Kansas City is one of America’s great BBQ destinations, and you don’t need to be a self-proclaimed “foodie” to understand why.
This city is famous for its sweet tomato-and-molasses-based sauce, poured on everything from pulled pork sandwiches and beef and pork ribs to smoked chicken and turkey. Burnt ends—flavor-packed nuggets cut from the end of smoked brisket and slathered in the tangy sauce—are a local favorite, and no platter is complete without a side of spicy-sweet baked beans. If your mouth is already watering (like mine is) don’t read on. Just get in your car and go. Now.
Kansas City traces its barbecue history to Henry Perry, who operated out of a trolley barn at 19th and Highland in the legendary African-American neighborhood around 18th and Vine. In 1908 Perry arrived in Kansas City from Shelby County, Tennessee (near Memphis) and began serving slow-cooked ribs on pages of newsprint for 25 cents a slab. Kansas City and Memphis barbecue styles are very similar, although Kansas City tends to use more sauce and a wider variety of meats. Perry’s sauce had a somewhat harsh, peppery flavor. Perry’s restaurant became a major cultural point during the heyday of Kansas City Jazz during the “wide-open” days of Tom Pendergast in the 1920s and 1930s.
Today, every type of barbecued meat you’d find served in other U.S. BBQ cities is also served in Kansas City-area barbecue restaurants. Burnt ends are much in demand, but restaurants will smoke just about everything from pulled pork to brisket to beef ribs and pork ribs in a number of different cuts, not to mention chicken, turkey, lamb, sausage and sometimes even fish.
Kansas City barbecue is rubbed with spices, slow-smoked over a variety of woods (usually hickory) and served with a thick tomato-based barbecue sauce, which is an integral part of KC-style barbecue. Most local restaurants and sauce companies offer several varieties with sweet, spicy and tangy flavor profiles, but the staple sauce tends to be both sweet (often from molasses) and spicy. Kansas City barbecue is also known for its many side dishes, including a unique style of baked beans, French fries, coleslaw, and other Southern staples.
The Kansas City metropolitan area has more than 100 barbecue restaurants, a number of which are nationally renowned. The area is also home to several large barbecue cooking contests, notably the Great Lenexa BBQ Battle (in June) and the American Royal World Series of Barbecue (in September). The American Royal is billed as “the world’s largest barbecue and Kansas City’s biggest party.”
It may go without saying, but Kansas Citians take their barbecue VERY seriously. The city is home to the world’s largest organization of barbecue and grilling enthusiasts, the Kansas City Barbeque Society with over 13,000 members. The group helps to produce nearly 300 barbecue contests across the U.S. each year. Their mission is to “celebrate, teach, preserve and promote barbeque as a culinary technique, sport and art form.”
If you do plan a visit, check out the complete A-Z list of Kansas City-area barbecue restaurants and food trucks. But be sure to pay a visit to century-old Arthur Bryant’s, which Calvin Trillin once declared “the best restaurant in the world,” and the original Oklahoma Joe’s which you’ll find uniquely situated inside a gas station. You’ll also find Joe’s on the Kansas Metro Map.