Bone-in rib sandwiches are a KC barbecue classic. Sadly, they’re disappearing

Illustrator: Allison Kerek Williams

There was a time, not so long ago, when you could still find rib sandwiches on menus around Kansas City.

Yes, real rib sandwiches — with ribs. One time, I told a doctor of my lunch plans at Bates City Bar-B-Que in Shawnee.

“After a sandwich like that, your next stop will be the dentist!” he said. That’s a typical reaction.

The rib sandwich is a product of the 1930s, when machine-sliced sandwich bread entered the mass market. Sandwich bread then, as now, was relatively cheap — as were ribs before they rose in popularity and price.

A 1928 column in the Emporia, Kansas, Gazette touted the barbecue rib sandwich as “a new American contribution to international cuisine,” thanks to an unnamed “wayside chef.” The writer also designated the barbecue rib sandwich as “men only” cuisine, “one of those hearty delicacies which delight the male palate.”

Bones spelled the demise of the rib sandwich. No man, regardless of how “manly” he is, can master eating a rib sandwich, bones and all. Wise to that fact, fast food restaurants, supermarkets and box stores have stoked consumer demands for boneless “rib” sandwiches. Thus, when customers accustomed to boneless sandwiches were handed a bones-in sandwich in old school barbecue restaurants, the universal reaction was, “How am I supposed to eat this?”

As pitmaster and owner of Bates City Bar-B-Que Tom Roberts says, customers would remark, “But this has bones in it!”

Of course it has bones in it — it’s a rib sandwich! What did you expect?

Although the rib sandwich is no longer on the menu at Bates City Bar-B-Que, you can order it off-menu. The Filling Station BBQ in Lee’s Summit is the only area barbecue restaurant I’ve found that has a bone-in rib sandwich on the menu.

Several local restaurants offer pork rib meat sandwiches, sans bones. RJ’s Bob-Be-Que Shack in Mission, for example, serves a tasty boneless pork sparerib meat sandwich on a toasted hoagie bun. RJ’s classic tomato-based barbecue sauces are at hand for your chosen level of complementary enhancement.  The Rib Lee sandwich at Papa Bob’s Bar-B-Que in Kansas City, Kansas, is an open-faced, sauced, boneless, all-rib-meat sandwich.

One impressive new boneless rib sandwich comes from Georgia native Clark Grant. Served at Hogshead KC on the Plaza, it’s a boneless half slab of baby back ribs smoked with cherry and pecan, then braised, glazed and slathered, then deboned and smoked again before being served on a hoagie roll with raw onions and pickle chips. Grant calls it the “mKCrib” sandwich.

Although the rib sandwich has faded from the spotlight and virtually disappeared from Kansas City barbecue restaurant menus, as long as there are ribs, bread and old school purists, it will endure. Barbecue aficionados who crave the old school primal rib sandwich have an easy solution at hand: Order three or four tender barbecue spare ribs (tough or burned ribs won’t work), sauced or not, and at least two slices of sandwich bread. Pull the meat off the bones, and place the meat between bread slices. Eat. It’s a hands-on, greasy, saucy experience not to be missed. Clean up with an ample supply of paper towels and wet wipes, or make your next stop the car wash instead of the dentist.

Categories: Food

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