“I’m going to Kansas City. Where should I eat barbecue?”
This is a seemingly simple question that I, as a K.C. native, get asked on a frequent basis. However, like any self-respecting transplant who takes pride in the occasional opportunity to play “hometown tour guide,” my answer is more nuanced.
I normally follow up the question with a slew of my own:
- Do you want something quick and no-frills, or something more high-end?
- Where will you be staying in the city?
- Do you have any dietary restrictions?
- Have you ever had burnt ends? Because, you seriously should.
When it comes to barbecue, Kansas City is a regional style rooted in a history of tradition and, in recent years, eclecticism. From a willingness to use all forms of meat, to endless variations on the region’s sweet and somewhat spicy tomato-based barbecue sauce, there’s room for diversity among the many establishments.
And that’s the thing, with over 100 barbecue joints within city limits, there’s a lot of restaurants to choose from. With so many options, recommending the same restaurant to two separate people is like suggesting the same movie for your coworker and your teenage niece. It really depends on what you’re going for. And that’s where I come in.
The Original Rivals
Arthur Bryant’s and Gates. You can’t talk about one without talking about the other. They’re the originals, the restaurants with the fiercest civic rivalry, the most passionate defenders, and their flagship locations sitting within walking distance from each other in the city’s historic 18th and Vine jazz district. Both of these classic establishments have ties to Kansas City’s godfather of barbecue, Henry Perry, and not much has changed since either was opened.
Both are real-deal counter-order establishments with no-frills. Your plate will be piled high with the meats of your choosing, with your sides, pickles and bread hanging on for dear life. Each restaurant is known for their exceptional ribs and great burnt ends, arguably a Kansas City innovation, but their vast menu includes smoked meats from pulled pork to turkey. To tie it all together, everything will be slathered with sauce, the restaurant’s differing flavors being the main point of contention between the two establishments.
The two sauces have tomato as base but differ greatly from there. Gates is known for a thick sauce that balances a serious kick with a good bit of sweetness, while Arthur Bryant’s is a much thinner sauce, with more noticeable spices and good vinegar tanginess.
I don’t think you can go wrong with either establishment or sauce, and I personally am never without bottles of both brands on hand in my Chicago apartment. For a first-timer, if the flavor profile of one of those two sauces sounds better to you, try that restaurant. Also, like most of the K.C. barbecue establishments, both restaurants have a few sauce variations, so test them all if you feel led astray by their original.
Nonetheless, if a restaurant with a historical connection to the beginning of Kansas City’s barbecue tradition is what you’re looking for, either Arthur Bryant’s or Gates is the place to go. They’ve both been around a long time for a reason, and one’s not markedly better than the other. Which is to say, you can’t go wrong.
Calling Joe’s “The Favorite” would wreck the 17-year-old version of myself. I once denounced Joe’s as being all hype, as its popularity seemed to soar throughout my rebellious teenage years. My denouncement didn’t last long as there was one major issue with my criticism: Joe’s is really, really good.
Don’t take it from me, even more famous Kansas City natives like Paul Rudd and Jason Sudeikis sing its praises. Outsiders love it too, as Anthony Bourdain included Joe’s in a list for Men’s Health of the “13 Places to Eat Before You Die.” If that doesn’t have you sold, the original location is in a gas station, and what’s more authentic than getting barbecue with a pack of smokes and a morning newspaper?
Their Z-Man, a brisket sandwich with provolone and an onion ring, has cemented itself as a Kansas City classic. Honestly, they do everything well, and it’s wildly popular with both locals and newcomers for a reason. My tip: Get a side order of sausage. It’s maybe the best and most filling decision you could make.
If you’re looking for a place to get legitimate Kansas City barbecue with a menu and environment that would impress both a business client or a set of potential in-laws, Fiorella’s Jack Stack is the place for you. It’s a traditional, sit-down restaurant with a menu that includes an array of barbecue sandwiches and fine-dining entrees such as trout, lamb ribs, and filet mignon.
Surprisingly, their fry seasoning deserves its own shout out, as it pairs well with the seemingly classic, balanced-sweetness of their barbecue sauce. Alas, if I didn’t mention their chopped burnt end sandwich, known as the Poor Russ, as being my father’s “favorite sandwich in the world,” I’d be subject to family shunning.
It’s become commonplace for modern Kansas City barbecue restaurants to have emerged from the competitive barbecue circuit. With The American Royal being in town, this isn’t surprising. However, Q39’s meteoric rise in popularity is anything but common.
In comparison to your typical barbecue joint, Q39 is a shiny, modern restaurant that delivers on both ‘Cue street cred and presentation. A quick glance at their menu illustrates their eclectic ways, as more traditional options such as barbecue platters and sandwiches sit beside less conventional choices such as bacon-wrapped shrimp, brisket poutine, and smoked-chicken cassoulet.
With a second and equally busy location already open within five years of the restaurant’s inception, the city has taken a liking to Q39's modern approach. Oh, and I recommend splitting a few orders of chicken wings as an appetizer. Their extremely sweet barbecue sauce is great with the fattiness of a smoked wing and, in my opinion, one of the best things on the menu.
Best of the rest
LC’s is a small, no-frills counter joint in the vein of Bryant’s and Gates, and a conveniently short drive from the sports complex that houses both Arrowhead and Kaufman stadiums. On the south side of town, BB’s Lawnside will serve you delicious barbecue with a soundtrack of live blues. Char Bar is a lively modern establishment in the heart of Westport, one of the city’s nightlife hubs, and sports a beer garden, yard games, and a variety of solid vegetarian options. Smokehouse’s corn nuggets, pickle fries and burnt end mac-and-cheese are so good, you’ll may be too full to order an entree. And Slaps, another newer establishment with ties to the competitive circuit, is a Kansas side location that’s notorious for selling out its delicious burnt ends on a regular basis.
Kansas City barbecue is saucy, plentiful, and constantly evolving, so this list could go on and on. My biggest piece of advice is to just make sure that you eat some amount of barbecue when in town. If your question is still, “Where should I eat barbecue?” My answer is, “Well, where would you like to eat barbecue?”