Finding the best Kansas City barbecue

I am almost straddling the Missouri-Kansas border while daintily gnawing my way into a rack of smoked ribs at Oklahoma Joe’s, which is attached to a gas station.

Even the locals get confused about which state they’re in. (It’s Kansas, but the border is merely blocks away.)

Think fluorescent-lit convenience store, not grease monkeys and grease-dripping pork. Kansas City is home to more than 100 barbecue restaurants, bistros in chic shopping districts to joints in dicey neighborhoods, and Oklahoma Joe’s rates among the finest.

The pulled pork sandwich is the best seller. Garlicky pickle slices accompany each order and add kick. “The barbecue is spicy without burning my head off,” says Pat Meads, who calls this restaurant her neighborhood favorite.

Think “barbecue” in Wisconsin, and you may envision red-hot briquettes in the park – or a hot gas grill next to an icy cold beer. It’s mostly about laid-back summer living here, but barbecue means year-round competition in Kansas City – and sometimes the stakes are high.

More than 500 cooking teams compete for $100,000 in prizes during the annual American Royal Barbecue, which event organizers say is the biggest such competition because of the loot awarded and number of contestants.

Although the American Royal cook-off – dubbed the World Series of Barbecue – is a marquee event for barbecue lovers nationwide, Kansas City routinely goes whole hog over this cuisine. Everyday competition among restaurants extends to quality of fries, baked beans and pickles as well as secret sauces and meat cooking techniques.

“Kansas City took the best parts from Texas, Memphis and North Carolina barbecue,” contends Rod Gray of Pellet Envy, a competition barbecue team in Kansas City that has won nearly three dozen championships.

Those are fightin’ words.

“It’s a sweet, tomato-based sauce part of the country,” with meat that is slow-cooked – a dozen or more hours – with smoked hickory, oak or pecan wood. “Vinegar or mustard based sauces don’t go over well here,” Rod says.

It has been 100 years since Henry Perry, a Mississippi River steamboat cook, made his way ashore and into Kansas City, serving slow-cooked meats in the Garment District. Cooking and sales began at a stand in an alley, then moved indoors at 17th and Lydia. Customers paid a quarter for hickory and oak smoked meat, wrapped in newspaper.

Meat was not just beef, but woodchuck and raccoon in those early years. The sauce was fiery pepper in flavor, which subsequent operators of Perry’s place sweetened with molasses.

Today the legacies of Arthur Bryant, who ran the business after Perry’s death in 1940, and George Gates, whose business partner worked for Perry, are barbecue empires that help define Kansas City.

Cooks aim for complexity in sauce flavor: a mix of sweetness, smokiness and spice. “Burnt ends” – tasty but tough trimmings from beef brisket – are a delicacy. And it is not unusual for barbecued meat to be dumped onto slices of inexpensive white bread. It all speaks to tradition.

For every Kansas City barbecue specialist, there seems to be at least one type of sauce bottled for sale. Several commercial cooks claim a niche, however narrow, in the marketplace. Sometimes setting or manner of presentation separates one place from the others.

Food artistry is not a priority at the original Arthur Bryant’s, 1727 Brooklyn Ave., where a takeout order of barbecue (over white bread), fries and pickles arrives heaped together and wrapped in a sheet of dull red butcher paper. So lunch is one glorious mess, and the wait for it stretches outside the front door at noon.

“In the early ’50s, we’d get ribs and fries at Arthur Bryant’s, and the sack would be completely soaked in grease, but boy were they good,” recalls retiree Bill James of Golden City, Mo., who recently revisited for the first time in 40 years.

“It’s unique, but (the sauce) stains your skin a little,” says construction worker Don Denham of Kansas City, during a workday break of sliced turkey in a sandwich that was “like having two” because of the size.

At the Gates Barb-B-Q outlets, napkins say “Hi, May I Help You?” because greeting customers is a serious priority. “They’d take your order while you were waiting outside the door, without being able to see you,” says Ed Turpin, a retired police officer. ”Your food would be ready by the time you got to the cashier.”

It is no delicate operation. I could see the kitchen crew use what resembled a thick paintbrush to slather on the sauce. Save room for the Yammer Pie, a tart-like treat that tastes similar to pumpkin.

Elsewhere is evidence that atmosphere builds character and loyalty. Danny Edwards’ Boulevard Barbecue was known as Lil’ Jake’s Eat It and Beat It when located downtown because seating was minimal and demand for barbecue was high. Lingering was not encouraged.

“You could smell that barbecue blocks away,” Office Ed says, “and it was good.”

The joint closed because of downtown development, but since 2007 has served the same kind of food at a larger location that is a mile west.

“It’s about the best you can get,” says Steve Sutherlin, president of an optical lab. He followed the business from its original spot. The best barbecue, he believes, is “always hickory cooked, not mesquite – I don’t care what those damn Texans say.”

Still downtown is one of four Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue restaurants, the closest anybody gets to mixing barbecue with fine dining. Steaks and seafood also make the menu at this former railroad freight house, whose 25-foot-tall ceilings add dramatic effect.

A signature side dish: Hickory Pit Beans, which contain bits of brisket and a pleasantly spicy tomato flavor. A signature entrée: Hickory Seared Rack of Pork.

There seems to be room for all in Kansas City, the upscale and the humble, the Famous Dave’s chain and the old-timers such as Rosedale Barbecue, a popular one-spot place that has been open since the 1930s.

Occasionally an innkeeper gets into the act. Mark Reichle from mid May to mid October fires up the outdoor grill on Saturday mornings, to barbecue pork chops for his guests at Southmoreland on the Plaza, a bed and breakfast.

The breakfast barbecue has been his tradition for 10 years. It is not unusual for wife Nancy to add a fresh fruit frappe (a thick, yogurt-blended beverage) to the hearty meal.

Although the Kansas City Barbecue Society is a nationwide cheerleader of barbecue as “America’s cuisine,” it arguably wasn’t until the mid 1980s that barbecue became a marketing tool for the area.

“It wasn’t until word of our barbecue excellence began to spread to other parts of the country that we ourselves began to appreciate it,” writes Doug Worgul in his 2001 book, “The Grand Barbecue: A Celebration of the History, Places, Personalities and Techniques of Kansas City Barbecue.”

Oklahoma Joe’s, 3002 W. 47th Ave.: www.oklahomajoesbbq.com, 913-722-3366.

Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue, multiple locations: www.arthurbryants.com, 816-231-1123.

Gates Bar-B-Q, multiple locations: www.gatesbbq.com, 816-923-0900.

Danny Edwards’ Boulevard Barbecue, 2900 Southwest Blvd.: 816-283-0880.

Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, multiple locations: www.jackstackbbq.com, 877-419-7427.

Rosedale Barbeque, 600 Southwest Blvd.: 913-262-0343

Southmoreland on the Plaza, 116 E. 46th St.: www.southmoreland.com, 816-531-7979.

For more about what to do in Kansas City: www.visitkc.com, 800-767-7700.

Here is the Southmoreland inn’s breakfast barbecue recipe, from the innkeepers’ cookbook, “Tried and True.”

MOLASSES BRINED PORK CHOPS

One-half gallon water
One-half cup molasses
Two tablespoons dried thyme
One-half cup kosher salt
Two tablespoons peppercorns
Six pork chops, thick cut

Combine first five ingredients in a large, non-reactive bowl or pot (use a stockpot lined with a plastic trash bag). Stir until salt and molasses are dissolved.

Add pork chops to the brine and place in refrigerator for two to six hours. Remove chops from brine and pat them dry; remove peppercorns from the meat.

Cook over a grill that has reached medium heat. A one-inch chop should cook about seven minutes on each side.