“Get Out There” is a new column for humans with itchy feet written by Paste contributor Blake Snow. While weird now, the trips are still worth it, especially to these open borders.
When I was nine, my dad took me on an overnight trip to Kansas City. It was my first time on a plane or staying in a fancy hotel. Even though I was not allowed to leave the room while my father attended a conference in the lobby, I felt like a VIP observing the “foreign” city just outside my high-rise window. That and cable TV.
Last month I was finally able to “leave my room” and properly explore Kansas City on my own. Located at the epicenter of the Lower 48, KC is known for a lot, including its beautiful trees and Super Bowl champion chefs. But I followed my stomach there in an effort to identify the best barbecue joints in the two-state city.
Known for its “burnt ends,” ribs, and iconic thick gravy, which most Americans think of and buy when looking for barbecue sauce (at the KC Masterpiece), Kansas City is home to over 100 barbecue restaurants, including many are nationally renowned. Although I couldn’t visit them all, 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 only visit one barbecue restaurant, make it Joe’s. Located on the Kansas side of the border, it lives up to all the hype, the most famous of Anthony Bourdain’s “13 places to eat before you die” list. The perfectly seasoned “short” ribs (aka juicer) are a sight to behold. 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 queue outside the tour, filled with both locals and tourists making their daily pilgrimage. It’s 5 star all the way.
The following two restaurants are a cinch and do different things better. If you want a more traditional KC barbecue in a more upscale setting, Jack Stack’s Freight House is an award-winning spot. Their burnt ends and multiple sauces were very good (but not the best, more on that below); ditto for the ribs. But their unique Crown Prime Beef was one of my favorite things to eat all weekend. Their baked beans and cheesy corn are also the best in town. Overall, Jack Stack is a wonderful atmosphere and great value (under $ 50 for two people with sodas).
Also tied for second and more trendy than Jack Stack, Q39 takes great pride in their barbecue, innovative sides and huge portions. While this is the most expensive barbecue on this list, it is still a Midwestern restaurant and probably cheaper than what you would pay elsewhere in the country. Highlights include their burnt ends, ribs, and apple salad, which were all top of the pack. Their sauce was good too, but not the best I’ve had. But there really isn’t a bad sauce in town. And Q39 had the best dessert of the weekend: Chocolate Pecan Cheesecake.
Welcome to the Nazi barbecue; from Kansas City, at least the Saturday I visited. The service was slow, unfriendly and seemingly indifferent. But the burnt tips, ribs and SAUCES were all amazing! Although their sauce was unconventional, it was a notable favorite. In short, Arthur Bryant’s can afford to be unwelcoming and cold because the aforementioned staple foods are so good. Which is not a surprise. Arthur Bryant was trained by Henry Perry, the “father of Kansas City barbecue,” before opening this longtime restaurant in 1946.
Like Arthur Bryant, Gates is a Kansas City institution. Also opened in 1946, this was arguably the most affordable but still remarkably delicious barbecue that I have enjoyed all week. While their “burnt ends” (as a sandwich only) aren’t cubed like anywhere else, the crushed ends have even more burn and smoke, which pairs well with Gates’ equally impressive sauces. With friendly service and prices, it’s easy to see why Gates is often referred to as people’s favorite barbecue restaurant.
Blake Snow contributes to luxury publications and Fortune 500 companies as a hire writer and frequent travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah, with a family of teenagers and their “bullador beagle”.
Gates and Q39 photos by Ben Pieper.
Arthur Bryant photo by Austin Walsh.
All photos are provided by KC Tourism.