Intrigued, I make it my mission to try as much barbecue and sample as many sauces as possible during my whirlwind trip. Here are the best of the lot:
You can smell the burning hickory before you’re even in the parking lot of each of the six locations. Although Gates is a big operation -- they feed up to 500 people daily at each restaurant -- there’s a personal touch that’s been a trademark since 1946: The moment you’re inside the door, staffers holler, “Hi, may I help you?” I loved the messy, wonderful lamb ribs slathered in the classic sauce -- a slightly spicy concoction of medium thickness (there’s also a sweet-mild sauce and an extra-hot version) -- with sweet baked beans on the side and a “yammer,” or baby sweet-potato pie, for dessert.
Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque:
Founded in the 1920s, this is the place that beloved food scribe Calvin Trillin called the best restaurant in the world. A cornerstone of the 18th & Vine Jazz District, which is steeped in African-American heritage, this humble barbecue place with celebrity-guest photos on the walls has a line out the door by 11:15 a.m. daily. I get burnt ends, a monster mound of crunchy, flavorful brisket tips -- truly a Kansas City original -- melded in a dark tomato sauce atop two slices of Wonder Bread and alongside a tower of lard-crisped french fries. (That’s gluttonous enough, but when I see an order for “the combo” being filled, my jaw drops as a counter worker piles a mountain of sliced beef atop a bunker of pulled pork, slaps five to six slices of Wonder Bread on top, and then crowns the works with a huge handful of sliced dill pickles and a hillock of french fries. The whole thing is then rolled up in a bundle of butcher paper, taped closed, and handed over.) Of the three sauces, I’m mad for the Original, which is thick and velvety in texture, brick-colored by paprika, and blessedly not sweet. It’s wonderfully balanced by a tall glass of tart homemade lemonade.
Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue:
The third of the triumvirate that includes Gates and Arthur Bryant’s, this family operation first opened in 1957 and has since grown into a destination for upscale barbecue. Giant ovens burning a mix of hickory and oak hold a ton and a half of meat at a time, and meat juices drip from racks into pans where the signature beans are cooking. On an adjacent grill, salmon and steaks are simmering, absorbing the smoke flavor too. Prime-beef short ribs send me into a sort of reverie, as does the rich, cheesy corn bake. Of Fiorella’s four sauces, I’m taken with the spicy one, which has a bit of heat to foil the sweet.
Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue and Catering:
One bite into my visit, I realize it’s no mystery how Oklahoma Joe’s, a local venture with ties to its southern neighbor Oklahoma, has won so many major barbecue competitions. The Carolina Style Sandwich is easily the best version of pulled pork ever to reach my tongue -- layers of smoke flavor imbue the tender shreds of meat, which bear peppery, crusty ends that are tempered by a cool and crunchy but cayenne-spiked coleslaw. Lacing the works is Bubba’s Sauce, a thin vinegar-based dressing with a perky finish. Alongside the sandwich, a bowl of red, black, and navy beans in a tomato-based sauce with onion and mild peppers makes me question the boring beans back home. Were I in need of real heat, I could knock myself out with Night of Living Bar- BQ Sauce, a dark, rusty-brown liquid with loads of chipotle pepper.
Instead, I nurse my sweet tea and note that the teenage girl in her jammies, having laid waste to her slab of ribs, is now tackling her burly basket of onion rings by dragging them through the milder barbecue sauce. My neighbor has finished up his feast and presumably is off to buy his cow. It’s almost like a day at home -- only better.