Backfire BBQ in Wyandotte County may be the only place in town whose menu potentially could be used as a deadly weapon. The two thin, brushed-steel plates that serve as a cover for this restaurant's listing of available dishes could, with very little effort, be transformed into guillotine blades or a samurai sword.
And I think I would prefer to face the guillotine or be tossed into a fiery barbecue pit than have to eat again at Backfire BBQ.
Backfire isn't really a restaurant. It's a novelty act, starting with the odd addendum that accompanies its name: "Featuring Orange County Choppers." Is that a promise or a threat? Well, if you're into motorcycles or the entertaining TV series American Chopper, this elaborately staged dining experience scores. In fact, the place means to do for the world of custom-built cycles what another "experiential" dining concept, T-Rex Café, does for prepubescent fans of all things Jurassic.
Why shouldn't Backfire founder Steven Schussler have taken this route? He also created T-Rex Café (as well as Rainforest Café). This is a man who knows the value of an entertainment concept. Ask any adult who has endured the food at T-Rex Café — that noisy venue where the lively gift shop nearly dwarfs the dining room — and you'll get an earful that sounds suspiciously like the roaring of a tyrannosaur. But no animatronic dinosaur can duplicate the sound of a human who's suffering hunger pangs at a place where he's supposed to be able to, you know, eat a decent meal.
No one eating at Backfire is going to leave hungry — the portions are generous, to put it mildly. In fact, some dishes on the menu are pretty tasty. There just aren't enough of them. Hey, I applaud any restaurateur who has the cojones to take on this city's most iconic dish. But I wouldn't care if Schussler's balls were as big as the tires of a 1928 Indian motorcycle. His barbecue just ain't that good.
In an interview prior to Backfire's opening last winter, Schussler told Pitch food blogger Jonathan Bender: "Middle-class America loves sophistication ... [this restaurant is] shining chrome and phenomenal food."
As a lifelong Midwesterner, I wouldn't bet on most rural folks in the heartland, or even some big-city dwellers, "loving sophistication." But even if they did, I wouldn't call Backfire a sophisticated restaurant on its best day. The salads are called "roughage" on the menu, and the napkins are paper. You want upscale smoked meat? Sit down at Fiorella's Jack Stack. Along with other barbecue enthusiasts, I recently ate two very big meals in the 10-month-old Backfire. Nothing I tried could be described as phenomenal.
But damn, the place tries hard. The Legends location is clearly a prototype for a chain, but Kansas City is the wrong market to test the waters. One of the servers in the restaurant told me that Backfire had been having a tough time keeping employees. "Famous Dave's does better business than we do," she whispered. "And last week, two managers and a server quit because they got better jobs. Well, the server quit because it was NASCAR time, and the dining room was a little disorganized."
I never noticed any disorganized vibe during my visits to the restaurant, but maybe I was just distracted by an awareness that the food wasn't very good. The fried-green-tomato appetizer, for example, was visually embarrassing and utterly tasteless. For seven bucks, the kitchen handed over four round, flat circles that could have passed as deep-fried shoe leather. The chili-cheese fries were made with cheap, third-rate frozen fries that were neither crispy nor tasty.
I was with Peter and Rachel for that meal. They were awed by the size of the restaurant (big enough to stage a production of Les Miserables) and by the theatrically displayed choppers, which rotate mechanically and are artfully lighted. Rachel pointed out that a trip to the restroom took her past two (not one) plastic depictions of the Statue of Liberty. The bathroom sinks are designed to look like shiny chopper gas tanks. Instead of revving up the motor, you turn on the hot or cold water. Look, Middle America: shining chrome! Sophistication!
I know, I know — no one's asking for the kind of barbecue that the American Restaurant would serve. No one goes to the Legends for five-star presentation. But even the most casual dive trying to siphon a share of this town's barbecue market has no excuse for serving bland, starchy, meatless baked beans or a platter of three meats (brisket, smoked sausage and pulled pork) with zero flavor.
Maybe barbecue sauce would have helped. Backfire offers a couple of house brands, including a hot version made with vinegar, mustard, garlic and habañero peppers. It was punchy — too punchy. Two bites and I had the feeling I might have to nurse heartburn for the next decade.
No barbecue staple is safe at Backfire. The burnt ends that I tried were uncomfortably chewy. The macaroni and cheese was cold. The cole slaw was loaded with onion. The cornbread, served in a black-iron pan, wasn't bad. It stood up better than the Texas toast, which arrived flatter than a piece of day-old bread.
On Sundays, Backfire doubles down by attempting fried chicken. The results weren't outstanding, but even this greasy bird was crispy enough to pass muster. On the afternoon that I took my friend Bob, he preferred it to the barbecue.
He was disappointed by the desserts, though. At Backfire, the desserts sound like old-fashioned comfort dishes, but they miss the mark. The "made from scratch" banana bread pudding was an interesting concoction, made with banana-nut bread, but the pudding element was missing from the equation. It was as dry as an old beef bone. The apple dumpling, doused in a red sauce of melted red-hot candies, looked pretty enough, but the fruit under the sheath of baked pastry wasn't baked enough. And there was no cutting into it; we had to saw through with table-rocking force. It was exhausting.
"It's not a bad place," Bob said after we ate Sunday lunch in the restaurant. "It just needs something."
Well, yes: better food. Failing that, maybe Backfire could install a few animatronic dinosaurs to ride the choppers and fight each other with those metal menus. Meanwhile, if I want barbecue, I'll go someplace a lot less dangerous.