Fri 12 Dec 2008
For Elizabeth, our annual holiday trips to visit her family in Kansas City just aren’t complete without lunch at Andres’. Me? I need the ‘cue. Ever since I started taking the trip with her, I’ve had a bit of a barbecue obsession.
And although her family has been at this far longer than I have, giving them ample opportunity to determine just which local barbecue joint is the best, I’ve been working on coming to my own conclusion. Over the Thanksgiving holiday this year, I got to check out two more versions of the local specialty.
First, I turned my attention to a rarity: a nationally-praised barbecue establishment that the family had not yet tried: LC’s. Afterwards, I joined the family in a barbecue run to Gates & Sons, a local chain with six locations. As I’m quickly learning, the odds of finding that one true barbecue nirvana are pretty slim - it seems like every place I try has something to recommend it over its competitors.
Tasting notes and photos after the jump.
Back in May (shortly before my annual barbecue fundraising event), Details magazine put out a feature on “the Best Barbecue in America.” They avoided the apples-to-oranges comparisons that frequently doom an attempt to compare the best Kansas City offers to the best of the other barbecue traditions and to somehow crown a ‘winner’ among the different styles. Instead, they highlighted one or two of the best barbecue joints in each of the major ‘cue capitals as well as a few other places like Decatur, Alabama, and San Francisco.
I was surprised to see they only named one restaurant in Kansas City. I was more surprised to realize it was a place I had never even heard of. I knew that this year’s visit would require a trip to this carne incognito. The day after Thanksgiving, Elizabeth and I set out to find LC’s on Blue Highway. A 25-minute drive (not especially long in spread-out Kansas City) brought us to the eastern outskirts of the city, and we could smell the barbecue from four blocks away.
LC’s is basically a restaurant built around a massive smoker – just the way a barbecue joint should be. One wall is decorated with hunting and fishing trophies, and at a table against the wall sits LC himself, a man whose demeanor and appearance suggest he knows a thing or two about barbecue.
It’s not an unfriendly place, by any means, but there’s nothing (besides the smoky-sweet smell) to encourage lingering. You order, you eat, you leave. But you leave satisfied. Especially if you order the brisket. The article suggested that beef was their specialty – unusual (but not unique) in Kansas City, where most smokers crank out pork ribs more than anything else. So we ordered a half-rack of the ribs and a brisket sandwich, figuring we’d check out the specialty as well as the Kansas City staple, and we took a seat at a table adorned with a roll and a half of paper towels instead of napkins.
Our food came quickly, pulled directly from the huge smoker with ‘LC’ soldered onto the doors and carved to order. We breathed in the combination of the wood smoke and the sauce, which had an unexpected (but welcome) tang. While Elizabeth took the first bites from the half-rack of ribs, I picked up some of the well-sauced brisket sandwich and tried to maneuver it to my mouth without dropping its contents into my lap. Eating this ‘sandwich’ (really a mound of brisket between two soggy and rapidly failing slices of bread) quickly devolved into process of picking up the meat itself with my fingers.
The flavors were great, with a barbecue sauce that complemented the meat instead of overpowering it. You could really taste the difference between the ribs (pork) and the brisket (beef) even after both were covered in a generous amount of sauce. I have to give them credit for serving their meats the way the Kansas City Barbecue Society taught me to judge: the ribs don’t fall off the bone, but the meat pulls away easily when you bite into it, and you can even see the beads of perspiration ‘sweat’ out of the newly-exposed bone before drawing back in. The brisket was cut beautifully, slicing across the grain and allowing for pieces that had some elasticity without being tough and chewy.
After this experience, I could definitely appreciate the praise that LC’s has received in the national media, but I’m still a bit surprised that they were singled out over every other establishment in the city. I was especially impressed with the brisket and the burnt ends (an order of which we brought back for the family to sample), because Kansas City isn’t really as well known for its beef barbecue. The ribs were good, but there are just so many places that have ‘good’ ribs that they really need to be amazing to stand out. I’d go back to LC’s in a heartbeat – definitely a top 5 experience - but there are other places closer to where Elizabeth’s family lives that fall into that category, as well.
In fact, soon after we returned home from LC’s, visiting relatives expressed a desire for barbecue lunch instead of leftover turkey. Tthey weren’t alone – we had to postpone our visit to the original Arthur Bryant’s because the line was out the door and down the block. So we piled into a van and headed for Gates and Sons, one of the nearest establishments to their home.
Gates is a Kansas City institution, dating back to 1946, and their six locations carry on the family tradition admirably. They’ve got everything you’re looking for when it comes to barbecue – beef, pork, turkey, chicken, you name it. They’ve even got Kansas City rarities like smoked ham and mutton. If you’re indecisive (or just hungry) they can put together a mixed plate of three or more meats for you that is sure to satisfy.
But Gates has a distinctive flavor, to say the least. The rub that they use on their ribs is powerful, peppery stuff. It calls out for sauce - which is a good thing considering how popular the nationally-available Gates Bar-B-Q sauces are. The original is tangy-sweet, with a nice blend of vinegar and molasses. The spicy is great, but it’s almost too much when coupled with the spicy rub already on the meat. And the sweet and mild has that laid-back profile that most people associate with Kansas City ‘cue.
The ribs are tasty, but mine were a bit on the overdone side, practically falling off the bone. Better was the sliced pork sandwich, which had just the right amount of fat and which held together all the way to the last bite.
Of the two establishments we visited this time around, I would definitely have to give the edge to LC’s. But here’s the conundrum that I mentioned at the beginning of the post: some of Elizabeth’s relatives absolutely love the mixed plates from Gates, and the sandwich was definitely a winner. So if you want the best possible barbecue meal in Kansas City, you may need to be willing to mix and match – a brisket here (LC’s), a slab of ribs there (Oklahoma Joe’s), beans from someplace else (Smokestack, according to Elizabeth’s mother).
Sounds like my kind of meal.
5800 Blue Parkway
Kansas City, MO 64129
Gates & Sons Bar-B-Q
Multiple Locations – we hit W. 103rd and State Line
Shawnee Mission, KS 66206