June 05, 2021

A Beginner's Guide To Kansas City Barbecue

In the heart of America’s Great Plains lies its capital of barbecue. Learn a little more about Kansas City’s long tradition of low and slow cooking.

Kansas City, Missouri—the crossroads of America, Hallmark world headquarters, our Paris of the Plains. New Orleans may have given birth to jazz, America’s classical music, but it took a ride up the rivers and came of age in Kansas City. And so much for ESPN’s notorious “East Coast bias” limiting sports coverage to the Northeast Corridor—Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs blew records to smithereens in the heart of what others might derisively call “flyover country,” putting KC back on the map to stay.

Jazz, sports, and greeting cards are all well and good, but if anything should put Kansas City on the map, it has to be the food. KC-style barbecue is one of Mid-America’s true treasures—one to savor and emulate yourself. Whether you’ve set an ETA for KCI or you’re out to recreate Gates from the comfort of your backyard, this beginner’s guide to Kansas City barbecue will help prepare you for the flavors of the Heart of America.

What Makes KC-Style “KC-Style,” Anyway?

Don’t be fooled by the bottles of KC Masterpiece at the grocery store—Kansas City barbecue is about much more than pouring a bottle of sauce on some meat. America is a patchwork quilt of regional barbecue styles, all of which have their fierce advocates who double as other regions’ detractors. Don’t try to extol the virtues of a Memphis dry rub to a sauce-slathering Kansas Citian, who, in turn, would probably not have kind words for the mustard and vinegar that dress Carolina barbecue. Kansas City, that cow town of the Great Plains, is just as crazy for beef as it is for pork, and tying all the proteins together is the sauce: a tomato-and-molasses blend with a healthy bite.

Gates vs. Arthur Bryant’s

Kansas City is a tale of two states—the better-known KC is on the Missouri side, while Kansas City, Kansas, or KCK, lies just over the state line. It’s also a tale of two barbecue establishments, which, too, elicit passionate partisanship among their customers. “Gates or Arthur Bryant’s?” is the million-dollar question that any barbecue aficionado will ask. Arthur Bryant’s, a classic hole-in-the-wall establishment, is renowned for the quality of its meat, with a spicy sauce that brings out the flavor without overwhelming it. Gates, with locations across the Kansas City area, features a sauce its customers swear by. There’s really no wrong answer to this question.

Burnt Ends

Our beginner’s guide to Kansas City barbecue must highlight one specific dish. When it comes to KC ‘cue, it’s all about the burnt ends. They’re the edges of beef briskets, deeply smoked, seasoned, and soaked in sauce, all served atop unapologetically unpretentious white bread. Here, a byproduct of another cooking process became the real star. But in Kansas City, as in most of the American Midwest, n no one lets good food go to waste.

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