Goin’ to Kansas City, I’m gonna get me some…barbecue
The original Gates, however, is long gone, and as Ollie Gates has expanded to new locations, his restaurants have gone increasingly uptown, with tiled floors, rich dark woodwork and, at the newest building (1325 East Emanuel Cleaver, 816-921-0409), a 20-foot bronze statue of the chain’s mascot. Clad in tuxedo and spats, he’s toting a bag of Gates emblazoned with the slogan “Struttin’ With Barbecue,” a la Louis Armstrong. Lately, even Gates’ trademark screamed greeting — “HIMAYIHEPYOU!!!” — has been hushed to polite levels.
Fortunately, the food’s as good as ever. Gates smokes almost everything: ham, sausage, turkey, chicken, mutton. But go with the beef on bun — it comes with a stack of pickles and the best french fries in town — and be sure to load up on extra sauce before you sit down. Gates’ sauce isn’t nearly as hot as Bryant’s, and it’s more tomatoey too. Doris, who actually prefers the sauce at Gates, says, “It’s wetter in the mouth than Bryant’s, but never, ever catsuppy or runny.”
As KC barbecue goes, it’s all downhill from here. Then again, after Bryant’s and Gates, it’s downhill to every other barbecue place on the planet. There are more than a hundred of those places in the KC area alone. I can’t mention them all, but here are a few favorites.
Danny Edward’s Famous Kansas City Barbecue (previously known as Lil’ Jake’s, 1227 Grand, 816-283-0880) is open only for lunch and is in such a small space that a concrete hog outside suggests that you “Eat It and Beat It.” Go ahead and crowd in, though, because this joint’s a treasure. The pulled-pork sandwiches are as tasty as any I’ve had in Memphis, the sauce has a delightfully acidic front end that builds to a low, lingering heat, and the smoked beans will have you cursing the minuscule size of their styrofoam container.
Across the state line in Kansas City, Kansas, Rosedale’s Barbeque (600 West Southwest Boulevard, 913-262-0343) serves moist and delicious sandwiches, pork or beef, that are delightfully spicy and go down great with an ice-cold can of High Life.
Don’t forget the sides. The following spots all have swell barbecue but at least one side dish that trumps everything else on the menu. For example, the beans at Smokestack (8129 Hickman Mills, 816-333-2011) are world-class and widely regarded as the best in town. My personal favorites, though, are found at LC’s (5800 Blue Parkway, 816-923-4484), where the beans are spicy, deeply smoky, and swimming with big chunks of beef. You’ll want to just give in and shove your face into the bowl about halfway through, so it’s good that each tabletop includes an industrial grade Roll-Nap napkin dispenser. Finally, the sweet potato fries over at Jake Edward’s (51st Street, 816-531-8878) are two-fingers wide, sweet, and golden brown.
Fiorella’s Jack Stack (13441 Holmes, 816-942-9141) is way out south in Martin City, Missouri, but worth the drive. Their beef and lamb ribs are especially decadent — huge, smoky, and marrow-sucking delicious. The only problem at Fiorella’s is that the sauce — they have several flavors, never a good sign — is unmemorable. Which means that while this is the best meat in town, Fiorella’s is, like Quisp cereal sans milk, a dining experience as incomplete as it is irresistible.
Fiorella’s is also pretty upscale. That’s not really a criticism, but it does feel a tad silly to order barbecue next to a fireplace and from a leather-bound menu, instead of in some dive from a sticky one-sheet or a board above the counter.
Which brings us back to Bryant’s, a joint if ever there was one. Arthur himself called the place “a grease house.” At Bryant’s, the tables are often sticky and jammed so close together that the chairs bump up against each other, causing satisfied eaters to head home with orangey-brown splotches on the their shirtfronts. The place is hot, and usually packed; the bright lights only make the grungy floors and walls stand out all the more, but no one seems to mind. Crowded in line to order, you’re just inches away from the sweaty guy preparing your feast — you shout what you want and if you’re lucky, he’ll ask if that’s enough — and what’s more, you can see the meat smoking in the pit right before your eyes. And did I mention the sauce?
Arthur Bryant died in 1982, a passing commemorated by the editorial cartoonist for the Kansas City Star. In the cartoon, a print of which is displayed at the restaurant, “A. Bryant” has arrived, suitcase in hand, at the Pearly Gates. Next to him, a concerned and hungry-looking St. Peter throws an arm around the great man’s shoulder and asks: “Did you bring sauce?”