A Kansas City BBQ tour is an ideal foodie foray into the world of barbecue. For carnivores, no trip to Kansas City is complete without a stop at one of the city’s more than 100 barbecue joints.
Instead of randomly picking one place for lunch or dinner, though, I boarded a bus for a 4-hour tour with KC Barbecue Tours. We stopped at four local favorites, sampling at least one generous helping of meat, plus a side dish. (I was stuffed by the end of the tour.)
Here’s where we went, what we sampled and what I learned along the way.
Kansas City BBQ Birthplace: Arthur Bryant’s
Our first stop was Arthur Bryant’s, the birthplace of Kansas City barbecue. As we approached, we learned how Henry Perry moved from the Memphis area to Kansas City and, in 1908, began selling slow-smoked ribs drenched in a peppery sauce from a cart. Soon, he was able to purchase a small restaurant that became a favorite with musicians during the Jazz Age.
He was also able to hire an assistant, Charlie Bryant, whose brother, Arthur Bryant, followed him into the business. When Perry died in 1940, Charlie took over, and six years later, the company passed to Arthur, who renamed the restaurant Arthur Bryant’s.
The restaurant became a local institution and in 1974 gained national when Kansas City native Calvin Trillin wrote an article in the New Yorker proclaiming Arthur Bryant’s the best restaurant on the plant.
Some barbecue aficionados will debate that (more on that later), but over the years, presidents including Harry Truman, Ronald Regan, and Barack Obama have enjoyed ribs at Arthur Bryant’s as have celebrities such as Steven Spielberg and Jack Nicholson.
We were treated to a platter of smoked ribs, sliced ham, coleslaw, pickles and white bread served with several sauces. The ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender and the ham tasty, but I have to admit I wasn’t a fan of the peppery sauce at first. It wasn’t until I bought a bottle in my local grocery store so my husband could try it that I came to appreciate it.
Next was LC’s Bar-B-Q, a labor of love for L. C. Richardson, who for years worked as a corporate chef. After taking an early retirement, he perfected the techniques he watched relatives using growing up in Mississippi. When he had the recipe right, he began selling his meats from a counter in a gas station.
Today, even though LC’s Bar-B-Q has expanded to take over the entire building, it’s still a small restaurant with only eight tables, including L. C.’s favorite in the corner. (He was there briefly the day we visited.)
I’m told the ribs, sliced pork, beef brisket and other meats here are excellent, but we sampled the burnt ends with stack of hot, thick-cut fries. The burnt ends were my favorite meat of the day, flavorful with the right amount of smokiness. If I could only visit one barbecue joint on my next visit to Kansas City, it would be LC’s Bar-B-Q for the burnt ends.
Kansas City BBQ – Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue
Our third stop was to Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, the offshoot of a barbecue joint opened by Russ Fiorella in 1957. Russ expanded to four restaurants, and in 1974, his eldest son, Jack, took over one of them, the Smoke Stack.
He renamed it Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue and, to set it apart, expanded the menu to include lamb ribs, crown prime beef short ribs and other meats that are usually not smoked. He also began grilling Angus steak and fresh seafood over a hickory wood fire and began serving wine and cocktails.
We skipped the wine and cocktails (alcohol is not included in the Original Tour although you can purchase it directly from the restaurants you visit) and dug into the crown prime beef short ribs, sliced brisket, cheesy corn and hickory pit beans.
Although I was already getting full, I couldn’t help devouring the short rib. Beefy and fork tender it was my second favorite meat of the day (second only to LC’s burnt ends).
In Kansas City, you fall into one of two camps: Arthur Bryant’s or Gates Bar-B-Q. The rivalry goes back to Perry, who had more than one cook. In addition to Charlie Bryant, Perry hired Arthur Pinkard, who eventually left to work for George and Arzelia Gates when they opened a barbecue restaurant.
Gates Bar-B-Q gained a steady following, and soon Kansas City residents were declaring their allegiance to one or the other of the two restaurants.
Here, we served ourselves from platters filled with ribs, brisket and sliced chicken. I have to admit, at this point, I was pretty full, but I made room for a bite of each.
The verdict? Since I don’t live in Kansas City, I think I can get away without deciding between Team Arthur Bryant’s and Team Gates, which is a good thing because I liked them both: Arthur Bryant’s for their ribs and Gates Bar-B-Q for their sauce.
Other things to do in Kansas City
Kansas City has a lot more to offer than barbecue. When you’re not working your way through a saucy slab, tour the National World War I Museum, the only national museum dedicated to interpreting and understanding the First World War
Or, spend a few hours perusing the impressive collection of American, European and Asian art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It’s free, so don’t feel like you need to see everything in one visit.
If you want to explore the historic African-American neighborhood where Arthur Bryant’s and Gates Bar-B-Q got started, head to the American Jazz Museum to explore the beats that rocked the area during the 1920s. Next door, visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
And, of course, after all this touring, you're sure to be hungry for some good ol' Kansas City BBQ.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with tour and meals for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.