Brobecks, Burnt End BBQ, Char Bar, Crazy Good Eats, Danny Edwards Blvd BBQ, El Pollo Rey, Fiorella’s (Plaza), Fireside BBQ, GG’s Barbacoa, Hawaiian Bros., Hawg Jaw Que & Brew, Hayward’s Pit BBQ, The Hickory Log BBQ, Jazzy B’s, Joe’s BBQ (Leawood), Johnny’s BBQ (Shawnee Mission), Joustin Pigs, L.C.’s BBQ, Luther’s, Madmans, McGonigle’s Market, Pigwich, Plowboy’s (downtown), Q39 (Westport), R.J.’s Bob-Be-Que Shack, Roscoe’s BBQ, Rosedale Barbecue, The Rub Bar-B-Que, Slap’s BBQ, Smoke Brewing, Smokehouse BBQ (Gladstone), Snead’s Bar-B-Q, Tin Kitchen, Tub Creek BBQ, Wabash BBQ, Woodyard Bar-B-Que, Wyandot Barbeque (Overland Park), Zarda (Lenexa)