Q39 Midtown is a location unlike the others in the crowded Kansas City barbecue scene. It’s not attached to a gas station; it’s not a dirty, dank pit or a dirt-floored shack. There’s no cafeteria-style line; no trays and no paper sacks. No cardboard six-pack holding squeeze bottles of barbecue sauce and hot sauce.
Nope, friends, this is a standalone, rustic-urban restaurant (on West 39th Street, whence the name), matching any upscale casual dining experience you’re used to. It’s clean, with a professional waitstaff. The kind of place you’d take a date, provided that you and that date had reservations.
And this barbecue isn’t the creation of a pit master cooking grandma’s recipe. This is the production of classically trained executive chef Rob Magee, who holds a degree from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. Chef Magee opened Q39 after spending years ascending to the top of the Midwest’s competitive barbecue cookoff scene. Setting up shop in the world’s most competitive barbecue market, he created a menu that includes the staples, and also a host of creative dishes. This is what they call chef-driven barbecue. But is it good enough to compete with dirty pit masters making grandma’s recipe?
Yes, it is.
Q39 unpretentiously elevates barbecue from backyard food to fine dining. Dishes are thoughtfully created in an open kitchen, attractively plated on china, and, above all, slap-yo-mama delicious.
Kansas City is the nexus of barbecue for a reason. It’s not just brisket, as in Texas; it’s not just pork as in the Carolinas. Barbecue in Kansas City is both of those, plus turkey, chicken, ham, and more. And as a result, barbecue joints there often become known for one specific kind of meat. For instance, someone might say to you, “their pork isn’t so good, but you will die for their burnt ends.”
Because of this, we try to sample as many different kinds of meat as we can. Or at least that’s our justification for ordering the fat-kid meal we’re about to describe to you.
First up, we got the Pork Belly and Sausage Corn Dogs. These chunks of meat — three pork belly and three sausage — are deep fried to a perfect golden brown and served with barbecue sauce and maple syrup. We found them to be crunchy on the outside and savory on the inside; just perfect. The sausage was neither too firm inside a casing nor too crumbly. The pork belly was — well, let’s just say that if more people knew about pork belly, there wouldn’t be such a bacon fad going on right now.
Our only knock on these is that we didn’t think the maple syrup was necessary. It didn’t add to either of these already-fantastic meat popsicles. The barbecue sauce perfectly complemented both.
Next up, the Judges Plate.
Here, you choose three meats and two sides. We chose the ribs, brisket and sausage.
Unlike the dry-rubbed ribs at Joe, the ribs at Q39 are served with a tangy barbecue sauce glaze. They are extremely tender and you can taste the hours of hardwood smoking that go into them.
The sliced chunks of sausage are warm and just crumbly enough. You don’t snap into a still-encased link here, but they are just as tender as if you had; oozing with flavor.
The real standout of The Judges Plate, though, was the brisket. This isn’t thinly-sliced strips, like we described at Joe’s.
This is thick, crumbling, delicate, melt-in-your-mouth brisket, permeated by the flavors of rough-hewn hardwoods.
This, y’all, is world-class brisket.
Because that brisket was so good, we’re very glad we ordered the Burnt End Burger. We were kind of expecting this to be ground burnt ends formed into a burger patty, but it is instead more of a sandwich than a burger. It’s thick slices of burnt ends topped with a scoopful of pickle slaw, jalapeños and barbecue sauce.
If you’re a new reader on our site, let’s just say you will hear us talk about burgers often. They’re a staple food for us.
This one was Out. Fricking. Standing.
Now, like I said, I can’t truly classify this as a burger, even though that’s in the name. But it would still rank among the top of our burger list, and that’s saying a lot. This is the perfect marriage of smoky, savory barbecue, sweet, tangy sauce, crisp, acidic slaw and heat from the peppers. Sandwich, burger, whatever; this concoction is badass.
Because our Judges Plate and our burger didn’t contain any pulled pork, we had to get some. And we got it in taco form.
Q39 calls these Pulled Pork TaQos. They’re served on flour tortillas with jalapeño-cilantro slaw and spicy chipotle mayo.
Picture a soft taco shell filled with supple happiness, so delicate that when you take an exquisite bite from one side, precious juices drip out the other side, and you KNOW IT’S DESIGNED THAT WAY BUT YOU STILL mourn the loss.
If you’ve got that image in your head, you’ve got the sense of the Pulled Pork TaQos.
On the side of that, we ordered the five-cheese Macaroni and Cheese. Our waiter said, “I don’t know what the five cheeses are, but they’re good ones.” He was right. The mac and cheese is made with cavatappi pasta, and topped with panko crumbs. There is also an overwhelming taste of garlic in it. We love garlic, and we loved the mac and cheese.
The only throwaway of the meal was the potato salad, which we found to be average. We should have gotten the white bean cassoulet, a Q39 favorite.
Now, in general, we are big fans of condiments and sauces. We have a favorite barbecue joint in St. Louis where we line up the many different varieties of sauces, try the new ones, and rate all of them. We slather it on every piece of meat. But we left q39 almost unable to describe the flavor of the barbecue sauce. And do you know why?
It’s because the sauce isn’t the star at Q39. The sauce is a minor player in a support role for the real star of the show: the MEAT. The hearty, succulent, hardwood-smoked, saturated meat.
We don’t give out awards at this site, but we wanted to make one out of a paper plate and crayons, like a six-year-old would, just so they could add this epitaph to their already-impressive collection of awards: “Best Barbecue in Kansas City.”