Barbecue Bull's-Eye

Purposefully I’ve avoided the fray. By that I mean the snaking that curls around not just one but all three of the Oklahoma Joe’s joints peppered throughout Kansas City.

In this town, we all know you pick your smoke and fire with fervor and I’m no different: a liberal loyalist mostly paying homage to Misters Gates and Bryant. But, hold on, I’m willing to dabble.

So as the leaves turn, I will queue for the place that has been hyped to the hilt.

If Anthony Bourdain, he of culinary god status, says, “It’s one of the best places to eat before I die,” so be it. I suppose it’s time.

Intentions ran amok when I worked up an appetite and dutifully set my sights on the Kansas City, Kan., gas station-turned-restaurant where owners Jeff Stehney, his wife Joy and company cleverly combines divinely smoked necessities and trimmings to fill up both you and your car.

Should’a known better. It was a Friday night, the place was teeming and all I wanted to do was slide in ... and out.

The perfumed smoke enveloped me as I eyeballed whether I should stay. I did, shuffling along with the rest of the pack and thought, “What a goldmine.”

When there are so many choices between our borders, I couldn’t help but be curious.

Admiring the collaborative efficiency of the crew, Oklahoma Joe’s admirably doles out meaty fare true to form: succulent, basted, braised, charred and chopped — driving our city’s reputation as a barbecue mecca even higher. And in this fabled stockyard of delish ‘cue, here are stats to ponder: 900,000 pounds of brisket, 400,000 pounds of pork butt and 200,000 slabs of ribs are chowed down annually.

The most popular meal at Oklahoma Joe’s is a hearty Z-Man pulled pork sandwich souped up with two crunchy onion rings on a toasted Kaiser. Doused with plenty of sweetly-soured sauce, it hit the spot. On the side, coleslaw intentionally crafted with a puckering finish. ($6.79).

It wasn’t tidy. But the machinations in this pit are nothing if not smart. You quickly get the works served on paper. Then you simply dig in elbows up or down — no one cares.

Olathe’s pit stop was next. Regardless of the early dinner hour, I expected the line and, true to form, there it was.

Everyone sighs but bucks up and manages. There’s lots of barbecue chatter, strangers exchanging quips on their favorite. But clearly this line has die-hard Oklahoma Joe’s fans.

Tonight I ordered up the short ends — dry, sauce on the side ($14.99)

The bones kept me entertained. Avoiding pleasantries, I picked ‘em clean and was proud of it. I’m still steadfast on Gates ribs but, I have to admit, these were mighty good.

The beans, bobbing with freshly pulled pork, are a rich and a fitting side, ($2.39).

In the ensuing weeks, my palate hankered for more delectable treats from Oklahoma Joe’s.

“We realized pretty quickly after opening our Leawood place that, in spite of our popularity, not everybody knew what Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue was all about,” says Jeff Stehney. “Many of our Leawood customers had never been to either of our other restaurants. So, for them, standing in line to place their orders was perhaps a first-time experience. Of course, the lines aren’t nearly as long now, as they were during those first few weeks after we opened. We’re still becoming acquainted with our Leawood customers, and they with us.”

Nevertheless, I still erred on the side of caution and figured 2 p.m. was late enough to wait for the line to abate and trundled into the 119th and Roe location with one Tastebud in tow.

No wait. We promptly ordered a rib and chicken dinner ($12.69).

“And fries,” she reminded. “Best in town” ($2.79).

Like the chicken, the ribs were moist and smoked to perfection. The fries, true-to-form, crisp, thin and definitely delicious.

When it comes to barbecue this place has been blessed with a lion’s share of press, buoyantly staying atop the heap, which, as we all know, takes awhile to earn in this town.

Bourdain said it best, “In Kansas City, barbecue is serious business.”

I’ll bet this Joe is laughing all the way to the bank. 

Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue
3002 West 47th Ave.
Kansas City, Kan.
(913) 722-3366

11950 South Strang Line Rd.
Olathe, Kan.
(913) 782-6858

11723 Roe Ave.
Leawood, Kan. 66209
(913) 338-5151

Gloria Gale is an Overland Park-based food writer. “On the Menu” is not a restaurant review, it is a summary of dining out in Johnson County and the Metro.

photos: Steve Puppe