The only barbecue restaurant left in Leavenworth is an unassuming joint — it looks like an old roadhouse — off U.S. Highway 73 called All Slabbed Up. There used to be a second barbecue place, the waitress reminded me when I stopped in one day. "We ran 'em off," she said.
I can't say whether All Slabbed Up owes its monopoly to attractive servers or especially skilled pitmasters. But I do think it's possible that the place literally blew its rival out of town by serving the gassiest appetizer ever conceived: a crock of beans, served with corn chips, called "Blazin' Saddles."
"Eat a bowl of that," the waitress told me, "and people will know you're coming."
It used to be that any good pit barbecue needed no more than the basics: smoked meat, cheap white bread, cold beer, maybe some fries. These days, though, with wave after wave of barbecue dreamers opening restaurants around the metro, the old standbys apparently aren't enough. So if the difference between success and failure rests on a $4 fart kettle of "bunkhouse beans," well, I guess that's the new capitalism.
New or lesser-known barbecue spots, particularly at the edges of the metro, really do have to work harder to lure eaters past their usual feedlots. The traditional outlay (beef brisket, pork ribs, pulled pork, smoked chicken) must not only run with KC's icons (Arthur Bryant's, Gates, Oklahoma Joe's, Jack Stack) but also taste distinct enough to keep people coming back. Are the three upstart ventures I sought out this month ready for a little regional recognition?
I started with Glenn Yeager's month-old Kansas City SmokeShack BBQ (900 Swift, North Kansas City, 816-416-8100), and my journey just about ended before it began. It was easier for Howard Carter to find Egypt's lost tomb of Tutankhamun than it was for me to find Yeager's joint.
The place is in a highly unconventional setting: a 1920s-era yellow brick building, where welding gas was sold, on a mostly industrial stretch of Swift Road. A tiny sign on the glass front door is all that indicates you've found a barbecue restaurant rather than a tank of flammable material. Most people end up finding it after they've passed by; a big, brassy banner tacked up behind the building ("BBQ Now Open") looms in your rearview mirror just as you start to abandon hope.
Before opening his restaurant in late April, Yeager — who was in the construction business with his son, Josh, who's now his partner in the barbecue business — conducted some demographic research on the surrounding neighborhood. He found that his building was positioned to become a prime lunch location. So far, he says, he's doing a fair lunch trade (the ribs tend to sell out long before the place closes each day at 2:30 p.m.), and things have gone well enough that he may keep the doors open till 8 p.m. on Fridays for the carryout crowd. (You can eat at one of the tables in the lower-level dining area, but even on bright days it stays as dark as King Tut's resting place.)
Leave the glamour to Jack Stack in the Crossroads. If you want a solid brisket sandwich in a utilitarian but spotlessly clean location, Yeager's place is the ticket. Fragrant from the red-oak and hickory wood that he burns in his smoker, the SmokeShack brisket is moist and flavorful. (The pulled pork needs work, though; I found it stringy and dry.)
Yeager packs his side dishes with a little heat (unlike his sauces, which lean toward the sweet end of the spectrum), so his house-made, mayo-driven cole slaw is punched up with Ro-Tel diced tomatoes and green chilies. (If I had known this in advance, I might not have ordered the slaw, but I'm glad I did; it's really good.) His creamy "smoked" macaroni and cheese isn't as smoky as it is spicy; Yeager tosses a bit of his meat rub, which has an aggressive but tasty cayenne component, into the pasta. Yeager has applied for a liquor license and hopes to offer cold beer this summer. For now, sweetened iced tea is as stiff as things get.
It says volumes that the desserts at the four-year-old Pork 'N' Pit BBQ (1803 Northeast Colbern Road, Lee's Summit, 816-525-7427) are nearly as good as the restaurant's ribs, smoked brisket, pulled pork and fried catfish.
The house-made cheesecake slices sold here (in a variety of flavors, including Key lime, strawberry swirl and chocolate peanut butter) are so good, you're well-advised to consider skipping the fries to leave room.
It's not like you're going to go hungry here. The $12.75 basket meals include one of the hickory-smoked meats, two side dishes, a slab of Texas toast and a pickle. There are the usual thick sandwiches, too, and baked potatoes stuffed with pork or brisket. The ribs here are a little fatty, but in a good way.
It's a tiny place, easy to miss as you drive Colbern Road. "If you get to Lake Jacomo," a woman who answered the phone told me, "you've passed us." The dining area is dominated by a "sauce bar" featuring the tangy, hickory-flavored house sauce, a more interesting (but not much hotter, unfortunately) habanero version, ketchup, mustard and pickled peppers.
The Pit sells more soda than beer, but there's Boulevard here, along with $1 Miller Lite cans. The restaurant stays open only until 8 p.m. and shifts into carryout-only mode at 7:30.
Ah, but you're still wondering about the Blazin' Saddles in Leavenworth. All Slabbed Up's (405 Muncie Road, Leavenworth, 913-727-5227) baked beans, loaded with big hunks of beef, are in fact outstanding — with or without corn chips.
A sign is posted above the bar in the knotty-pine-and-corrugated-steel dining room here: "Grab a cold one if you're waiting 'cause fast food ain't what we're serving here." But the kitchen at this three-year-old barbecue shack isn't slow, and the waitresses are all veterans. Much of the food is tasty, though perhaps not as much as the many awards decorating the place suggest. Blue, red, green, pink, yellow — every prize color appears represented among the dozens of ribbons tacked up near the ceiling, from competitions such as Tonganoxie Days and the North Kansas City BBQ cook-off.
The place, as its name suggests, is best-known for ribs — modestly priced full slabs, short ends and long ends — that are meaty, with a bracing peppery rub. They're a little too chewy for greatness.
Burnt ends are meant to be fatty, crunchy scraps, but the dish at All Slabbed Up consists of chopped-up cubes of tender brisket ready to be doused with one of the two sauces served here (a jarringly sweet, molasses-based concoction that's acceptable, or a spicier version, still too damned sweet but with a low-grade punch on the back end).
I like All Slabbed Up's pulled pork, which arrives in rustic, succulent chunks that haven't been mangled to the point of unsatisfying stringiness. The brisket is also very good.
The gimmick of those beans notwithstanding, the menu at All Slabbed Up is somewhat limited (ribs, brisket, pulled pork, smoked ham and turkey). I think that's as it ought to be. When I asked one of the servers what a vegetarian might eat at All Slabbed Up, she barely took a second before firing back just right: "We have fried pickles."