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Kansas City: America’s Barbecue Town

Kansas City: America’s Barbecue Town

When people think of Kansas City, barbecue is usually one of the first things that comes to mind. It’s no surprise that barbecue is the signature cuisine at the center of the cultural identity of Kansas City, with well over one hundred restaurants serving an endless variety of smoked meats and side dishes. Diners in Kansas City have an almost overwhelming number of options, from well-established classics in historic neighborhoods to hidden gems to new school pop-ups and food trucks.

Caption: Pitmasters in front of the barbecue pit at LC’s Bar-B-Que. (Photo by Wai Chan)

The Roots of Kansas City Barbecue

Barbecue has long been an integral part of the culture of Kansas City, brought by arrivals from the American South in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Henry Perry, a native of Shelby County, Tennessee is widely considered to be the father of Kansas City's legendary barbecue tradition. In 1907, he arrived in the city after having worked on the steamboats on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Perry was employed as a porter but sold his ribs and smoked meats on the side in a back alley off Banks Street in the Garment District. Perry's business found success and he made barbecue his full-time occupation. In newspaper advertisements, Perry declared himself "The Barbecue King" of Kansas City and his cooking featured not only pork, but also included beef, mutton, and even barbecued possum, woodchuck, and raccoon. 

Perry's barbecue helped fuel jam sessions for jazz musicians late into the night in the heart of Kansas City's historic African American cultural district at 18th and Vine. Musicians and artists like jazz icon Charlie Parker spread the legend of Kansas City food, music, and culture while touring across the country. Perry eventually opened three restaurants and mentored brothers Charlie and Arthur Bryant, who would go on to have their own storied restaurant, Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque. He also trained Arthur Pinkard, who went on to work with George and Arzelia Gates, founders of the Gates Bar-B-Q restaurant empire. 

Caption: Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque has a direct connection with Henry Perry, the father of Kansas City barbecue. (Photo by Ryan Cooper)

Upon his death in 1940, the legacy of "The Barbecue King" Henry Perry lived on when Charlie Bryant took the reins of the operation. Eventually, Arthur Bryant took over the business after his brother retired in 1946. Arthur Bryant's Barbeque at 18th and Brooklyn is among the crown jewels of legendary restaurants throughout the world. The restaurant continued to gain fame throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The restaurant's location just four blocks from Kansas City's Municipal Stadium meant that sports broadcasters and announcers spread the gospel of Arthur Bryant's and Kansas City barbecue nationwide. Celebrated journalist and Kansas City native Calvin Trillin famously cemented Bryant's mythical status by declaring it "the best damn restaurant in the world" in a 1974 essay for The New Yorker

Caption: No tour of Kansas City barbecue is complete without a visit to Arthur Bryant’s. (Photo by Ryan Cooper)

Characteristics of Kansas City Barbecue

In his 2016 book Barbecue Lover's: Kansas City Style, author and aficionado Ardie A. Davis sums up Kansas City barbecue with just one word: "eclectic." It is fair to say that Kansas City barbecue borrows bits and pieces from other regional traditions and reflects the diversity of influences from across America. This melting pot style of barbecue is commonly imitated in chain restaurants and franchises across the country. Supermarket condiment aisles are filled with Kansas City-style barbecue sauces. For many Americans living outside of the other major traditional barbecue regions in the South, the only exposure they have to barbecue may well be from the Kansas City tradition.  

Caption: Meat fills the barbecue pit at LC’s Bar-B-Que. (Photo by Wai Chan)

The Meat

Unlike the Carolinas and Tennessee, where pork reigns supreme or Texas where beef gets all the attention, no one meat dominates Kansas City's tradition. Though no longer serving the possum, woodchuck, and raccoon of Henry Perry's day, a wide variety of choices of meat are available at most barbecue restaurants in Kansas City, including pork spare ribs, pulled pork, brisket, beef ribs, turkey, chicken, lamb, and even fish. '

Caption: Burnt ends are Kansas City’s quintessential contribution to barbecue. (Photo by Wai Chan)

Kansas City's major meat contribution to barbecue, however, is undoubtedly burnt ends. Burnt ends come from the large, triangular point end of a cooked beef brisket, and when tossed in sauce and smoked, they achieve a rich, succulent flavor. These crispy bits of beef were traditionally viewed as a by-product of low-and-slow cooking to be cut away and discarded until Arthur Bryant began handing them out to customers who were waiting while their orders were prepared. Pitmasters began to take notice when customer demand for burnt ends began outpacing demand for other smoked meats, and soon discontinued their practice of giving them away for free. In Kansas City, you'll find burnt ends served as a stand-alone meat option, on sandwiches, in chili, and just about any other way imaginable. Over the years, the quality of the meat served in barbecue restaurants has increased, with the cheap, tough cuts of meat traditionally associated with low and slow cooking being replaced with high-quality meats demanded by competition teams and an increasingly discerning clientele.

The Sauce

In Kansas City, sauce is an essential component of barbecue. When people refer to Kansas City-style barbecue sauce, they are typically describing a thick, sweet, slightly spicy tomato-based sauce popularized by the KC Masterpiece brand and commercially bottled Heinz and Kraft brands sold in grocery stores nationwide. It is worth noting, however, that the sauces at long-standing restaurants such as Arthur Bryant's, Gates, and Rosedale are really not that sweet. The sauce made by Henry Perry and Charlie Bryant early in Kansas City’s barbecue history was hot and spicy. Arthur Bryant is said to have adapted this early Memphis-style vinegar-based recipe by toning down the heat to be more palatable for his customers. 

Nevertheless, as America’s best-selling premier barbecue sauce brand, the KC Masterpiece sauce developed by Rich Davis helps define what Kansas City barbecue is all about in the popular imagination. As Doug Worgul writes in The Grand Barbecue: A Celebration of the History, Places, Personalities and Techniques of Kansas City Barbecue, "Rich Davis, more than anyone else except Calvin Trillin, is responsible for perpetuating our national reputation as a barbecue capital."

Caption: Jack Stack Barbecue has an extensive menu with delicious smoked meats and side dishes. (Photo by Ryan Cooper)

The Sides

Kansas City's idiosyncrasies do not stop with the wide variety of meats served at barbecue restaurants. A plethora of side dishes commonly accompanies any meal. The usual list of suspects can be found at most establishments, including coleslaw, potato salad, and baked beans. Fries are also quite a familiar sight on the plates at barbecue restaurants, often dipped or slathered with barbecue sauce rather than ketchup. When it comes to barbecue, Kansas Citians usually expect to have a variety of sides to choose from.

Caption: The iconic Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que is located inside a fully functioning gas station. (Photo by Ashley Dixon)

The Rise of Competitive Barbecue

Perhaps no aspect of Kansas City's barbecue tradition has been more widely influential in recent years than in the massive growth of interest and participation in barbecue competitions and contests nationwide and beyond. Formal barbecue contests have been in existence in the United States since at least the late 1950s and the Kansas City area is home to several, including the Great Lenexa BBQ Battle and the largest barbecue contest in the world, the World Series of Barbecue at the American Royal.

Caption: The menu at Slap’s BBQ reflects the competition pedigree of pitmaster Joe Pearce. (Photo by Wai Chan)

The meteoric rise of competition barbecue was advanced in Kansas City in the fall of 1985 when Carolyn and Gary Wells and their friend Rick Welch decided to form a club for enthusiasts, which they called the Kansas City Barbeque Society. The group steadily grew from a small club organizing friendly barbecue contests to a formal sanctioning body with events throughout the nation. Today, the organization has 20,000 members and sponsors more than hundreds of events each year worldwide. 

The influence of competition barbecue can be witnessed in the increased quality of meat, the improved aesthetics of food presentation, and the enhanced sweet sauce flavors of Kansas City barbecue. A new generation with experience in competition barbecue and formal culinary training has more recently begun to join the old guard of Kansas City barbecue pitmasters. After finding success on the competition circuit with their team, The Slaughterhouse Five, Jeff and Joy Stehney developed a partnership with Joe Don Davidson, founder of the Oklahoma Joe's Smoker Company. Together, they opened Oklahoma Joe's restaurant in a gas station at 47th and Mission in Kansas City, Kansas in 1996. Now known as Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que and with two additional locations, the business joins older classics such as Arthur Bryant's, Gates, and Jack Stack Barbecue as a standard-bearer for Kansas City barbecue. 

A movement towards competition-style barbecue has grown with the arrival of new restaurants such as SLAP's BBQ, Plowboys Barbeque, and Q39 on the scene.

Caption: Tyler Harp has led the charge for a new generation of pitmasters developing a craft barbecue scene in Kansas City. (Photo by Wai Chan)

Kansas City’s New School

The Kansas City barbecue tradition reaches back many years and it continues to evolve. The newest influence on the scene in Kansas City is undoubtedly craft barbecue, where the focus is on attention to detail, using fresh ingredients, cutting to order, and never reheating. Pitmaster Tyler Harp of Harp Barbecue offers his unique brand of real wood-smoked craft barbecue on Saturdays at Crane Brewing in Raytown and has recently garnered accolades on many “best of” food lists nationally. A new generation of pitmasters is popping up in Kansas City that draws influences from craft barbecue scenes in regions such as Central Texas, including Chef J BBQ, Jousting Pigs BBQ, and Fox & Fire Barbecue.

Caption: Night Goat is a new Sunday-only barbecue pop-up from chef Vaughn Good. (Photo by Wai Chan)

Other restaurants such as Night Goat, Buck Tui, and Scott’s Kitchen and Catering at Hangar 29 don’t at first necessarily sound like they are barbecue joints, but they serve delicious barbecue with a creative twist. Night Goat is a Sunday barbecue pop-up from classically-trained chef Vaughn Good, served out of his stylish restaurant Fox & Pearl featuring locally sourced ingredients, scratch-made dishes, and a seasonal menu. Buck Tui is a new barbecue restaurant where brisket, chicken, and ribs are infused with Thai flavors from chef Ted Liberda, co-owner of the acclaimed Waldo Thai. Scott’s Kitchen and Catering, located in an unassuming building near the Kansas City International Airport, incorporates items such as housemade sausage, barbecue tacos, breakfast burritos, and bowls not usually found in Kansas City barbecue joints.

Kansas City barbecue continues to evolve, and even through challenging times, the restaurant scene has managed to thrive. The barbecue scene in Kansas City inspires locals, captivates visitors, and even continues to influence a new generation of barbecue enthusiasts worldwide. Pitmasters in Kansas City pursue innovative approaches to barbecue restaurant menus and are challenging the very definition of barbecue itself. There has never been a better time than now to be a fan of Kansas City barbecue.

Seven Essential Kansas City Barbecue Restaurants

Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque

1727 Brooklyn Avenue,

Kansas City, Missouri 64127

No tour of Kansas City barbecue is complete without a visit to Arthur Bryant’s for their legendary burnt ends, sliced pork, and fries. 

Harp Barbecue

Saturdays at Crane Brewing

6515 Railroad St.

Raytown, MO 64133

Harp Barbecue serves high-quality craft barbecue every Saturday at a pop-up at Crane Brewing in Raytown, Missouri. Get there early and prepare to wait in line for the delicious sliced brisket, sausage, sweet potato burnt ends, and cheesy corn.

Jack Stack Barbecue

Locations in the Kansas City metro in Missouri and Kansas

Jack Stack Barbecue provides an upscale dining experience at each of its locations throughout the Kansas City metro (though we are partial to the original Martin City location). The classy ambiance is more evocative of a high-end steakhouse and the extensive menu includes staples such as brisket, pork, ribs, ham, turkey, and chicken — along with upscale items such as barbecued shrimp, lamb ribs, crown prime beef ribs, and smoked prime rib.

Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que

Locations in the Kansas City metro in Kansas

Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que (formerly known as Oklahoma Joe’s) has three locations in Kansas, but the original gas station location is an iconic spot everyone should visit at least once. Try the Z-Man sandwich (smoked brisket topped with onion rings and provolone cheese on a toasted Kaiser roll), ribs, and seasoned fries.

Jones Bar-B-Q

6706 Kaw Drive

Kansas City, KS 66111

At Jones Bar-B-Q, a long line of customers awaits the food prepared by hard-working sisters Deborah and Mary Jones, who recently catapulted to fame with appearances on Netflix’s Queer Eye and the Steve Harvey Show. Their ribs, rib tips, sausage, and now-famous sauce are enjoyed by diners on the picnic tables outside the small building that houses the operation.

LC’s Bar-B-Que

5800 Blue Parkway

Kansas City, MO 64129

At LC’s Bar-B-Que diners share a small, modest space and can peer directly into the old-school brick pit behind the counter stained with smoke and time. The burnt ends, ribs, and ham all have a tantalizing, smoky flavor.

Slap’s BBQ

553 Central Ave

Kansas City, KS 66101

Slap’s BBQ, named for the Squeal Like A Pig barbecue team from brothers Joe and Mike Pearce, serves fresh barbecue every day while still remaining active on the competition barbecue circuit. You will definitely want to try the ribs, burnt ends, and baked potato casserole.

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