Marshall Astor - Food Pornographer/flickr
When I joined the line at Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue in Kansas City on a recent Saturday afternoon, 75 people stood between me and the cash register. The queue snaked by a counter of Kools and Snickers and a rack of Hostess snack cakes before passing a plaque that announced Anthony Bourdain's declaration that Joe's—along with El Bulli and Per Se—is one of "13 Places to Eat Before You Die." The end of the line, where I stood, was just outside the door. The strongest smell came from the exhaust pipes of several cars filling up at four gas pumps.
There's nothing particularly strange about finding Kansas Citians lined up at a barbecue joint—even one that sits, quite literally, inside a gas station. What's odd is to find them waiting at any restaurant that isn't called Bryant's or Gates, the titans of Kansas City barbecue.
Smoked meat and its attendant fragrances have defined the city over the past century. Pitmasters from the South, mostly African-Americans, landed in Kansas City in the early 1900s to find a surplus of cheap beef from the city's meatpacking industry. Visiting radio announcers at the old Memorial Stadium could, as the story goes, smell the smoke from a string of joints along nearby 18th Street, and the gospel of Kansas City barbecue spread to listeners across the country.
The early success, Stehney admits, owes no small debt to its gas station location. ("Did the shtick help? You bet. We were the 'barbecue place in the gas station.'")
Hundreds of joints have popped up since, and some remain. But only the eponymous pair started by George Gates and Arthur Bryant have become mandatory presidential campaign stops: John McCain and Sarah Palin ate at Bryant's, and, in 2004, John Kerry declared Gates's ribs the best in America. They serve Gates at Chiefs games and Bryant's at the airport: many a traveler has been flummoxed by baggage restrictions while attempting to stow large bottles of sauce. When Arthur Bryant died, in 1982, the Kansas City Star ran a cartoon depicting him arriving at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter, looking rather desperate, asks: "Did you bring sauce?"
For years, opening a new barbecue joint here was a bit like starting a cheese steak stand in South Philly. That may be changing. Jeff Stehney, the owner of Oklahoma Joe's, had been a fixture on the amateur barbecue circuit when he took over the space inside a Shamrock gas station in 1996, but he had never run his own restaurant. He knew the difficulty of challenging the barbecue establishment—"If I could eat one meal before I die, it'd be a beef and fries at Bryant's"—but, somewhat remarkably, his restaurant has thrived: Stehney opened a second one in 2005. It now outsells the original.
"We may not pass Gates or Bryant's," Stehney says, sitting in his office adjacent to the gas station. "But you're going to see a 'Big Four' in Kansas City."
The early success, Stehney admits, owes no small debt to its gas station location. ("Did the shtick help? You bet. We were the 'barbecue place in the gas station.'") The fourth member of Stehney's meat quartet, Fiorella's Jack Stack, needed a similar boost. For 30 years, Jack Stack was an established family brand in the city's southern suburbs, existing beyond the urban reach of Gates or Bryant's. Even with an ardent following, Jack Stack was nervous about entering such a crowded market. Then it found an underserved niche: brisket as fine dining.
At its location in the Crossroads Arts District, next to Lidia Bastianich's first restaurant outside New York, I was greeted by two hostesses in all black and was seated at a wooden table set with maroon cloth napkins and glassware. A medieval-looking chandelier dominated the vaulted wooden ceiling (Joe's has a roll of paper towels at each table, and a fiberglass drop ceiling stained more brown than white). The waitress, also in black, recommended a Shiraz from the wine list to go with the beef ribs. Though Jack Stack's meat compares well with any in the city, barbecue purists look with disdain on the menu's breadth: you can find Atlantic salmon and a spinach salad tossed with toasted pecans, feta, strawberries, and a sweet vinaigrette.
"I sell as much wine as beer," our waitress insisted, before admitting she "can go two or three days without selling a seafood dish."
Sit-down barbecue, the norm on the coasts, is still an oddity in Kansas City. At most joints, like Joe's, diners pick up a tray, wait in line, and grab drinks from a soda fountain. But the upscale strategy seems to be working: Jack Stack has added three new restaurants, all in posh neighborhoods.
"We see ourselves more as a great restaurant that happens to specialize in barbecue," says Case Dorman, the restaurant's co-owner.
In line at Joe's, a straw poll found that most diners grew up on Bryant's and Gates, but have since switched loyalties. Jeff Stehney perfected Joe's pulled pork, its signature dish, in amateur barbecue contests, and the walls of his restaurant are covered with first place ribbons. The gas station décor gave him just enough local cred to get Joe's off the ground—just as Jack Stack's crystal glasses give it a high-end sheen—but now the food speaks for itself. On an average Saturday, Stehney serves 1,000 of his Z-Man sandwiches: a mound of brisket lathered in sauce and topped with an onion ring and melted provolone.
Matt Payne, a local, was in front of me in the lunchtime line at Joe's, which he visits several times a month. He had planned to try something new, but ended up ordering his usual: a pulled pork sandwich with an order of Joe's seasoned fries. He took his tray to a seat by the window, where he could watch the cars fill up and another set of diners wait.
"I grew up with Gates," said Payne, "but this is the best. And not for the ambience."