The vagaries of Christmas travel brought me a chance to reenact, in my own small way, the epic Kansas City barbecue jaunt planned by Will and Cathy2 in the thread above, and finally reported upon in this one.
My plan: to meet up with a couple of old friends in the KC area (one of whom had kids I'd never seen, nor he mine), make my first trip to Arthur Bryant's in eons (at least a decade, though I don't think there's been a day in that time that I didn't have the sauce handy) and also to try one of those places I never tried because I was such a Bryant's fan. No, not Gates, I tried Gates plenty of times and it never did it for me. My choice, based on posts here, was Lil Jake's.
The trip was fraught with potential for you-can't-go-home-again disappointment, since I've spent the last year or so learning the intricacies of homemade barbecue, including such exotica as the infamous wagyu brisket.
One of the things I've learned along the way, of course, is that BBQ isn't really all that suited to the demands of a restaurant; it's suited to being eaten on its own schedule, not yours, and in fact it's not hard (if not exactly easy, either) to make barbecue that's much better than most restaurants', just because you have the time and the lack of commercial demands to do it exactly right, and don't have to worry about having meat but no customers at one time, and customers but no meat at another.
So anyway. How would these two places meet the challenge? Lil Jake's takes a venerable approach I first associated with R&S Barbecue in Wichita, long recognized as the best, but hardest to eat at, barbecue place in that city. Specifically, it's only open for a very short time, which is when the barbecue will be at its peak of perfection. You show up during that window, you eat it-- an' then you beat it and they shut down for the day.
Since we had lots of folks, including kids, I ordered just about one of everything. Burnt ends, which came with a side of jambalaya:
Ribs, with a side of beans:
Pulled pork, Southern style:
And also a straight brisket sandwich, I think with another side I forgot. Let's cut to the chase here. Sides: all dispensable, jambalaya was quite sad, like Malt O Meal with a slice of andouille in it, beans passable. Pulled pork was nothing special, though the slaw was pretty good. Ribs were quite good, a little too falling off the bone for my taste, but good flavor, visible smoke ring, you'd have been very happy to have made these yourself. Brisket sandwich, excellent, moist, tender brisket, handmade (you'll see why I used that word in a minute).
And the burnt ends? The burnt ends, you should just go straight to the Southwest site and book a ticket already,
I mean, for crying out loud, look at the picture, read the things people have said, for $79 you could go eat scallops on cod brandade tapenade with braised bernaised leek root escabeche and be snooted at by some louche shaven-headed waiter in a black T-shirt, or you could drive to Midway and in about two hours have this plate in front of you! Is that even a CHOICE? If it IS, what are you doing on THIS site?
Except they're closed for another week or so for the holidays. And in a year or so they'll be bulldozed for the new stadium and gone forever, maybe. Get your butt down there now.
Plus, they're real nice folks, and you can get an Eat It An Beat It T-shirt, as I did for my wife. Go there! You won't be sorry, no matter what it costs!
Then off to Bryant's. I'd heard discouraging things about it shall we say gentrifying under less shall we say soulful ownership. Had The Man stolen Bryant's jive? More to the point, could a place which cooked dozens, maybe hundreds of briskets a day (and other stuff too) really maintain the standards of quality, of handmade artisanal barbecue excellence, that I'd seen at a much smaller operation just moments before?
So it was with trepidation that I handed a plate through the window, asked for the standard "beef san with fries" that 90% of the customers order, and watched as mine was painted with the Rustoleum-colored sauce whose corrosive effect on the wimpy Wonder bread I once likened to John Coltrane's version of a saccharine Rodgers and Hammerstein tune
when it comes to demonstrating the overwhelming, annilhating superiority of mid-20th century black culture over the mainstream white culture of the same time.
Look, a barbecue elf!
So who won, Lil Jake's, Bryant's or my own barbecue? There are no losers on an expedition like this. Lil Jake's' artisanal 'cue was outstanding where it was outstanding, and there's no question that if you put a plate of their burnt ends next to a beef san from Bryant's, the meat alone would win. But Bryant's is a total package experience and cannot be discounted. The unique sauce (which is very much an acquired taste, but loved by me), the fresh-cut cooked in lard fries which are about as good as you'll have anywhere (and can't even be talked about in the same breath as Lil Jake's' perfunctory sides), the show behind the glass which drips such old-school barbecue atmosphere, the history all around you make Bryant's one of a kind experience and one I was glad to have again-- even if, pressed, I'd have to say Lil Jake's, purely on food, is the best barbecue I've had in Kansas City.