19 Reasons Why Kansas City Barbecue is the Best
Did you hear that, Texas?
Reason No. 1
Because We Have the Largest Barbecue Society in the Known Universe
No sloppy seconds for KC because we are the birthplace, the home, the mothership to the biggest organization of barbecue and grilling enthusiasts on the planet. The Kansas City Barbeque Society has more than 18,000 members, sanctions 450-plus barbecue contests worldwide every yar and has certified 20,000 barbecue judges.
Reason No. 2
Our Barbecue Qualifies as Disaster Relief
Kansas City barbecue through Operation BBQ Relief provides aid and comfort during natural disasters across the United States. Founded six years ago after a tornado destroyed Joplin, Mo., the volunteer organization has become the ulitmate meals on wheels for disaster victims and rescue workers. The combination of cooking expertise, the ability to quickly mobilize and fearlessness make Operation BBQ Relief the gold standard for providing hot meals to thousands of people. When the barbecue pits from KC roll into a disaster zone, people cheer.
Operation BBQ Relief By the Numbers
Meals served: 1.5 million and counting
States served: 22
Communities served: 41
Days deployed: 240
Reason No. 3
Our Pit Masters Aren't Afraid to Throw Down
words ardie davis
Brick, stainless steel, cast iron — It’s the eternal barbecue debate over which pit is superior in creating the ultimate ‘cue experience. We asked seven experts with more than 440 years’ collective experience in the barbecue industry to let loose.
The Traditionalist with a Twist
Barbecue Hall of Fame inductee, owner of Ole Hickory Pits, Cape Girardeau, Mo.
“We’ve enjoyed considerable success providing Ole Hickory Pits to our customers. We leave that important part of taste to the public. Our job is to provide a reliable and consistent barbecue pit that is easy to monitor and adjust to pit masters’ specifications.”
Kicking It Old-School
Proprietor of the former Old Mill Barbecue, Omaha, Neb.
“I much favor the old cast-iron pits like we’ve been using for more than 100 years, because once they are seasoned it has the smoke flavor that I really enjoy, whereas when I’ve tried using stainless steel I can’t get anything near that flavor because of the way stainless steel refracts heat … I like the original flavor that I grew up on starting at 14 years old.”
The Dual Wielder
Owner of Berbiglia’s Roost, Overland Park, Kan.
“When you use a brick oven, you don’t have any control over temperature and heat, and it’s all pretty much on direct fire. It’s really hard to get a temperature that’s low enough and constant enough to cook the way it needs to be cooked. I think the best way to handle it is to start it off in a stainless-steel pit like Ole Hickory, in a low, constant temperature with heavy smoke, which you’re not going to get off a high, direct fire in brick, and then finish it off to about 75 percent done and then pull it out and finish it off in a brick oven. It puts that open-air, direct-fire flavor into it in the brick pit, and it puts the heavy smoke flavor in the stainless-steel low-temp pit. I think it’s the best of both worlds. If you have the capability of using both, I don’t think there’s anything that can beat it.”
Legendary Kansas City pit builder
“The original barbecue was wood, oak or hickory in a brick pit designed for cooking barbecue over wood, and that puts the flavor in the meat. That’s what you call real barbecue…The old timers that enjoy barbecue, they know the difference … I’m an advocate of wood-burning pits. Of course, I understand that nowadays the demand for barbecue is so great that the wood pit needs some help.”
Chef Paul Kirk, KC Baron of Barbecue, Barbecue Hall of Fame inductee
“I could, you could, but I’m saying the public can’t [taste a difference in the flavor of barbecue from different types of pits] because they’re not exposed to all those different venues. You’re going to get some great flavor from the brick pit or steel pit. There’s going to be much more flavor embedded in there than in a stainless-steel pit, but I don’t think the public can really tell.”
Johnny White, owner of Johnny’s Bar-B-Que, Mission, Kan.
“They both have their place, but the best description I can give you in a few words would be, it’s pros vs. joes when it comes to using these pits.”
Joe Pearce, co-owner of Slap’s BBQ, Kansas City, Kan.
“A big difference between a ceramic pit or a brick pit and a big commercial-style smoker like an Ole Hickory or Southern Pride is not really the pit itself. It’s the time and the attention to detail that goes into cooking each piece of meat. I think you can cook great food on either one of those. You can also cook great food on a hole dug in the ground over some open coals.”
Reason No. 4
Our Pit Masters Have the Best Tattoos
(above) Dan Isbell, pit master at Crazy Good Eats, Olathe, Kan.
Reason No. 5
We Eat BBQ For Dessert
Words Allyson Wilson
I ate Joe's KC Burnt Ends & Sauce ice cream… and survived
I probably love barbecue more than the average Joe (pun intended); in a previous life I’m convinced I was a pitmaster or a curer of ye olde meats. In my current form, I hadn’t met a kind of ‘cue I didn’t like — until I tried burnt ends ice cream. The mere mention of it is either met with disgust or intrigue, and I’ll admit I was the latter. I can’t resist a novelty item. It’s really a problem.
I was raving to a few fellow MU alums about how David and Mary Friesen’s Betty Rae’s Ice Cream would evoke nostalgia of the Sparky’s kind, so we found ourselves in the steady queue forming outside the creamery on Wornall Road. The surrounding chatter of how far some had traveled to taste this treat made me confident enough to try it. And there, dear reader, is where I made a terrible mistake.
At first blush, it resembles something akin to Bunny Tracks, but that’s where the similarities end. Wrapped seductively in one of shop’s house-made waffle cones is a deceptive scoop of sweet cream-based ice cream swirled with candied Kansas City gold (burnt ends) striped with Joe’s Kansas Bar-B-Que original sauce-laced caramel. The British pomade Brylcreem said it best, “A little dab’ll do ya,” and that’s how much my taste buds could take as I found myself cautiously chewing a bit of burnt end.
Did I find it tasty? Not in the slightest. I still shudder at the thought of tasting it, but that sweet and smoky creation is so Kansas City that it just makes sense. Only in Cowtown (and I use that affectionately) can you marry barbecue with ice cream, be darn proud of it, and people will travel many miles to join that elite bizarre-foods club. I couldn’t get behind the flavor, but I can sure get behind KC’s dedication to the best ‘cue in the nation.
Reason No. 6
We Have the Godfather of KC BBQ
Words Ardie Davis
In the world of Kansas City barbecue, Jack Fiorella has been making barbecue no one can refuse because it's soooo good. Although he's not the father of KC barbecue (that distinction goes to Henry Perry) he can be called the Godfather for his enduring influence and family dynasty. Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue sells more Kansas City barbecue locally and nationally than any other KC barbecue enterprise and he learned the secrets to great 'cue at his father's feet.
The eldest son of Russ and Flora Fiorella, Jack grew up in South Kansas City and was raised literally on top of his family's Smokestack barbecue restaurant where young Jack learned the trade. In 1974 Jack spread his sauce-covered wings and opened Smoke Stack Barbecue in Martin City. Two decades later Jack and his wife, Delores, expanded into Overland Park and rebranded their restaurants as Jack Stack.
Today there are five Jack Stacks, a bustling catering business and thanks to a savvy 2000 business decision to start shipping their barbecue nationwide, the entire country can now be "Jack Stacked."
Fiorella no longer handles the day to day operations of Jack Stack. In 2009 he sold his empire to his daughter Jennifer and son-in-law Case Dorman. But Jack is still the authority of barbecue, and friends say when the subject inevitably gets brought up Fiorella gets a gleam in his eyes and the stories begin to flow.
Reason No. 7
We Can Get Fancy with Our Sides
Words Sherry Kuehl
Barbecue Sides Reimagined
We tasked two 20-something rising culinary talents with the challenge of reimagining some classic barbecue sides. Abby Calvert of Krokstrom Klubb & Market and Sam Hall of The Rieger took to the assignment with gusto.
However, they both admitted to being a just a little wary of messing with tradition. As KC natives, they have strong opinions about barbecue and treat the subject with a level of reverence that speaks to, in our opinion, excellent home training.
Hall picked the cheesy corn bake as his reimagined side dish. He says the flavors of the dish remind him “so much of growing up.” He also confesses to not changing the basic taste profile and instead updating it with fresh corn from Crum’s Heirlooms farm in Bonner Springs, Kan., and cheese from Green Dirt Farm in Weston, Mo. The crowning glory to his side is the char on top from a kitchen torch. Sam says it gives the dish a grilled texture that complements any barbecued meat.
Calvert chose two salads to elevate, giving potato salad a vegan spin and taking the quintessential ‘cue cole slaw and replacing the cabbage with sweet beets.
If you’re hesitant about adding tofu to potato salad, Calvert urges you to give it a try. She used Chunco tofu and calls the product “something that should be showcased.” The sous chef promises that the blending of the tofu with vinegar, mustard and emulsifying oil tastes as good as mayonnaise.
Hall says barbecue and its sides are “ingrained in the heart of any Kansas Citian,” and he’s not shy to proudly proclaim that Kansas City has the best — hands down.
Calvert agrees and calls the great debate over the best barbecue in Kansas City a local tradition. “If you are a Kansas Citian and don't have an opinion about who makes the best barbecue, then you are missing out.”
Reason No. 8
We'll 'Cue Anything
Words Allyson wilson
Will it Cue?
When it comes to barbecue, meat is king, but 435 Magazine wondered what other foods could stand the heat. So we rounded up a food panel and enlisted the help of Kansas City Barbeque Society Hall of Famer chef Paul Kirk and his Lang BBQ Smoker to answer the question, “Can you ‘cue it?”
Blueberry Cake Doughnut from Big Daddy’s Donuts
Rating: Fork up/five forks
The heat from the smoker enhances the blueberry flavor, giving it a fresh-out-of-the-fryer taste. Biting into the caramelized glaze with eyes closed will have you believing you’re sinking your teeth into a slice of granulated sugar-dusted blueberry pie. Love at first bite.
Rating: Sideways fork/two forks
When ‘cued, the edges get nice and crispy, which is a plus, but the basil-garlic undertones made it taste a bit like undercooked pasta. Hard pass.
Rating: Sideways fork/one fork
Though the grill marks alone made it Instagram-worthy, seasoning it with Kirk’s 2011 Best Rub on the Planet-winning recipe still couldn’t save the typically tasteless favorite and left us divided. Can you ‘cue it? Absolutely. Should you? Probably not.
Rating: Fork up/five forks
Smoking a fresh nectarine livens the fruit’s natural sweetness. When sliced, the juices are slightly sticky, making it the perfect summertime treat. Kirk recommends halving and grilling nectarines then balancing out the sweetness with a dollop of tart blue cheese at the center.
Rating: Forks up/three forks
With Kirk’s seasoning as its wingman, the sprouts got nice and tender on the grill and tasted nothing like the veggies you tried desperately to avoid as a kid. Roasting the leaves gave it an added elegance and a texture that won us over.
Rating: Forks up/four forks
To peel or not to peel, that was the question. With the peel on, grilling the fruit left the outside looking bruised but the inside unscathed. Surprisingly when naked, it grilled best, with our panel comparing the flavor to plantains, banana chips and even bananas Foster. Win.
Rating: Forks up/three forks
Move over, Los Angeles; Kansas City might be the next city to jump on the kale bandwagon. Surprisingly tasty when seasoned with all-purpose rub, the leafy greens turned into kale chips when properly charred, and we couldn’t get enough.
Rating: Forks down/no forks
The second food on our list to be given the fork down, the fall favorite left little to be desired. We had high hopes for it (especially after we expertly removed its seeds — #boss), but in the end it was mealy, unattractive and tasteless. Pass.
Rating: Fork up/five forks
Sprinkling on barbecue rub to enhance the sweetness is the KC way of the ol’ salt-on-the-watermelon hack. Despite being 92 percent water, the slices of melon held up well and earned a delightful groan from the panel of testers.
Rating: Fork up/three forks
Grilling the sliced pound cake didn't’t change the flavor, but the grill marks sure made for an interest-piquing display. Opt for homemade or store-bought pound cake, but leave the Sara Lee on the shelf.
Reason No. 9
We have a Barbecue Oath
OK, maybe it's not something kids recite in school after the Pledge of Allegiance, but the Kansas City Barbeque Society requires that each judge upon certification takes an oath. Feel free to raise your right hand (or burnt end) and proclaim while wiping sauce off your face this sacred last stanza:
Reason No. 10
Because Barbecue is Not All Fun and Games… Until it Is…
From Start to Finish:
Found the perfect cut of ribs. Move up four spaces
Got lost on the way to competition. Go back to start.
Jump over Burnt End Bridge two spaces!
Mushy pork. Lose a turn.
Slide through sauce strail.
Went overboard on the spices. Go back two spaces.
Slide through sauce trail.
Oops… Slipped on a lettuce leaf. Go back to start.
Sauce too chunky. Go back to start. You made the perfect pulled pork. Move up two spaces.
Brisket overcooked. Lose a turn.
Ribs made judges swoon. Move up three spaces.
Got in a fight with your crew. Go back to start.
Slipped on sauce. Go back to start.
Illegal use of a garnish. Go back two spaces.
Reason No. 11
Barbecue or Marriage?
Words Sherry Kuehl
True Confessions: Barbecue Almost Broke Up My Marriage
Lee’s Summit newlywed Megan Day had a big problem. She feared she was losing her husband. All the signs were there that her spouse, Jason, might be sharing his affections.
He was gone for entire weekends. When he was home, he seemed preoccupied and distant. Even worse, Megan knew the siren seducing her husband. She had begged him to give up his other relationship while they planned their wedding. She said everything seemed OK until the weekend they got back from their honeymoon — yes, the very weekend — when Jason brazenly returned to his other love.
Megan, not one to give up or give in, decided she had no choice but to fight for her marriage. She did what she had to do and joined her husband in the smoky pits. This intrepid bride, in the name of love, embraced the world of competitive barbecue. She even made, perhaps, the ultimate marital sacrifice: letting her husband thaw frozen pigs in their bathtub.
Fast forward a few anniversaries and Megan and Jason are now a formidable team in marriage and barbecue. There’s been a New York Times best-selling barbecue book and an online marketplace of their barbecue goodies. The couple competing under the name Burnt Finger BBQ is consistently killing it on the competition circuit.
The sauce on top of the brisket was when Megan recently won Round 1 of the Food Network’s Chopped Grill Masters with offerings that had the judges rhapsodizing.
Even the arrival of two children hasn’t slowed this ‘cue couple down. Their son, Hank, went to his first competition when he was mere 3 weeks old. Now 4, he’s already competing and winning. This past summer he was awarded Reserve Grand Champion for his pork chops. (That’s right; preschoolers are cooking. What’s your excuse now for ordering in?)
Megan says her daughter, Meredith, who’s 3, is also showing signs of being a barbecue tour de force.
“She’s tough and already into spices and rubs and is jealous when her little brother gets to compete,” Megan says.
It might the smoked pulled pork talking, but I think I smell a barbecue family dynasty in the works.
Reason No. 12
Our 'Cue Kids are Cuter
Hank Day working on a rib teething ring.
Reason No. 13
Because Barbecue, I Just Can't Quit You
Words Sherry Kuehl
Barbecue power couple Loren and Cheryl Hill are dedicated competitors.
Loren Hill tried. Boy, did he try, but no matter what other hobby he got into, the siren song of competition barbecue was just too strong. He kept on getting pulled back in.
Hill says he started competition barbecuing back in the ‘90s with his brother, and he will, without shame, admit that they were “awful.”
“We drank a lot of beer and had a really good time, but we were not good at it, at all,” Hill says.
Not even the action-packed world of stock car racing could cure his competitive ‘cue affliction. He says there’s just nothing that compares to barbecue.
“No kidding, while I was racing stock cars I would go visit friends at barbecue competitions, and it would just call to me,” he says.
Things got serious in 2006. That’s when Hill reentered barbecue circuit, and this time he had a secret weapon: his wife, Cheryl. Competing under the name "The Smoking Hills," the couple has proven to be a formidable team — with 19 Grand Championships and 21 Reserve Grand Championships and counting.
The highlight Loren says was winning $100,000 in the World of Food Championships.
Now, more than a decade and almost 300 barbecue competitions later, this duo is still not burned out on the ‘cue circuit, even though they travel across the country competing from California to Florida and points in between. Cheryl, who still works full-time, says this year they’ll probably end up going to 30 competitions.
The Hills, when pressed for what their secret to winning is, would only say one word: consistency.
Reason No. 14
Even Vegans Can Eat Our BBQ
Words Kate baxendale
No, that’s not a dinosaur egg. It’s jackfruit, a relative of figs that grows in tropical areas of Southeast Asia, Brazil and Africa. Its flesh is similar in color to a cantaloupe, but the texture is meaty like chicken or pork. Jackfruit has a mild flavor, so it easily absorbs any seasonings or sauces it’s mixed with.
Edward Watts, owner of Peaceful Pig Vegan BBQ, offers a vegan “pulled pork” sandwich made of smoked jackfruit. He buys the organic fruit from a farm in Sri Lanka. To make a vegan barbecue sandwich, the jackfruit is cut in half (this takes a bit of elbow grease, as the thick, spiky exterior is fairly tough) and the pits are separated from the flesh. Then it’s shredded just like chicken or pork. To make the sweet fruit savory, Watts adds a dry rub and fries it. Then the fruit is wood-smoked and mixed with tomato-based sauce. Peaceful Pig has three sauces: original, sweet mustard and spicy.
Watts, being a vegan himself, decided to introduce vegan barbecue to Kansas City after years of struggling to find vegan options when dining out. He began working on this concept two years ago and launched Peaceful Pig as a food cart in June. The cart, which is towed with his car, holds about 150 sandwiches that are prepared in a commercial kitchen. And you better act fast, because once they’re gone, they’re gone. Watts also offers a “burnt ends” sandwich made with organic portabella mushrooms. The mushrooms are slathered in a dry rub, fried and smoked, then Watts blasts them with a blowtorch to give them a nice char. To find out where Peaceful Pig will be next, visit facebook.com/peacefulpigveganbbq.
Reason No. 15
Because We Have Music to 'Cue To
words Kate Baxendale
We encourage at-home pitmasteres to choose a bangin' soundtrack while those ribs are smoking low and slow. Lucky for you, legendary alto saxophonist Bobby Watson recorded The Gates BBQ Suite with the help ofUMKC Conservatory's Concert Jazz Orchestra. The seven0part suite is an ode to Watson's hometown of KC, and, of course barbecue. The self-produced "labor of love" is packed with soulful rhythm, funky bass lines and surging horns. With hits like "Beef on Bun," "The President's Tray" and "Heavy on the Sauce!" you'll be firing up the grill — and tapping your feet — in no time.
Reason No. 16
Because We Do Meat Math
Ever wonder just how much meat was being cooked at last month's American Royal? 435's intrepid barbecue experts weighed in.
32,8000 pounds of pork
+ 31,160 pounds of beef
+ 16,400 pounds of chicken
+41,000 pounds of ribs
= 121 pounds of meat
That's enough to fill 20,226 picnic tables with barbecue!
Reason No. 17
Because We're Snooty (Kind Of)
Words Ardie Davis
Have you ever thought to yourself, “Wow, I’d like to really chow down on a pig snoot sandwich”?
I’m going to guess that your answer to that question is most likely a great big no, but just in case you’re curious about going nose-to-nose with swine, here’s the lowdown on pig snoot which, believe it or not, has a growing culinary fan base.
- Pig snoot is not a sanctioned meat category by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, but KCBS President and self-proclaimed pig snoot fan Mark Simmons says you could enter a pig snoot in an ancillary barbecue category.
- Pig snoot aficionados describe the meat as “bacon’s awesome cousin” with “really tasty fat.”
- More pig snoots are sold in St. Louis than Kansas City.
- The nutritional breakdown of pig snoots is: 30 grams of protein, 19 percent fat, 4 percent fiber and 300 calories
- The Tenderloin Grill on Southwest Boulevard offers a boiled snoot sandwich.
- Pig “snooters” say the best way to enjoy a pig snoot sandwich is to slather on the mustard, horseradish, hot sauce, tomato and onion. A cold beer was also called a must-have.
Reason No. 18
Because This Is What We Call a Power Lunch
Words Allyson Wilson
Every month at 11:30 a.m. Johnny’s Bar-B-Que in Mission becomes the headquarters of a (not so) secret society barbecue lunch. Here, the secret handshake is a mouthwatering tray of ‘cue and a friendly smile (extra points if you order Ardie Davis’ piled-high pulled pork namesake, The Remus). Though its usual suspects are typically Kansas City Barbeque Society members like recent Chopped Grill Masters winner Megan Day and KCBS co-founder Carolyn Wells, creator John Ross designed the monthly gathering for ‘cue lovers of all kinds. At this monthly communion, you’ll rub shoulders and swap sauce with the likes of ‘cue aficionados and seasoned cooks to judges, competition barbecue teams and board members. So come one, come all, but most of all, come hungry. You’re with family now.
Reason No. 19
Maps Don't Lie