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 décor 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.