I have a confession to make. My status as a certified Kansas City Barbecue Society judge has been, until this weekend, largely ceremonial. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve sat through the certification course and I’ve judged my share of contests.
But I hadn’t experienced the dean of the Kansas City barbeque establishments. That’s right – I’d never been to Arthur Bryant’s.
Sure, we tried to swing by as part of our visit to LC’s Bar-B-Que and Gates & Sons last December. But the line snaked out the door and along Brooklyn Avenue…in December. It would have to wait for another time.
Finally, during our visit to Kansas City this weekend, that time came. Elizabeth actually asked her parents to carve out time in our weekend with them to drive into East Kansas City to visit the original Arthur Bryant’s for lunch. Nevermind the fact that there are three perfectly good barbecue places within 10 minutes of her house…they agreed to take me to Arthur Bryant’s.
Seventy-nine years of barbeque tradition – complete with photos – after the jump.
The original Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque can be found on Brooklyn Avenue in East Kansas City – just a few blocks from the ancestral home of Kansas City jazz, 18th and Vine. It’s a classic old barbecue joint, with a brick pit and a large smoker visible as you make your way along a cafeteria-style line and place your order. The tables are white formica, the chairs are padded with red vinyl, and the walls are covered with photos of the famous folks who have dined here since 1930 (as well as a few shots of the surrounding area throughout the ages).
When you arrive at the head of the line, it’s your turn to order. The choices are pretty standard: pork (pulled or sliced), beef (brisket), ribs, sausage and chicken are all available, as are smoked turkey and ham. You can get any of the meats served on a sandwich with fries, or you can go a more traditional route and make your own platter. The sides are nothing to write home about – potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans – but the meats are served up by the pound, arranged on colorful plastic trays that seem fit for truly hearty appetites.
Elizabeth’s sliced pork sandwich sounded good, but I just couldn’t make up my mind. I went with a combination plate that included beef brisket, pulled pork and burnt ends (a Kansas City delicacy that involves chopping up the meat from the thinner sections of the barbecue cuts that tend to overcook while smoking and serving it in a sweet-savory sauce).
What impressed me most about Arthur Bryant’s was the fact that each made had its own distinct flavor. The pulled pork came bathed in a sauce that was decidedly tangy while still retaining that basic tomato sweetness that is so prevalent in Kansas City-style ‘cue. The burnt ends, on the other hand, had a rich smoky flavor that was less about tang and more about subtle lingering heat. The brisket came unsauced, allowing me to sample it with each of the three sauce varieties that sit waiting for you at the table. They include Original, Rich & Spicy (the source of that tang I was picking up on earlier) and Sweet Heat (which was long on sweet and short on heat).
The portions were certainly plentiful – several of us around the table were full after only half a sandwich. Thankfully, Arthur Bryant’s is ready for just such an occurrence, and they offer sheets of butcher paper with handy stickers to wrap up your leftovers to go. Me? I had nothing to wrap up, having dispatched the full pound and a half of barbecue that had started on my platter (as well as that mound of bright green pickle chips…a barbecue necessity.
While I have the utmost appreciation for everything that Arthur Bryant’s represents in the history of Kansas City barbeque, I couldn’t help but compare it to the competitors I’ve tasted along the way: Oklahoma Joe’s, Jack Stack, Gates, LC’s and even KC Masterpiece. I liked a lot of what I experienced at Arthur Bryant’s – enough to make it one of my top three choices. But it still couldn’t beat Oklahoma Joe’s for overall quality and flavor.
Maybe it’s true that we’re all biased toward our first really good barbecue experience…or maybe I just got really good advice from Elizabeth’s family. Either way, I’m becoming more and more confident in my assertion that Oklahoma Joe’s really is the best barbecue, bar none.