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View Full Version : Food and Drink The Atlantic: The New Kids on the BBQ Circuit


CosmicPal
06-24-2010, 08:48 AM
http://www.theatlantic.com/food/archive/2010/06/the-new-kids-on-the-barbecue-circuit/58586/

Kansas City BBQ has been getting a lot of press lately. Here's a great article on the new kid on the block: Oklahoma Joe's.

http://assets.theatlantic.com/static/mt/assets/food/wiedeman_oklahomajoe_6-23_post.jpg

When I joined the line at Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue in Kansas City on a recent Saturday afternoon, 75 people stood between me and the cash register. The queue snaked by a counter of Kools and Snickers and a rack of Hostess snack cakes before passing a plaque that announced Anthony Bourdain's declaration that Joe's—along with El Bulli and Per Se—is one of "13 Places to Eat Before You Die." The end of the line, where I stood, was just outside the door. The strongest smell came from the exhaust pipes of several cars filling up at four gas pumps.

There's nothing particularly strange about finding Kansas Citians lined up at a barbecue joint—even one that sits, quite literally, inside a gas station. What's odd is to find them waiting at any restaurant that isn't called Bryant's or Gates, the titans of Kansas City barbecue.

Smoked meat and its attendant fragrances have defined the city over the past century. Pitmasters from the South, mostly African-Americans, landed in Kansas City in the early 1900s to find a surplus of cheap beef from the city's meatpacking industry. Visiting radio announcers at the old Memorial Stadium could, as the story goes, smell the smoke from a string of joints along nearby 18th Street, and the gospel of Kansas City barbecue spread to listeners across the country.

The early success, Stehney admits, owes no small debt to its gas station location. ("Did the shtick help? You bet. We were the 'barbecue place in the gas station.'")

Hundreds of joints have popped up since, and some remain. But only the eponymous pair started by George Gates and Arthur Bryant have become mandatory presidential campaign stops: John McCain and Sarah Palin ate at Bryant's, and, in 2004, John Kerry declared Gates's ribs the best in America. They serve Gates at Chiefs games and Bryant's at the airport: many a traveler has been flummoxed by baggage restrictions while attempting to stow large bottles of sauce. When Arthur Bryant died, in 1982, the Kansas City Star ran a cartoon depicting him arriving at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter, looking rather desperate, asks: "Did you bring sauce?"

For years, opening a new barbecue joint here was a bit like starting a cheese steak stand in South Philly. That may be changing. Jeff Stehney, the owner of Oklahoma Joe's, had been a fixture on the amateur barbecue circuit when he took over the space inside a Shamrock gas station in 1996, but he had never run his own restaurant. He knew the difficulty of challenging the barbecue establishment—"If I could eat one meal before I die, it'd be a beef and fries at Bryant's"—but, somewhat remarkably, his restaurant has thrived: Stehney opened a second one in 2005. It now outsells the original.

"We may not pass Gates or Bryant's," Stehney says, sitting in his office adjacent to the gas station. "But you're going to see a 'Big Four' in Kansas City."

The early success, Stehney admits, owes no small debt to its gas station location. ("Did the shtick help? You bet. We were the 'barbecue place in the gas station.'") The fourth member of Stehney's meat quartet, Fiorella's Jack Stack, needed a similar boost. For 30 years, Jack Stack was an established family brand in the city's southern suburbs, existing beyond the urban reach of Gates or Bryant's. Even with an ardent following, Jack Stack was nervous about entering such a crowded market. Then it found an underserved niche: brisket as fine dining.

At its location in the Crossroads Arts District, next to Lidia Bastianich's first restaurant outside New York, I was greeted by two hostesses in all black and was seated at a wooden table set with maroon cloth napkins and glassware. A medieval-looking chandelier dominated the vaulted wooden ceiling (Joe's has a roll of paper towels at each table, and a fiberglass drop ceiling stained more brown than white). The waitress, also in black, recommended a Shiraz from the wine list to go with the beef ribs. Though Jack Stack's meat compares well with any in the city, barbecue purists look with disdain on the menu's breadth: you can find Atlantic salmon and a spinach salad tossed with toasted pecans, feta, strawberries, and a sweet vinaigrette.

"I sell as much wine as beer," our waitress insisted, before admitting she "can go two or three days without selling a seafood dish."

Sit-down barbecue, the norm on the coasts, is still an oddity in Kansas City. At most joints, like Joe's, diners pick up a tray, wait in line, and grab drinks from a soda fountain. But the upscale strategy seems to be working: Jack Stack has added three new restaurants, all in posh neighborhoods.

"We see ourselves more as a great restaurant that happens to specialize in barbecue," says Case Dorman, the restaurant's co-owner.

In line at Joe's, a straw poll found that most diners grew up on Bryant's and Gates, but have since switched loyalties. Jeff Stehney perfected Joe's pulled pork, its signature dish, in amateur barbecue contests, and the walls of his restaurant are covered with first place ribbons. The gas station décor gave him just enough local cred to get Joe's off the ground—just as Jack Stack's crystal glasses give it a high-end sheen—but now the food speaks for itself. On an average Saturday, Stehney serves 1,000 of his Z-Man sandwiches: a mound of brisket lathered in sauce and topped with an onion ring and melted provolone.

Matt Payne, a local, was in front of me in the lunchtime line at Joe's, which he visits several times a month. He had planned to try something new, but ended up ordering his usual: a pulled pork sandwich with an order of Joe's seasoned fries. He took his tray to a seat by the window, where he could watch the cars fill up and another set of diners wait.

"I grew up with Gates," said Payne, "but this is the best. And not for the ambience."

blaise
06-24-2010, 08:53 AM
I love the Carolina Style Pulled Pork at Ok Joe's. I've never even ordered anything else there. I'm afraid I'll get something else and be like, "I knew I should have just gone for the pulled pork."
And I agree with some of the stuff about Jack Stack. I just don't like paying a tip for BBQ.

KCUnited
06-24-2010, 08:58 AM
I love the Carolina Style Pulled Pork at Ok Joe's.
This is what I get every time as well.

That line is the hardest 20 minutes in this city.

tooge
06-24-2010, 08:58 AM
New kid on the block is very relative. They have been there for years and most bbq folk in kc know they are better than gates. Bryants is its own beast, totally unique. love it or hate it.

Fish
06-24-2010, 09:29 AM
I love the Carolina Style Pulled Pork at Ok Joe's. I've never even ordered anything else there. I'm afraid I'll get something else and be like, "I knew I should have just gone for the pulled pork."
And I agree with some of the stuff about Jack Stack. I just don't like paying a tip for BBQ.

I hated it. Got that one time just because it was on special. Almost gagged when I discovered they put coleslaw on it.... Not that I hate coleslaw that badly, but the combination of that with BBQ just didn't do it for me...

sedated
06-24-2010, 09:34 AM
OK Joes is by far the best BBQ in the city, IMHO.

Big Dog
06-24-2010, 09:41 AM
Actually...I find this one of the better written BBQ articles I have seen. Historically accurate, and paying appropriate tribute to the stalwarts of our BBQ heritage. I could see some dissention about the choices of 'the big 4' (i.e. L.C.'s, BB's, Rosedales or maybe a couple of others) but Oklahoma Joes and Jack Stack (formerly Smoke Stack) certainly should be near the top of the list.

Oklahoma Joes truly is a new kid on the block though at 14 years. Jack Stack has 36, Gates 64, and Bryants a whopping 102 years if you go back to Henry Perry.

I like Oklahoma Joe's...although it is not my favorite. I just wish the name was more indicative of the BBQ's true roots in KC...damn outsiders think the BBQ comes from Oklahoma.

gblowfish
06-24-2010, 09:54 AM
About a month ago I ordered some Chicken Gumbo from OKJoes.
It gave me food poisoning. Bad. I was sick for about four days, missed work and everything. Doc said salmonella poisioning most likely from the chicken in the gumbo. Its the first time a BBQ restaurant in KC made me sick.

Knocked OK Joe down a notch in my book.

CosmicPal
06-24-2010, 10:02 AM
I hated it. Got that one time just because it was on special. Almost gagged when I discovered they put coleslaw on it.... Not that I hate coleslaw that badly, but the combination of that with BBQ just didn't do it for me...

Bless you! I feel the same way about coleslaw on my pulled pork. I never quite understood why on earth you'd want to destroy something that's been seasoned with a heavenly rub and smoked for hours upon hours only to smother all that delectable meaty goodness with coleslaw!

I have friends who swear it is good; and trust me, I've tried it more than once, but the coleslaw just doesn't do it for me. I want my meat and bun with a little sauce. After all, BBQ is about the meat and that's what I'm there for.

CosmicPal
06-24-2010, 10:05 AM
About a month ago I ordered some Chicken Gumbo from OKJoes.
It gave me food poisoning. Bad. I was sick for about four days, missed work and everything. Doc said salmonella poisioning most likely from the chicken in the gumbo. Its the first time a BBQ restaurant in KC made me sick.

Knocked OK Joe down a notch in my book.

Ouch! Sorry to hear about that. That's a bummer.

Did you contact the restaurant management team and let them know what happened? They need to know about those things. Plus, they should be responsible for any and all medical bills you encountered.

Reaper16
06-24-2010, 10:07 AM
About a month ago I ordered some Chicken Gumbo from OKJoes.
It gave me food poisoning. Bad. I was sick for about four days, missed work and everything. Doc said salmonella poisioning most likely from the chicken in the gumbo. Its the first time a BBQ restaurant in KC made me sick.

Knocked OK Joe down a notch in my book.
Well your BBQ list was already preposterous to begin with so no harm done. :P

This article was actually good. Usually I get ticked off at glaring errors when national media covers KC but, apart from being published about 10 years after the subject was newsworthy, I can't fault it.