KC BBQ 3.0 Is Here

kansas city bbq

I moved back to Kansas City in 2017 and to my delight, my favorite BBQ spots were still here and just as good as I remembered. Gates, Jack Stack, LC’s, Char Bar and the like were still top of the heap. Just like old times. As the years went on, though, I still found myself disappointed at the lack of new material. Nothing new had emerged with the exception of a couple niche places here and there.

It was the same rotation. Jack Stack, Char Bar, Gates, LC’s, Bryant’s. Maybe honor the days of yore with a trip out to Rosedale or BB’s Lawnside.

Like people clung to the Big Eight nostalgia of Kemper Arena and overrated “curb-to-gate” terminals at KCI for way too long, we were clinging to a BBQ establishment that was still quite good, but nowhere near where it should have been. 

If the standard of Kansas City is the best ‘que on the planet, then the standard should be the best on the planet, not the best to whatever schlub is in town getting the soul sucked out of him at a Cerner site visit.

KC BBQ was the aging core of a once dominant dynasty. Yeah, we were still making the playoffs every year, but we’re always getting bounced before the conference finals. Other places were taking their best and making it even better.

At least, that’s what it seemed like. BBQ America’s top prospects list just came out and KC’s farm system is loaded with top-end talent. Saturday pop-ups, food trucks, weekend smokers are beginning to dominate the town that beef built and my initial reports of KC’s BBQ stagnation are greatly exaggerated.

We are in the gestation period of a BBQ revolution in Kansas City and we’re five centimeters dilated. Let’s deliver this beautiful meat baby. (The afterbirth was sautéed mushrooms!)

Harp BBQ (Raytown)

I was shocked when I saw that the line wrapped around the entire Crane Brewing building in Raytown at 10:30 A.M. Raytown seems like the last place you would want to be at 10:30 A.M. on a Saturday; but this would be worth it. The last time I waited this long in line for food was at Franklin BBQ in Austin. After an hour and a half, I walked away with that all-too-familiar glorious shining aluminum to-go container full of fatty brisket, sausage, pork belly burnt ends, potato salad and beans.

Blown away. Absolutely blown away.

The brisket at Harp is exactly what brisket should be: a sopping wet cut of perfectly rendered prime beef with a deeply pleasurable, juicy, tender bite that virtually liquifies in your mouth. The beef is drenched in salty, smoky, Texas-style flavor and dripping with rich, fatty moisture. Traditional KC BBQ joints slather their brisket in sauce and sweet rubs that dry out the beef, making it a flaky, dry, over-smoked prime cut of beef leaving me flustered and angry that i ordered it in the first place. I’d venture to say KC has never done beef well (with the exception of burnt ends, of course) until now.

Our lackluster brisket was once our city’s greatest BBQ sin, but salvation now lies in Raytown.

Harp is a glorious marriage of Texas and KC style, but Texas’s family paid for the wedding. It starts with brisket and continues with boudin sausages, pork belly burnt ends, ribs and elite savory sides. Tyler Harp’s weekend smokehouse in Eastern Jackson County is the top of the class in KC BBQ 3.0 and is on his way to becoming KC’s version of Aaron Franklin.

Tyler’s story is an incredible one too. He started slinging briskets out of his driveway in 2017 and now he’s turned it into one of the most well-known craft barbeque establishments in the country. Highly recommend this interview he did on Kevin’s BBQ Joints podcast where he goes into detail about his background and story.

Scott’s Kitchen (North KC)

After a season-opening 94 and eight beers at Tiffany Greens, I felt the call of meat. After a net par on 11 that I counted as a birdie, I remembered Scott’s Kitchen was just five minutes away from Tiffany. The Northland, baby.

My buddy and I crushed a platter ($37 for the sheer amount of food was a fantastic deal) of brisket, sausage, chicken thighs, wings, burnt ends, cheesy potatoes, spicy apple slaw, potato salad (I have no problem doubling up on potatoes like a good Irish boy. Cooked, mashed, saladed or otherwise) and beans. Scott’s nails that good sweet, smoky, spicy flavor of Kansas City while riffing on the wonderfully unique flavor of Alabama white sauce on chicken. They’ve also got a habanero sauce that will burn the living hell out of your guts and make the next day absolutely miserable, but it is worth the pain. The chicken, sausage and sides here stole the show.

There may have been a little post-golf bias included in here because I could eat a shoe after 18 and it’d probably taste decent. I was proven wrong when I returned to the scene of the crime weeks later.

Chef J BBQ (West Bottoms)

Some people might think that eating alone is sad, but that’s really only because you make up a sad scenario in your head about said person eating alone. To the folks who saw me eating alone at Chef J’s a few Saturdays ago, I can assure you there was no sadness to be found. A 34-year-old man eating a three-meat tray of BBQ by himself on a Saturday morning may seem depressing, but I could not have been happier in the moment. Top notch brisket with that savory, salty, peppery, fatty bite that gives way to juicy smoked meat. Another under-appreciated sausage experience. A great BBQ place has to have great brisket and great sausage or else it isn’t truly great. Great ribs too, even though I am not wild about spare ribs. Sometimes I get so amped up on the ‘que that I’ll just rip off a piece of cartilage and not even know it. Ain’t fun. Great sides, desserts and a killer Carolina Gold sauce that pairs well with everything.

Porky’s Smokin’ BBQ (Grain Valley)

I heard about Porky’s from a few Eastern Jackson County friends. Great ambience. It’s at the end of Colbern Road, which is technically the end of Bannister Road, which is technically the end of 95th Street. So you’re literally where the road ends.

Skip the beef here. It’s unfortunately the traditional trimmed “prime cut” Kansas City style brisket, which is to say that it’s dry, flaky and needs to be drowned in sauce to salvage it. Fortunately, my disappointment ended there. This place does pork incredibly well. The pulled pork sweetly melts in your mouth. The ribs were sweet, smoky and perfectly seasoned.

The sides were your standard picnic fare of mayo-based potato salad and syrupy, smoky baked beans, but the real thing that put it over the top for me was the Barq’s Red Creme soda on tap. That is the rarest of roses and if a BBQ place has that on their soda fountain, I have no choice but to take them seriously. This place was the typical KC BBQ joint style that follows the Gates and Zarda style, but they did pork incredibly well. Beef…not so much. We’ll let it slide because the pork was that good. Don’t go out here expecting a life-changing experience. Do go in there expecting fine folks serving tasty smoked meats out of an old country store.

My list grows by the week. Left on the list: Jones BBQ, Jousting Pigs in Liberty, Night Goat. I’m also going back to Chef J’s for his barbacoa Sundays at some point because I am a spicy boi and I’ll return to Harp someday soon because it was just that fucking good.

We are in the third turning of Kansas City’s barbeque tradition. An epic story that’s weaved its way through time and millions of colons around the globe. We’ve got a lot to look forward to, because the new generation of pitmasters in KC are about as talented as we’ve seen. A generation of obsessed backyard smokers along with decorated new wave competition champions is building a competitive, collaborative environment that hasn’t been seen since Oklahoma Joe’s, Char Bar and Q39 took over at the turn of the century.

I am as endlessly optimistic for the future of KC BBQ as I am deeply proud of its past.