In his hefty 1998 book, The Barbecue Bible, writer and frequent TV morning-show cook Steven Raichlen compares Kansas City barbecue to its counterparts in Memphis, North Carolina, and Texas by naming the favored cuts of meat served here (pork ribs, burnt ends) and describing the typical Kansas City sauce ("thick and sweet, a complex blend of ketchup or tomato sauce, brown sugar, corn syrup, molasses, vinegar, onion, garlic, hot red pepper flakes, liquid smoke and sometimes even apple juice"). But Raichlen's argument can't hold its weight in sauce because he makes the same lunkheaded mistake that most East Coast writers make.
In his paean to Kansas City barbecue, Raichlen gushes on and on about what Kansans love. Never once does he mention Missouri; he's either forgotten that Arthur Bryant's -- the best-known Kansas City barbecue -- is on the east side of the Kaw River or, more probably, has the usual outsider's view that there is one Kansas City and one style of barbecue served here.
But anyone who has wandered from Kansas City North down to Olathe knows the name "Kansas City" encompasses as many different cities as there are bottles of sweet, spicy sauce lining supermarket shelves. And as many different styles of barbecue.
True, the oldest barbecue joint in the city is Rosedale Barbecue, on the Kansas side of State Line Road, which was serving ribs as early as the Depression. (Arthur Bryant didn't take over his brother Charlie's restaurant until after World War II.) But the most famous names started out in Missouri. That includes Russ Fiorella's family, whose storefront place opened in the 1950s.
Russ' eldest son, Jack, who carved out his own little barbecue empire in 1974 with a homey, family-friendly place in Martin City, has turned his newest location into the Tiffany's of barbecue joints. By barbecue restaurant standards, the Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue in the old freight house behind Union Station is the Taj Mahal of hickory-smoked, slow-cooked meat. And for lily-livered tourists, it's on the, uh, right side of the tracks.
At night the soaring vaulted ceiling's wooden beams are outlined in the glow of theatrical red lamps, which, along with the gigantic artwork in gilded frames, lend the space a cathedral-like quality. I call it the Church of the Expanding Waistline because each time the servers -- solemnly dressed in black aprons, denim shirts and silk neckties -- pass by carrying oversized platters of barbecued chicken, tender ribs and heaps of crisp french fries, I practically genuflect with religious fervor.
My friend John has taken a more secular view. "It's too noisy to be a church," he sniffed, after ordering a bottle of Chardonnay from a freckled, college-aged waiter who didn't have a clue about wines or the menu. The massive dining room rumbled loudly as all of its sounds bounced off the concrete floor, the brick walls, the unadorned tabletops. But after a few minutes of screaming at one another across the table, John, Liz and I squeezed closer together in our booth to gossip behind the oversized menus -- until Liz caught a view of a stack of onion rings passing by.
"I want onion rings," she mewed, casting aside a feather boa. "And, yes, I'm extremely overdressed for this place. Have you ever seen so many Chiefs jackets outside of the stadium?"
I had arrived first and cased the joint, from the cramped entrance foyer (where someone in each huddled, waiting family held, as if it were the Holy Grail, a pager that vibrated and lit up like a slot machine when their table was ready) to the cozy bar, with its big gas-burning fireplace and softly upholstered love seats. The restaurant is a sophisticated setting for upscale barbecue -- the antithesis of the hip but unglamorous Arthur Bryant's.
John took a gulp of wine. "It's got to be the prettiest barbecue place in town," he said.
"Emotionally and viscerally," Liz said, as if she were describing a Fellini film, "I like it."
Having dinner with John and Liz can be like a Fellini film, especially when they start bickering. John felt our server was too inexperienced -- "I say send the child back to McDonald's," he guffawed, waving an onion ring; Liz, tapping her eyeglasses on the table, was more sympathetic: "He's learning! Give him a chance!"
I tried to keep out of the fray. On earlier visits I had found the veteran servers slick and attentive while the younger staff members definitely needed more time to cure. But that night I was so hungry, I didn't even care when the waiter gave us highlights of his none-too-interesting life story, since the tale was accompanied by those lusciously juicy onion rings, which had been dipped in a cornmeal batter and fried to a crackling crisp. We greedily dunked them in the restaurant's signature sauces -- especially the fiery spicy version -- and chomped them down.
I watched John and Liz pore over the menu, John eyeing the expensive Crown Prime Beef Ribs. I'd already shared one of the huge plates with a friend on a previous visit and nearly ruined the friendship fighting over the last delicious rib. And at lunch a few days earlier I had inhaled a Poor Russ, which turned out to be the best burnt end sandwich in the city, and an order of the meaty baked beans. After much debate, John settled on the "1-pound plus" butterfly pork chop, Liz ordered a hickory-grilled salmon sandwich and I picked half of a barbecued chicken, with extra side orders of the Cheesy Corn Bake and the Cheesy Potato Bake. John's dinner was preceded by a salad, which he dismissed as "a symphony of croutons."
When dinner arrived -- and none too soon -- John raved over the luscious, moist pork chop while Liz and I split our dinners so we could each have plenty of the superbly prepared chicken, slathered in the restaurant's milder sauce, and crisply grilled salmon on a hearty wheat bun. And being a true Midwesterner, I went dewy-eyed over canned corn "baked" in a sauce of creamy yellow cheese and the sliced red potatoes served under a blanket of bubbling melted cheddar. This is the kind of rib-sticking meal that makes you want to go out and shovel snow after supper. Or light up a cigarette in the bar.
Instead, John ordered coffee and a wedge of some sugary, sticky-looking pie that seemed to be part cheesecake, part pecan tart.
"It's not made here," the waiter confessed, "but it's real good."
Not good enough for me to take one more bite of anything. After stuffing myself silly, I could tell Steven Raichlen a thing or two about where to find the most glamorous barbecue in Kansas City. It's on the Missouri side.