"It was wild out there," says jazz historian Chuck Haddix, host of KCUR 89.3's Fish Fry show. "In the 1920s, it was all chicken farms that were mostly bootleg operations. That's where Kansas Citians would drive out to buy their hooch."
The oldest relic of this era is probably the wood-floored Stroud's, which opened in 1933 and served barbecue and beer to Prohibition-weary customers. It was listed in the phone book as Stroud's Barbecue until the 1960s; fried chicken wasn't a draw until the meat rationing of World War II. Most of the other joints around Stroud's, like the Dixie BBQ and the Cottage Inn, have since been torn down or turned into used-furniture shops.
Barely a block east of Stroud's, the Silver Moon Tavern and Barbecue was a latecomer to the neighborhood, showing up in the city directory in 1955. But it actually opened five years earlier, according to Lindsay Shannon, who hosts his own radio program, The Kansas City Blues Show, on KCFX 101.1. Shannon ought to know; he turned the 52-year-old roadhouse into a combination barbecue joint and blues club called B.B.'s Lawnside Barbecue twelve years ago.
The place is probably better known as a performance venue than as a restaurant because Wednesday through Sunday nights, local and national blues acts get top billing over the slabs and platters. But Shannon got the idea for his operation -- and the name -- from his favorite barbecue hangout in Philadelphia, a legendary (and long-closed) South Street soul-food restaurant called Bea Bea's Lawnside Barbecue. Ms. Bea, the owner of the place, had named it after the nearby African-American community Lawnside, New Jersey, also a late-night party neighborhood during Prohibition. Bea Bea's was "a little hole-in-the-wall with only about three tables," Shannon recalls, "but the barbecue was terrific."
When he bought the Silver Moon in 1990, Shannon took one look at the massive parking lot in front of the building and thought the name B.B.'s Lawnside would be an ironic tribute. There was no lawn, but there was an unusual granite barbecue pit, built in 1950 from old paving stones ripped out of downtown Kansas City streets. "The stones hold heat incredibly well," Shannon says. "I asked John Harris, from the old Harris Brothers' Barbecue, to come and look at the pit and show me how to repair it. He gave me some recipes, and that's how we got started."
Shannon has tinkered with those recipes, getting some help over the years from local barbecue icon "Amazing Grace" Harris. The building, which was empty by the time Shannon took over, still feels like it's out in the county. Its floors are scuffed-up sheets of plywood, the tables are sheathed in red-checkered vinyl, and neon beer lights serve as light fixtures, bathing customers in a red glow. The closest thing to décor is the striking (and unfinished) Jeff Parsons mural of famous blues personalities on the east wall. John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon and Howlin' Wolf share wall space with Koko Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, a jowly Charlie Musselwhite (whom most patrons mistake for Shannon) and a subdued-looking Tina Turner.
"Her skirt is way too long for the real Tina," whispered the waitress who brought me a plastic basket heaped with fried onion rings as thick as bangle bracelets and a Styrofoam bowl of steaming steak soup. Metal forks are the only real tableware at B.B.'s; everything else is either plastic or disposable.
At B.B.'s, the music is soulful and lowdown, but most of the food is uplifting and comforting. It can be hit-or-miss, but when the kitchen's in full swing, most dishes hit the right notes. I loved that bowl of soup, loaded with tender chunks of beef, potatoes, celery, green beans and carrots. Unfortunately, however, it came with a tasteless, cottony supermarket-style roll. (Hell, Ritz crackers would be better.) Another one of those rolls accompanied Dirty Red's Jambalaya, a barely spiced bowl of white rice thrown together with good-sized hunks of ham, sausage and chicken.
I had the blues that night poking around that little Styrofoam bowl of bland Jambalaya while my friend Bob indulged in a luxurious slab of beef ribs. He savored each bite of the juicy, tender, smoky meat that came slathered in a slightly sweet sauce that tasted of apple juice and brown sugar.
Those ribs are Shannon's signature dish, and they're one of the best reasons to head uptown -- especially on Thursday nights, when a full slab (with two side orders) sells for $11.95. I cajoled more friends, including the barbecue-loving Jeanne, to join me for that deal. "I've driven by there a million times and thought it was just a nasty old roadhouse," she said, looking wary when I suggested dining there. But she packed up her two fussy kids, and off we went.
That night we attacked the most expensive appetizer, a combo platter stacked with a tangy barbecued sausage and sleek, vinegary smoked chicken wings. But petite fried curls of orange "Buffalo shrimp" were boring, and Jeanne's girls glanced with revulsion at the oversized wedges of battered, deep-fried potatoes -- they looked completely alien to a couple of kids hooked on McDonald's fries. They were nice and crunchy on the outside, though, and as fluffy as a baked spud inside. The fries were particularly good dunked in ranch dressing or splashed with the spicier of the two barbecue sauces in unmarked plastic squeeze bottles on the table.
Other appetizers included the house version of chili con queso, "Smokin' Chili Cheese Dip," a watery, Crayola-colored concoction boasting little in the way of chilies -- it wasn't nearly hot enough to do any smokin'. B.B.'s Five-Way Chili wasn't much hotter, but it was nonetheless a tasty, meaty creation of beef and beans ladled over hot linguini noodles and piled with chopped onions and cheddar cheese.
Ignoring my warnings about the unenthralling jambalaya, Jeanne ordered a bowl of the other Louisiana-style dish on the menu, Smoky Jo's Gumbo. She proclaimed it "spicy and sensational," and I had to agree after snagging a few bites of the rice-and-tomato stew laden with peppers, smoked chicken and sausage. As I predicted, the kids loved the ribs (the sweet sauce was a definite asset), and so did Jeanne, who finished all three ribs -- as well as the plump quarter chicken, delicately smoked and all but falling off the bone -- that made up her Yardbird Combo.
Shannon's barbecued meatloaf, baked from smoked brisket and ground beef, wasn't much in the visual department -- three tiny slices cut from a miniature loaf. But it packed a surprising amount of flavor and came with a hefty mound of golden, skillet-fried taters and an even bigger heap of green beans cooked with lots of salty chopped ham. It's the ultimate tavern food, best chased with a bottle of cold beer or an after-dinner smoke. (Ashtrays adorn almost every table.)
Prefer sweets to cigarettes? B.B.'s gregarious servers push the house-made bread pudding, which Shannon raves about but I found to be a giant disappointment. Instead of some luscious, custardy creation, out came (in another throwaway bowl) a glob of dry, vanilla-glazed yeasty lumps. I wanted to push the bowl aside after the first bite, but the waitress kept watching me, so I sullenly munched on, feeling like Oliver Twist choking down some sugary gruel. The cheesecake, prepared by an off-site baker, is distinctly more attractive and at least tastes like a dessert rather than an afterthought.
But B.B.'s doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is: a no-frills barbecue joint that gets bawdier as the sun sets, just like the ones from a different time and place.