We like to explore around Arkansas, especially when it comes to exploring barbecue. As almost all states surrounding Arkansas have a strong barbecue tradition, it only seems right to discover where to eat and what to eat in Kansas City, generally considered one of four prominent barbecue styles—Carolina, Memphis, and Texas being the other three. Most midwesterners or southerners have a favorite style and there’s no convincing them otherwise. If you go to Kansas City, however, you’ll discover a new level of dedication to the city’s famous Kansas City barbecue. After exploring Kansas City, we’ve determined the top 3 places you need to visit when you visit Kansas City (and you should).
Walking into Arthur Bryant’s, you can quickly feel the history within the restaurant. From unassuming formica tables and florescent lighting, Arthur Bryant’s is simple and unadorned, except for the walls. Covered in signed photos of a number of famous visitors, the walls include photos of President Truman, Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, Jimmy Carter, Jack Nicholson, President Obama and many more. This history is ever present as their photos stare down on you while waiting in line to choose your meats and sides.
Though the famous tend to flock to Arthur Bryant’s, this Kansas City restaurant is also known as the first barbecue restaurant in Kansas City, starting from an alley stand in 1908. Only moving three times in their century-old history (from a trolley barn, to 18th and Euclid, and finally to 1727 Brooklyn), Arthur Bryant’s has remained in their present location since 1958. Arthur Bryant’s has also remained in the family a similarly long time, starting with the originator Henry Perry and Charlie Bryant. At Perry’s death, the restaurant passed to Charlie Bryant and his brother Arthur in 1940. After being declared “possibly the single best restaurant in the world,” by renowned New-Yorker author Calvin Trillin in 1974, its status as a legend was secured.
Arthur Bryant’s considers their role to be a guardian of the Kansas City barbecue tradition, working to maintain the integrity of the barbecue and the history behind it. As the sauce and smoking methods stay authentic, you really are partaking in history when you bite into Kansas City’s famous burnt ends, pioneered first by Arthur Bryant’s.
Arthur Bryant’s is known for burnt ends, the edges of the fattier corners of brisket; however, these burnt ends have changed over time to accommodate the masses of people demanding burnt ends. As there’s only a limited amount of burnt ends on every brisket, the burnt ends come out as cubed and succulent pieces of brisket dripping in Bryant’s Rich and Spicy sauce, a bit sweeter than the original sauce and with more tomato flavor than most Kansas City sauces. Served on white bread and with a seemingly unending amount of fries (if you want), it’s a delicious reminder of Kansas City’s history and still reigns as some of the best barbecue in Kansas City.
Q39 is not the newest barbecue restaurant in Kansas City—barbecue restaurants pop up almost monthly in Kansas City, where the city boasts the most barbecue restaurants per capita in the US—but is the newest to top most local’s lists as their favorite barbecue restaurant. Tucked away on popular 39th street, a dining destination, it opened to acclaim in 2014 and picked up steam in the following years since. It’s also a unique take on the Kansas City barbecue tradition because Rob Magee, owner and head chef, is a classically trained chef and not from Kansas City.
Starting in competition barbecue early on in his career, he and his team, the Munchin Hogs, ascended to the highest level of competitive barbecue and won an array of national championship awards, with medals and trophies scattered throughout their 39th street location. Even without the typical start to barbecue and his culinary degree, Kansas Citians don’t hold that against him. At any day and most times, you’ll find Q39 packed full of locals and tourists alike. Now, most people wait up to 2 hours to get in without a reservation at dinner hours.
Q39 has a few special items to their menu, including the burnt end burger, a ground brisket burger topped with Kansas City’s favorite claim to fame, burnt ends. Dripping in classic sauce and spicy pickle slaw, it’s one of the best burgers in Kansas City. Other popular choices are the combo plates and the ribs. The ribs are intensely juicy, sweet, and incredibly addicting. With any choice, we implore you to try their coleslaw. Referred to as “Apple Coleslaw,” this coleslaw is without a doubt the best in the city, using apples as a crisp and sweet addition to the creamy coleslaw. With 3 delicious choices of BBQ sauce (some of the best you’ll ever taste), Q39 has cornered the market on the best new barbecue in town.
Lastly, we come to the most popular destination for barbecue in Kansas City: Joe’s. Originally known as Oklahoma Joe’s, this world-famous restaurant is known for great barbecue—served out of a gas station. In 1990, Jeff and Joy Stehney first saw their love affair with barbecue blossom at a barbecue competition event. They quickly formed a barbecue team and called it the Slaughterhouse Five, going on to win some of the most prestigious barbecue competitions in the country.
As Jeff and Joy continued their competition team (and their restaurant, Oklahoma Joe’s, with a partner out of Stillwater, Oklahoma), they noticed their little neighborhood gas station in Kansas City go out of business. There was a small fried chicken counter inside—and they realized it would be the perfect venue for their barbecue. They opened Joe’s Kansas City Barbecue in August 1996.
After that, the legend of Joe’s barbecue grew, most famously by being touted as one of “13 Places to Eat Before You Die” by Anthony Bourdain of No Reservations. He gives them a glowing recommendation: “It’s the best BBQ in Kansas City, which makes it the best BBQ in the world.” With many awards, articles, and happy customers before and since then, Joe’s is well-known as the best barbecue in Kansas City and the world. Most days, Joe’s is packed. Some days, you’ll be waiting for hours in a line wrapped around the small, still-functioning gas station.
For what to eat, the Z-Man is the most popular sandwich, also touted as one of the sandwiches to eat before you die by Thrillist and famously beloved by comedian Jim Gaffigan. With sliced brisket, smoked provolone cheese, a couple of onion rings and Joe’s BBQ sauce on a Kaiser roll, it’s the most popular sandwich for a good reason. Joe’s is also famous for its fries (also insanely delicious) and their ribs. But, there’s really nothing you can get at Joe’s that won’t leave you wanting more.
Kansas City barbecue is all about dedication to the city’s proudest barbecue tradition. Don’t leave the city without trying Joe’s, Q39, or Arthur Bryant’s. However, if you try one, you’ll be hard pressed to leave without trying another.