A lot of people in Kansas City take the art of barbecuing very seriously. So seriously that, once they've amassed a mess of barbecue prize ribbons and a shelf of trophies, they consider opening a restaurant.
It's not an unexpected progression of ambitions, although there's a world of difference between smoking for a shiny trophy and operating a restaurant. That's especially true in the barbecue-restaurant business, where the iconic brand names have easily outlasted scrappy upstarts (often poorly bankrolled from the beginning) who learn a fast and hard lesson: No amount of ribbons can overcome inconsistent food, sloppy service or a bad location.
This brings me to Paul and Patty Boone, restaurant veterans — they operated a popular Irish pub, Pickerings, in Olathe for more than a decade — who have been champion barbecue competitors since 1989. They've brought home a lot of big trophies (including several American Royal awards) and enough ribbons, in nearly every hue, to fill a glass display case.
That display case hangs in a corner of their three-year-old saloon and barbecue joint, the Pick Smoke n Grill, in western Shawnee. I was familiar with the Pick's location — which I knew was a lousy spot before I dined there — because I had eaten at its previous incarnation: a short-lived and hilariously terrible bar and grill called Infused ("Shawnee's Caribbean-inspired Infused mostly left us confused," July 2, 2009). Half of the old Infused sits empty and unleased, and the other half is now the Pick.
I don't think the location is so lousy now. The Pick was doing decent business on the two nights I dined there. And the shopping strip that surrounds it seems to have more tenants. But I'm not ready to award the Boones a trophy just yet. As gracious as they are, the couple serves hit-or-miss cuisine, and the service could definitely use some polishing. They have one terrific bartender-slash-waiter who knows what he's doing and a couple of others who march to their own beat — a funeral dirge. To call them slow and inattentive would be an understatement.
Maybe my expectations were too high. The Pick is a pleasant, unassuming suburban barbecue shack with inexpensive drink and food specials. It doesn't pretend to be anything more. Maybe that's its selling point.
But the brisket certainly won't be a calling card. The slices of smoked beef I tasted on my first visit were nearly as chewy as duct tape. The burnt ends, however, were a find: a slightly crispy exterior that coated tender, succulent meat still fragrant with oak and hickory smoke.
I couldn't bring myself to love the Boones' signature sauce, which is dark, molasses-thick and too sweet. If you request the hot version — deftly seasoned with cayenne and crushed, dried red peppers — you'll be in nirvana; it has a coy but tantalizingly fiery aftertaste. (The two sauces also mix well together.)
The pulled pork was a little dry, but the pork spare ribs, heavily shellacked with the sweet sauce, were meaty and tender. And I loved the mildly spiced sausage (from Krizman's House of Sausage in Kansas City, Kansas), which really requires the kick of the hot sauce.
The baked beans could be meatier, and the mac and cheese is a heated Stouffer's frozen product — and, at $2.50 for a small serving, it's not that good.
Fans of the now-defunct local burger chain Wylie's, which had several metro locations until the 1990s, should consider a pilgrimage to the Pick. I had never tasted a Wylie's burger, but the Boones sell a version that supposedly duplicates the charm of that hamburger, served with cheese, mustard, ketchup and grilled onions. The one I tasted wasn't bad, just unmemorable — I can understand why the restaurant chain went belly up.
In a town already crowded with award-worthy barbecue, the Pick is going to have to earn more than just a participation ribbon.