The phenomenon that is Kansas City barbecue all started in the 1920s with a guy named Henry Perry who would barbecue slabs of ribs outside a barn that housed street cars at 19th and Highland. He wrapped ’em up in old newspaper hot out of the smoker to a waiting crowd of customers. A guy named Charlie Bryant worked with Henry Perry and later opened his own restaurant. Charlie’s brother, Arthur, later bought the business, and there you go.
Kansas City barbecue started building a serious reputation and national following in the 1950s when radio broadcasts of the Kansas City Athletics baseball games, just a few blocks down the street from Bryant’s, always included a mention of the good smell of barbecue filling the air. Folks around the country came to Kansas City for baseball and barbecue.
Give or take a few, as many as 100 barbecue joints operate on both sides of the state line. Lots of kinds of barbecue can be found in town, but Kansas City-style is usually defined as slow smoked over wood, usually hickory and sauce is slathered on after it is removed from the smoker.
An authentic Kansas City dish is burnt ends, and it is exactly what the name implies. It’s the burnt ends of a brisket, chopped up and slathered with sauce.
The American Royal Barbecue Contest each fall is considered the World Series of barbecue competitions. And the Kansas City Barbeque Society, with more than 14,000 members worldwide, is the premiere sanctioning organization of barbecue competitions in North America.
Gates or Bryant’s? That’s the question first timers to the city always ask of cab drivers, hotel desk clerks and others around the city. It’s also a debate Kansas Citians like to have among themselves. Those two are the quintessential BBQ names in the city, but as you’ll see, both have their own unique style and you’ll just have to make the decision yourself.
Two other extremely popular restaurants that get a lot of press and acclaim from locals as well as visitors are Joe’s of Kansas City and Jack Stack’s. Joe’s is the one located in the gas station. It used to be known as Oklahoma Joe’s but there was a conflict with another restaurant actually in Oklahoma, thus the name change in 2015.
Jack Stack’s official name is Jack Stack’s Fiorella BBQ – a mouthful, but everyone just calls it Jack Stack’s. The original location was in south Kansas City but it’s notoriety with the public sky rocketed when they opened a location just behind Union Station in an old freight house. The third location on the Plaza solidified Jack Stack’s reputation as a must try. And you must try the cheesy corn as a side dish.
Smokin’ Guns in North Kansas City is so crowded with trophies from various competitions that there’s hardly room for diners; Smokehouse is known for its great baked beans as is Zarda. Make an evening of it at BBs Lawnside BBQ, which also features live blues music. Rosedale BBQ is another historic neighborhood spot. Kansas City native and Emmy-award winning actor Eric Stonestreet loves Wyandot BBQ in KCK and always stops in when he returns home.
Barbecue for breakfast? Yep, it’s possible at the Southmoreland Bed and Breakfast Inn.
Sauce as a souvenir? Some of the best selections will be at the Best of Kansas City on the lower level of Crown Center (where you’ll also find a place called Three Little Pigs) or at McGonigle’s Market on Ward Parkway.
An option for exploring four restaurants with unique styles in one day is with Kansas City Barbecue Tours, a bus tour that teaches the history, the styles and shares the flavors of Kansas City ‘cue.
You could spend a week eating at two or three different BBQ joints a day and still not experience all that Kansas City has to offer.