We chose to head to Kansas City on a holiday weekend, which didn’t turn out to be the best option for finding their legendary barbecue places open. Very few places were open on Sunday, and none were open on New Year’s Day. But we did manage to visit two of Kansas City’s most storied barbecue places.
We started with Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que (formerly Oklahoma Joe’s), on the Kansas side of the state line. It is the original location (there since 1996), in what is now a three-restaurant chain, and the Kansas City natives we talked to called it the best of the three. It adjoins a gas station (with the slowest pumps in America), which somehow the world famous restaurant hasn’t swallowed yet. But that’s part of the charm of really good barbecue joints. You’re not looking for good barbecue at the Ritz; sometimes the best comes from places with dirt floors manned by overweight men in lawn chairs, right?
I don’t want to give the wrong impression about Joe’s. It’s not dirty or seedy, but it is very homey. It occupies about three quarters of the building, and even the gas station section is overrun by souvenir shirts and barbecue sauce.
And of course, no one minds anyway. You won’t find anyone who has anything bad to say about Joe’s. In an article for Men’s Health, Anthony Bourdain called Joe’s “one of the 13 places you must eat before you die,” writing that Joe’s serves “the best BBQ in Kansas City, which makes it the best BBQ in the world.”
Now, Anthony Bourdain is a classically trained chef and an international star, and we’ve only been to two Kansas City barbecue restaurants. But we disagree with him.
It can’t be the best in the world, or the city, because it finished second of the two we tried.
It’s not like the other place was any slouch, though. Q39 Midtown is rated as the top barbecue joint in Kansas City by Yelp and by Tripadvisor (though, confusingly, Joe’s is listed as the top restaurant).
Joe’s is clearly popular. We arrived at 5 p.m. on a Saturday and just barely fit in the door. In the photo below, the line starts in the middle of the bottom, wraps around the left side, all the way over to the right before snaking back.
It draws a delightfully diverse crowd, too. We saw a good cross section of humanity there, and no one brought any pretense; they were just there to try some of the city’s best food.
And we don’t want to steer you wrong; we recommend trying Joe’s. We both thought it was very good, but our inability to agree exactly led to our unique 4.25-star rating.
From the time you walk in, you’re told that Joe’s is the home of the Z-Man, a sandwich composed of brisket, onion rings and provolone on a kaiser roll. And, at the risk of not trying Joe’s signature item, we decided to get something that offered a wider variety of flavors. So we got the Cowboy Platter, pictured below.
You’ll notice right away that Joe’s food presentation is quite workaday. That’s a paper sack for the fries and a styrofoam boat for the dirty rice. But, hey, dirt floors and all, right? Also, the portions aren’t huge, as is the trend in American restaurants these days. And that’s fine, too. Okay, we’re ready to dig in.
The dirty rice was delicious. It is stuffed with sausage and Cajun seasonings, leaving just the right spice level. The fries, touted in the restaurant as “KC’s Best!” were very tasty, and here’s one spot where our tastes diverge. Tiffany was raised eating very little salt on her food, and she prefers to salt her own, if at all. Thus, the season salt on the fries was too much for her, while I loved it. Give me all the salt you want. If I had one of those Himalayan rock salt lamps in my house, I might treat it as a slat lick.
That difference carried over to the ribs as well.
What’s great about these ribs is that they barely even need any barbecue sauce. The dry rub is so good that it can stand alone. And even though they aren’t served wet, the ribs are very tender and delicious. For me, they were the star of the plate. For Tiffany, the dry rub was too salty.
One thing we both agreed upon was the brisket. It was frankly disappointing. It was very flavorful, but sliced very thin, so it had the look and consistency of roast beef. We had heard Joe’s brisket talked up, so that was a let down. Next time (and don’t get us wrong, there will totally be a next time), we’ll get the burnt ends for a more chunky cut.
Joe’s sausage is house ground, spiced, stuffed and smoked. It is excellent and served at the right temperature and consistency.
Joe’s offers two sauces; a regular and a spicy. Both are thick, dark and just slightly sweet. And that’s another point I want to make about Kansas City barbecue. The success of KC Masterpiece sauce has galled everyone at large into thinking that Kansas City’s sauces are defined by their sweetness, and that all are, like KC Masterpiece, as sweet as ketchup. They’re not. Some, like the sauce at Joe’s, just stands back and lets the meat shine. And that’s what we really liked about Joe’s. It barely needed any sauce at all, and anything additional would only have detracted from the flavor of meat, smoke, passion, and time.