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Kansas City BBQ

June 28, 2009|Catharine Hamm

reporting from kansas city, mo.

Please don't tell the family this, but they're not the only reason I return to Kansas City whenever I can. I love them, of course, but I can talk to them on the phone. We can e-mail. We can Twitter, for crying out loud.

But barbecue is something you have to do in person. And it is best done here in the Heartland. Sorry, Santa Maria, no disrespect to your juicy tri-tip. Forgive me, Lexington, N.C. Your pulled pork is fabulous. And a tip of the hat to you, Memphis. Ribs at the Rendezvous are always memorable.

But Kansas City has made an art of this science of slow-smoked meats. So when business brought me back for 36 hours last month, I knew I could partake at least five times if I didn't mind barbecue for a late breakfast. And I didn't, mostly. But I'll explain that in a minute.

What I want to explain now is how Kansas City became a barbecue mecca and why you're not going to hear me talk extensively about Arthur Bryant's or Gates.

The barbecue legend started with Henry Perry, who is said to have opened a barbecue shack in the early 1900s in downtown Kansas City, Mo. Perry had an employee named Charlie Bryant who eventually bought him out. Charlie Bryant had a brother named Arthur Bryant, who took over from Charlie, opening what writer Calvin Trillin called the best restaurant in the world: the self-named barbecue apex that's been at 18th and Brooklyn for a half-century or so.

Bryant's has it all: the feel of a joint that's just this side of grubby, the ribs that are just this side of heaven, which is where Arthur Bryant (and his brother and his brother's former boss) now reside, I am certain. Taste the ribs or the sliced meats (or get it to go in the butcher paper) and you cannot help but believe.

Gates, meanwhile, traces its roots back to George Gates, who also is said to have worked with Henry Perry. When you walk in the door of any Gates restaurant (there are six, including one up the street from Bryant's), you're greeted with, "Hi, may I help you?" which some people find off-putting and others find friendly. I am always a bit unnerved, because I'm usually having a mental tussle: Ribs? Burnt ends? Sliced beef sandwich?

There's really not a wrong answer. In nearly 20 years of Gates-going, I have never had anything less than fabulous, smoky, rich and tender.

So in this discussion of barbecue, let's put aside Bryant's and Gates, because you cannot top perfection.

But you can compete with it. And in this last trip (and two before it), I ate my approximate weight in barbecue just to see if I could find a contender or two.

If you're K.C.-bound this year -- and you'll find plenty to love about it if you are, including that prices for these feasts often run less than $15 a plate -- I offer these suggestions, old and new, fancy and not. My list is by no means complete, because there are said to be about 80 barbecue places here, although recent news reports suggest the economy may have finished off a few of them.

As you're planning your barbecue feast, remember that the Kansas City metro area is about 2,000 square miles, about half the size of the L.A. area with about a sixth as many people. That's a lot of ground -- less crowded ground but lots of it. Your choice in barbecue may depend on where you are and which style you prefer.

Also, before you begin your trek, you should know about the three distinct personalities of the areas we'll be visiting.

First, there's Kansas City, Mo. It's the big red dog, the place that was once wild and woolly, where machine politics and the Mafia proliferated. You wouldn't know it by looking at the mansions along Ward Parkway today, which are the height of elegance. KCMO may remind you of your niece who seems so lovely when she's around the grown-ups, then sneaks away to do the fandango at the local naughty place.

Then there's Kansas City, Kan., or KCK. It's sort of the stuttering second cousin to KCMO. It tries hard. Sometimes it succeeds, oftentimes it doesn't. It's not as large and not as prosperous as KCMO, but it does have some great barbecue.

And finally, there's Johnson County, Kan., or JoCo, which is neither of the above. It comprises several towns, has top-drawer schools and multimillion-dollar houses. It's been called cupcake land, but it also has plenty of barbecue, so that counters the accusation of suburban bland.

Depending on your taste, your temperament and your geographic meanderings, you'll find a place that suits you. Here, then, are some places from which the world should take its 'cue.

Fiorella's Jack Stack

If you're not in the mood for a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint but you are in the mood for Spanish Moorish architecture and many of the city's 200 fountains, choose the Jack Stack on the Country Club Plaza.

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