KANSAS CITY, Mo. - I learned an important lesson from a food blogger in Kansas City: Talking about barbecue in these parts may involve "fightin' words."
Case in point: When I mentioned on Facebook that I was heading to Kansas City, one friend sent me to Arthur Bryant's barbecue restaurant, quoting Calvin Trillin's famous line that Bryant's was possibly "the single best restaurant in the world." But another friend declared Bryant's sauce "gross."
Meanwhile, the blogger, Mary Bloch, along with a local acquaintance, confirmed that Bryant's has earned its kudos across the decades and remains one of the best barbecue places in town. But both felt that its top-dog status has been eclipsed by others, including Oklahoma Joe's, Fiorella's Jack Stack, Danny Edwards and Gates.
But what do I know about barbecue? I'm a tourist from New York, where fightin' words are reserved for bagels, and barbecue is often disappointing. I was with my sister on our first-ever visit to Kansas City — which included classic tourist stops like the Nelson-Atkins Museum and Blue Room jazz club — so we opted for the old-school legend and headed to Bryant's.
To further prove my ignorance about the Kansas City barbecue scene, I even called ahead for reservations. I have great respect for the person who answered and didn't hang up laughing. Instead he paused and said, politely, "We accept walk-ins."
They sure do. As we drove nearer, I wondered if we were lost. There wasn't much nearby and the brick building it's in looks like a forgotten warehouse. We stepped inside and realized why they don't take reservations: It's one room, cafeteria-style, with a line and counter in the back where you order, and a few tables scattered in front.
But I like holes in the wall as much as I like icons. And Bryant's is "both the icon and the hole in the wall," said Bloch, who writes the AroundtheBlockKC.com food blog and the Kansas City Star Restaurant Guide.
Either way, it was obvious that other diners were loving their food, chowing down and licking their chops over plates piled high with meat. We might not have ordered the turkey sandwich, but a tableful of construction workers raved about it. We also ordered a pound of mixed meat — ham, brisket and ribs — plus coleslaw, potato salad and beans. Call us ignorant New Yorkers, but we absolutely loved it — except for the stack of white bread on the side, which we ignored. It was also way too much food, so we saved the leftovers for a next-day picnic. It was even yummy cold.
Bloch later told me that Bryant's is the undisputed "grandfather of all barbecue places in Kansas City." Its founders, Arthur and Charlie Bryant, were African-American brothers who worked for Henry Perry, the man who opened what's considered Kansas City's first barbecue stand in 1908. The Bryant brothers eventually took over the business, which moved in 1958 to its current location. Calvin Trillin, the humorist and food writer who was born in Kansas City in 1935, said Bryant's was also one of the city's few integrated restaurants when he was growing up. And it's a must-stop for politicians, having hosted everyone from Harry Truman to Sarah Palin to Barack Obama.
Bryant's has also long been a favourite among baseball fans. Municipal Stadium, which was home to a Negro Leagues team and later several Major League Baseball teams, was just a few blocks away. Municipal closed in 1972, but the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is close to Bryant's, as is the American Jazz Museum and the famous intersection of 18th and Vine, for decades the centre of a thriving African-American neighbourhood. Bloch says Bryant's still "gets a line out the door" before every game at Kauffman Stadium, which replaced Municipal, even though it's a 10-minute drive from Bryant's on Interstate 70. With the Kansas City Royals in the World Series this year, business at Bryant's is likely to be robust.
If You Go...
ARTHUR BRYANT'S: 1727 Brooklyn Ave., Kansas City, Missouri; http://www.arthurbryantsbbq.com/ or 816-231-1123.