Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Gates Bar B.Q.

Immediately after leaving Bryant’s, we travelled the half-mile down Brooklyn Avenue to the strip mall that houses Gates Bar B.Q.

Whereas Bryant’s looks like it hasn’t been touched in 60 years, Gates is almost sparklingly clean. The menu boards and promotional material give the place a decidedly chain feel, something which I’m personally not a big fan of in a bbq place.

We ordered a half rack of ribs and a “beef and a half” sandwich (thanks to Tim Jankovich for this tip years ago). We arrived too late for burnt ends, so I decided to go with a sausage sandwich.

When I saw the sausage appear, I started to have flashbacks to HBO’s Real Sex 27 (Marr, you know what I’m talking about). The thing was frickin’ huge. Baby’s arm with an apple huge.

I’d never before seen a sausage that had to be butterflied to eat, but that’s exactly how Gates prepares their sausage sandwich. Unfortunately the behemoth’s flavor wasn’t quite what I was hoping for, as it came out a little bland and bologna-like in texture. JP, a Texas native, was equally unimpressed.

The ribs were spares and like everything in KC, they were served wet. They had a slight smoke ring under the rub and sauce. The rub had a nice mixture of sweet, salt and just a little bit of spice. I’m a big fan of Gates’ spice rub, having used it for years on ribs in the backyard. The sauce is sweet with a definite cumin flavor. Overall, the ribs didn’t really do much for either me or JP. They were a little on the tough side and didn’t have a whole lot of smoke flavor. They weren’t bad by any means, but we weren’t going to stuff ourselves trying to finish them either.

The beef and a half was a monster. Over a pound of thin sliced brisket was piled high between three little pieces of white bread. The meat had a nice smoke ring, but it was a little bland and on the dry side. While I was disappointed with the meat by itself, the addition of a little sauce made the sandwich quite good. Ridiculously large, but good. There’s a reason Gates has a loyal following, and it’s not because they serve bad food.

Our meal over, we noticed George Gates holding court in the corner. George is the son of Ollie Gates and bears the namesake of his grandfather, the restaurant’s founder. George was surrounded by a bevy of women drinking martinis and fighting for his attention. Needless to say, it’s good to be a Gates in Kansas City.

When we asked to take a little tour of the pits and take a picture, we were politely rebuffed for health code reasons and offered the option of the manager taking a picture with my camera for me. Very nice of the staff to try and accommodate, but certainly different from the reception we received at Bryant’s. Truth be told, it’s probably the response two jackwad bbq dorks like us deserved.

After dinner, JP and I walked outside, both craving a little bit of bourbon.

If you’ve watched the scene in Animal House when the boys walk into the Dexter Lake Club where Otis Day and the Knights are playing, you’ll understand what JP and I felt like when we walked into the “Lounge” next to Gates BBQ. The music didn’t actually stop, but everyone’s conversation did. We both had flashbacks to Mondo’s bar in Elgin, TX.

Fortunately the patrons of Gates lounge were much friendlier than Mondo’s. After ordering some bourbon on the rocks, the lady next to us asked the obvious question “what are you two doing here?” When we responded that we were on a barbecue tour of Kansas City, we quickly went from outsiders to welcome visitors.

BBQ has a funny way of doing that.

Over the next hour of conversation, we heard as many opinions on where the best bbq was as there were people in the bar. Before someone would name a place other than Gates, they would look around to make sure that George hadn’t walked in through his private entrance.

After finishing our last drinks, JP and I reluctantly said goodbye to our new friends.

Once in the car, we both agreed that in the battle of Bryant’s vs Gates, we were overwhelmingly on the side of Arthur Bryant’s. I like my barbecue places to have character and Bryant’s oozes it, along with a lot of lard. Gates feels more corporate, like the cross between a Sizzler and a Corky’s. In terms of food(and this is where I'll put the disclaimer that taste is subjective), there’s no contest for us between the two. Gates is okay to very good. Bryant’s is very good to awesome.

Roll Tide.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Kansas City

“When you get your head out of your ass, come up to Kansas City”

That was my favorite comment I received when I posted my first barbecue tour in 2009. I knew I was going to upset some people by leaving out K.C.. I just didn’t know the extent.

You’d have thought that I had told some of these people that their baby was ugly or that their mom’s mustache was a little thick.

While I could have nicely pointed out that at the beginning of my original posts I noted that I had already been to K.C. and that logistically I couldn’t fit it into my trip, I instead vowed to make my second pilgrimage to K.C., this time with pen in hand to take notes.

Joining me on the tour was my faithful bbq tour companion, John Purcell (J.P.).

The plan was aggressive. Six meals in two days. Arthur Bryant’s and Gates on Friday night. L.C.’s and Oklahoma Joe’s for lunch on Saturday. Fiorella’s Jack Stack and a sixth to be named later for Saturday dinner.

Before making the trip, I interviewed Kansas City Barbecue Society(KCBS) founder and Executive Director, Carolyn Wells. The KCBS is the largest barbecue competition organizing body in the country, putting on over 300 events a year.

I had read Carolyn’s book on Memphis barbecue ten years ago, so it was pretty cool to get to talk with someone I’d admired for a while (yes, I am a tremendous bbq dork). Carolyn gave me a brief history lesson on K.C. bbq and talked about the differences in their style. Kansas City is the Melting Pot of BBQ. They do all the major cuts well (beef, ribs, pork, sausage) and they also have delicacy called “burnt ends.” In addition, K.C. is known for having a thicker, sweeter red sauce than any other region.

A Brief Lesson in K.C. Barbecue History

Kansas City owes its bbq fame to a Memphis man. Now don’t get your panties in a wad K.C. fans…Kansas City’s bbq trail starts with a man named Henry Perry, who was born in Shelby County, Tennessee, just outside of Memphis.

Henry Perry is the Abraham of K.C. BBQ. After learning how to bbq on the riverboats of the Mississippi, Perry moved to Kansas City to start what would become the 4th main region/style of bbq in the U.S.(Texas, Memphis, Carolina being the first three). In1908 he started selling smoked meat out of a cart in the garment district of K.C. He eventually opened a restaurant, and two of his apprentices, Charlie Bryant and Arthur Pinkard, would go on to start two different K.C. barbecue empires each worthy of a religious-cult following.

Charlie Bryant was the first disciple of Henry Perry. He we would take over Henry Perry’s restaurant in 1941 before selling it to his brother Arthur Bryant in 1946. That restaurant, which Arthur named Arthur Bryant’s, is arguably the most famous barbecue restaurant in the world, thanks in large part to journalist Calvin Trillin’s 1974 declaration that “the best restaurant in the world is Arthur Bryant’s.”

The second disciple of Henry Perry was a man named Arthur Pinkard. Arthur became the first pit master for George Gates. Using the techniques learned from Perry, Pinkard and Gates would turn Gates Bar-B-Q into a K.C. institution.

In Alabama, the question is “Roll Tide or War Eagle?” In Kansas City, it’s “Bryant’s or Gates?”

JP and I set out to answer that question for ourselves on our first night in K.C.

Arthur Bryant's

Arthur Bryant’s

The neon red sign of Arthur Bryant’s beckons all who make the pilgrimage to barbecue’s Mecca. When you open the doors, your eyes are immediately drawn to the giant menu over the counter where the famed brisket, ribs and fries are being prepared.

The d├ęcor is church basement chic…red chairs, simple tables and a floor you can hose off. The walls are adorned with politicians from Sarah Palin to Jimmy Carter, proving once more that bbq is quite possibly the most unifying force in America.

The smell is absolutely intoxicating, making it almost impossible to decide what to order. Knowing that we had another meal to go, I went with a half-pound of beef, half-pound of ribs, half-pound of burnt ends, a full order of fries and a pitcher of Boulevard Pale Ale.

One great part about Bryant’s is that they prepare your order right in front of you. They take a giant slab of brisket and slice it thin with a deli slicer (something unique to K.C.). I’ll admit the first time I saw brisket sliced that way I was taken back…but then I tasted it on a sandwich and have had a craving for this K.C. delicacy ever since. Next they took a slab of spare ribs and chopped them to order for us before dishing out a ridiculous portion of well-sauced burnt ends. Finally, they piled on a huge mound of fresh cut fries cooked in lard. That’s right. Lard. Which, after tasting, we decided is just the way God intended fries to be.

I’m not sure what scale they use at Bryant’s, but I’m pretty sure it’s one we’d all like to weigh ourselves on. Our “half-pound” of brisket had to be more like a full pound, and lord knows how much our burnt-ends weighed.

With the food on the table, JP and I began to dig in.

First off was the brisket. A beautiful pink smoke ring lines the outside of every piece. The meat itself was lean and juicy. The rub was savory but not overwhelming, leaving plenty of room for the natural flavors of smoke, meat and just a little bit of fat to combine nicely.

The brisket itself is very good, but since we’re in K.C. and not Texas, we liberally applied Bryant’s famous sauce to a mound of brisket on white bread. The sauce is incredibly hard to describe. It’s unlike any other sauce I’ve ever tried, and certainly doesn’t share the typical K.C. attributes of being sweet and thick. It has a bit of a faint grittiness to it, and the color is more orange than red. Not overly sweet, hints of tomato and mustard, vinegar for sure.

I’ll be honest…Bryant’s sauce on its own is not my favorite. But when paired with their sliced brisket, it creates a very distinct flavor combination that is both memorable and delectable. You will likely either love it or hate it. I love it. Absolutely love it.

The ribs were well smoked and tender. The rub was perfectly proportioned to give the meat a nice flavor, but similar to the brisket, it didn’t steal the show. While the ribs weren’t quite in the Bar-B-Q Shop’s league, they were really good.

The final meat on our plate was the burnt ends. For anyone not familiar with the term, burnt ends are the end pieces of brisket. While not actually burned, they are incredibly flavorful because they hold more smoke than most center cuts. Think Mr. Brown or the bark of a pork shoulder. If you like smoke flavor, you will LOVE burnt ends.

The burnt ends at Bryant’s are covered in sauce. It’s not my preferred style, because the sauce overpowers the meat, but they are still good. Really damn good. As you can see from our finished plate, there wasn’t a bit of any meat left.

Boulevard Pale was a very good local beer to pair with our meal. Given my new beer endeavors, I pay a little more attention to local brews and have decided that on all future bbq trips, we’ll try to do a brewery tour. Couldn’t squeeze it in this time, but that’s ok.

Our meal complete, we asked the folks at Bryant’s if we could take a little tour of the pits. As we waited, we started talking to some of the regulars. Our favorite was Gary, who proudly informed us that he’d been coming to Bryant’s at least once a week for 59 years. Like many folks I’ve met in K.C., Gary worships at the altar of Jayhawk hoops and Arthur Bryant’s bbq.

After about twenty minutes, we started to wonder if they’d forgotten about our request to take a little tour. Much to our chagrin, Hal, the manager, had been personally sweeping the floors and had his crew busting their ass to make sure the kitchen was spotless before we went back there. When I tried to explain that we really didn’t mean for them to go to any trouble, Hal nicely said, “you’re guests in our house. We’ll just be a minute.”

It was clear Hal took a lot of pride in his “house.” Growing up in the South, I have begrudgingly grown an appreciation for this type of hospitality (begrudgingly because it’s usually my mess that needs attending). Even when good friends come over, there’s typically a mad scramble to make the house look hospitable. While JP and I weren’t good friends of Bryant’s by any means, we now understood why Hal was pulling out all the stops for our amateur-hour food review.

Once allowed entry, we marveled at the famous smoker. If you’ve ever used a cast iron skillet, you can appreciate what an 80+ year smoker does to a bbq aficionado. While not a whole lot to look at, you have to appreciate the millions of people who have been served from the smoker at Bryant’s.

The meat is smoked on the low level and then moved to the higher racks once it’s ready.Hal apologized that they didn’t have any meat on it, but he did pull out a giant tray with a full brisket, two racks of ribs and a whole shoulder. I get hungry every time I look at this picture.

As we walked out of Bryant’s, I couldn’t help but think how impressive it was that at the end of a long week, at the most famous bbq place in the world, the staff went out of their way to accommodate what had to be an annoying request. Not only that, they made us feel welcome while doing so.

That’s probably why folks like Gary have been coming there weekly for 59 years.