All About the Kansas City Barbecue, and Where to Find The Best Ones
Kansas City is home to half a million people and covers about 2000 sq. miles (5180 sq. km.) It was built at the intersection of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers, which technically means half the city is in Kansas, and the other one is in the State of Missouri.
Everyone border-hops from one side of the city to the other daily, either through the four bridges that cross the “Big Muddy” in the north or the many roads that cross the State Line Road in the south.
Not that borderlines matter, but locals will argue about which side of the river makes the meanest sauce and the softest meat when talking about the distinguished KC barbecue.
As you’ll see, there’s no wrong or right answer here; the entire region is passionate about slow-cooked meat, and what comes out of these pits might very well be some of the best BBQ in the country.
Great barbecue results from passionate individuals willing to really take the time to get it right, and that people abound all around the Metropolitan Area.
The best barbecue is always the one closest to home, but some BBQ spots are on another level. Here’s all you wanted to know about Kansas City Barbecue and where to find the best ones.
The Differences Between The Country’s Barbecue Styles
Beef or pork, smoked or dry-rubbed, there are countless ways to make barbecue. For starters, the phenomenon isn’t unique to the States. Cultures in the five continents have some kind of slow-cooked pit-oven tradition, and some, like the Caribbean Islands and South American countries, even call it ‘barbacoa’.
BBQ in the States is pretty big, though, and people have refined regional styles for centuries. Although you’ll find many variations (because it all comes down to the pitmaster) here are the key points that make each BBQ unique withing the States.
North Carolina has two distinct barbecuing traditions. The folks in the east smoke whole hogs, chop them and serve them with a vinegar-based sauce. People in the west (Lexington) smoke pork shoulder, which is later shredded and served with a tomato-based sauce in a bun.
Smoking whole hogs is the norm in South Carolina, but what really defines the style is the myriad of sauces served with the tender meat. From tomato- and vinegar-based sauces to the eminent mustardy ‘Carolina Gold’.
Smoked beef brisket, no sauce. That’s the norm in The Lone Star State. Sliced or inside a bun, brisket is often ordered with pork ribs and sausages for the meatiest, most authentic experience.
Pork rules in Memphis. Smoked pork is often heavily dry-rubbed, and pork ribs, marinated (the sticky kind), or dry-rubbed (the spicy kind) are also immensely popular.
Finally, today’s topic, the KC Barbecue. Everyone here will smoke beef, pork, sausages, and even chicken. The secret is in the Hickory smoke and lots of patience. Barbecue here is heavenly charred and smoked, which contrasts nicely with the ubiquitous sweet sauce served over everything.
The Best Kansas City Barbecue Spots
Let’s be honest here. If I listed all the brilliant barbecue spots in the city, this piece would end up as long as an encyclopedia. I totally understand that with every restaurant and eatery listed, ten go without mention, and they’re probably equally great.
I’m thinking emblematic, most popular spots with a proven record, spots everyone agrees are worthy ambassadors for the style. Think of this list as an introduction to KC BBQ’s marvelous world, more than an ultimate insider guide. If it’s your first time in Kansas City, all the following are safe bets that will swoon you off your feet, guaranteed.
Joe’s Kansas City Barbecue
Jeff and Joy Stehney entered the world of smoked meat through the challenging Kansas City BBQ competition scene in the early 90s. Success encouraged the partnership to open the first Oklahoma Joe’s restaurant opened in January 1996 and soon opened their now famous gas station location with the new name.
The house specialty is the Pulled Pork Sandwich, but the Ribs & Burnt End Dinner is spectacular. Anthony Bourdain, during an episode of A Cook’s Tour titled “The Barbecue Triangle,” described Oklahoma Joe’s as a “gas station. Liquor store. Convenience store and some of the finest barbecue in this country.”
Original location 3002 West 47th Avenue
Porky’s Blazin’ Bar-B-Q
According to the folks behind Porky’s Blazin’, “Time and patience. That’s the secret to our success in creating our mouthwatering smoked meats.”
Scott Roberts, the youngest of a lengthy line of pitmasters, learned the trade’s secrets from his father, and although he pursued a career in construction, he eventually came back home. In March 2016, Scott opened Porky’s honoring his family legacy.
Smoked meat, sandwiches, and a whole lot of side dishes make Porky’s menu. To get your hands on an order of ribs or brisket, you must call ahead, because they’re sold out fast.
9512 S Buckner-Tarsney Grain Valley, MO
Legend says that the famed KC burnt, fatty ends were invented here, and they’re still one of the most popular items.
Arthur Bryant, also called ‘the King of Ribs’ is one of the most distinguished pitmasters in history. The restaurant has changed hands half a dozen times, but it still is, and forever will be, Mr. Arthur Bryant’s place.
The meat tray is the best option here, mainly because of the ques. You’ll get any combination of beef, ham, turkey, ribs, sausage, burnt ends, sliced pork, and pulled pork, served by the pound. If coming alone, the triple-meat 3 B Sandwich is the way to go.
1727 Brooklyn Avenue
Joe and Mike Pearce quit their jobs in 2014 to follow the ‘the call’ and dedicate their time to make real BBQ. Slap’s BBQ was born with the motto “Squeal like a pig,” and you sure do when you taste the juicy brisket, the sausages, the ribs, and they’re signature sweet and tangy sauce.
The brothers are still active in the city’s barbecue competition circuit, but they manage to keep the business running. The restaurant sells out every day, and that’s hundreds of pounds of meat we’re talking about, so pre-order.
553 Central Avenue
Ricky’s Pit Bar B Que
This small, ten-seat eatery is notorious for a presidential visit during Clinton’s administration in the 90s, and although the decor needs an urgent revamp, you know you’re here for the BBQ.
An authentic dive barbecue eatery, Ricky’s Pit shows it’s not all about fancy establishments and marketing tools (Ricky’s doesn’t even have a website). Still, the brisket is good, and the pork sandwiches offer a bang for your buck.
Ricky’s here represents all the small BBQ pits that dot the KC area and shows that there’s room for small players too.
3800 Leavenworth Road
Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue
Talking about contrast, Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue is one of the largest BBQ players in KC with five locations and as many general managers as they have pitmasters. The offering is still time-intensive and authentic.
The Slow-cooked meat corporation had a humble beginning, though, with Russ Fiorella opening a modest barbecue eatery in 1957. According to the brand, they popularized the use of Hickory wood characteristic in the style back in the 70s, and despite the size, this is still a family business.
Original Location 13441 Holmes Road
What are your favorite KC BBQ spots?
With over 100 barbecue spots in the Kansas City Metropolitan Area, from gas stations to upscale patios, chances are your favorite BBQ spot is not listed above, so I’d love to know about them!
Some will value the ambiance and décor, others are there just for the tender meat. Some places are simply convenient neighborhood spots, and others are well worth a detour. With so many tasty barbecues around, it’s hard to get it wrong, the “Paris of the Plains” has something for everyone.