The New Kids on the Barbecue Circuit


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.

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Reeves Wiedeman does story research for The New Yorker.

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