“Get Out There” is a new column for itchy footed humans written by Paste contributor Blake Snow. Although weird now, travel is still worthwhile—especially to these open borders.
When I was nine, my father took me on an overnight trip to Kansas City. It was the first time I flew in an airplane or stayed at a fancy hotel. Even though I wasn’t allowed to leave the room while my dad attended a conference in the lobby, I felt like a VIP watching the “foreign” city just outside my high-rise window. That and cable television.
Last month, I was finally able to “leave my room” and properly explore Kansas City for myself. Located at the epicenter of the lower 48, KC is known for many things, including its beautiful trees and Super Bowl champion Chiefs. But I followed my stomach there on a mission to identify the two-state city’s best barbecue joints.
Known for its ubiquitous “burnt ends,” ribs, and signature thick sauce—which most Americans think of and buy when reaching for BBQ sauce (a la KC Masterpiece)—Kansas City is home to over 100 barbecue restaurants, many of which are nationally renowned. While I wasn’t able to visit all of them, I spent three full days eating slow-cooked meats and killer sauces for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The things we do for science.
These are the best of the best:
If you visit only one BBQ restaurant, make it Joe’s. Situated on the Kansas side of the border, it lives up to all of the hype, most famously Anthony Bourdain’s list of “13 Places to Eat Before You Die.” The perfectly seasoned “short end” (aka juicer) ribs are a sight to behold. The chicken gumbeaux is a spicy surprise. And the sauce is classic KC style. My friend and I arrived 10 minutes early, and there was already a line outside of the tour, filled with both locals and tourists making their daily pilgrimage. This is 5-star all the way.
The next two restaurants are a toss-up and do different things better. If you want more traditional KC BBQ in a fancier setting, Jack Stack’s Freight House is an award-winning place. Their burnt ends and multiple sauces were very good (but not the best, more on that below); same for the ribs. But their unique Crown Prime Beef was one of my favorite things consumed all weekend. Their baked beans and cheese corn are also the best in the city. Overall, Jack Stack is a wonderful atmosphere and a great value (less than $50 for two people with sodas).
Also tied for second and trendier than Jack Stack, Q39 takes great pride in their barbeque, innovative sides, and huge portions. Although it is the priciest barbeque on this list, it’s still a midwest restaurant and likely cheaper than what you’d pay elsewhere in the country. Highlights include their burnt ends, ribs, and apple slaw, which were all at the top of the pack. Their sauce was good, too, although not the best I had. But there’s really not a bad sauce in town. And Q39 had the best desert of the weekend: Chocolate Pecan Cheesecake.
Welcome to the BBQ Nazi; of Kansas City, at least on the Saturday that I visited. The service was slow, unfriendly, and seemingly uninterested. But the burnt ends, ribs, and SAUCES were all amazing! Although their sauce is unconventional, it was the noticeable favorite. In short, Arthur Bryant’s can afford to be unwelcoming and cold because the aforementioned staples are so good. Which isn’t a surprise. Arthur Bryant was trained by Henry Perry, the “father of Kansas City BBQ,” before opening this enduring restaurant in 1946.
Like Arthur Bryant’s, Gates is a Kansas City institution. Also opened in 1946, this was arguably the most affordable but still remarkably delicious barbeque I enjoyed all week. Although their “burnt ends” (on sandwich form only) aren’t cubed like everywhere else, the ground up ends have an even more burntness and smokiness to them in a good way that paired nicely with Gates’ equally impressive sauces. With friendly service and prices, it’s easy to see why Gates is often called “the people’s” favorite BBQ joint.
Blake Snow contributes to fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a bodacious writer-for-hire and frequent travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah with an adolescent family and their “bullador beagle.”
Gates and Q39 photos by Ben Pieper.
Arthur Bryant photo by Austin Walsh.
All photos provided by KC Tourism.