I had just learned my first lesson of Kansas City barbecue the hard way: Don’t just waltz right in at closing time expecting to be served. In my defense, I was coming pretty much directly from Kansas City International Airport, where I had landed on a Saturday night. I checked into my hotel, on the downtown Missouri side, and quickly crossed over to Kansas to Slap’s BBQ, which I had heard good things about. And while I arrived well before closing time, a sign greeted my arrival that clearly stated that they were open until 8 p.m. — or when they sold out, whichever came first. It had come first. I slunk back to Missouri.
Fortunately, the rest of my time in Kansas City was full of top-notch barbecue (and state border crossings). It’s such a revered barbecue destination that it’s one of the major regional styles typically cited (along with the Carolinas, Texas and Memphis) when people talk about smoked meats. I also stumbled on a fantastic music scene, some satisfying museums, well-made local beers and great shopping (all on a limited budget, naturally). And I had a chance to see different sides of a great city in America’s heartland that truly seems to be coming into its own.
As for any kind of rivalry between the Missouri and Kansas sides, I didn’t sense that much existed. The Missouri side, frankly, has most of the stuff: the people, urban development, sports teams and the international airport. But the town existed before Kansas’ 1861 statehood and current north-south border, and the city seems unified, if split by an arbitrary border.
That is not to say there aren’t differences. I found the Kansas side was quieter and felt more suburban than the Missouri side. It was also cheaper. My Kansas Airbnb in the Rosedale neighborhood was a great deal at $70 a night and gave me the run of a small house. I stayed one night downtown, on the Missouri side, and couldn’t find anything less than $169 at the Crowne Plaza.
As for barbecue, there is enough on both sides of the state line to satisfy the most dedicated fanatic. During my time in Kansas City I asked a half-dozen residents “What’s the best barbecue in the city?” and got a half-dozen different answers. In general, expect slowly smoked meats covered in a slightly thick, sweet tomato-based sauce (as opposed to, say, the Carolinas, where you would expect a more vinegary sauce).
“Barbecue is highly subjective,” said James Folder, a local I met outside Blip Roasters in the West Bottoms neighborhood, an old industrial area that has seen the arrival of restaurants, coffee shops and vintage stores in recent years. I picked up a strong cup of $2 Colombia El Obraje (roasted in-house) and a $3 peanut butter bar and struck up a conversation with Folder and Ed Klein, both of whom arrived on motorcycles. Folder had the letters “T-R-U-E” tattooed on the fingers of his right hand and “G-R-I-T” on his left.
Klein, who lives in nearby Leawood and judges barbecue competitions, said he is looking primarily for “taste, presentation and texture,” among other attributes. “Real barbecue doesn’t fall off the bone,” he said, “It should have some tensile strength.” They both gave me lists of their favorite spots before zooming off.
But I had my own list to work through, beginning with Arthur Bryant’s. The restaurant that Calvin Trillin famously (if somewhat hyperbolically) pronounced “the single best restaurant in the world” was definitely worth a visit, even if that pronouncement was made in 1972. Arthur Bryant’s traces its lineage back to the legendary Henry Perry, the father of Kansas City barbecue.
Today, it still serves up the heaping plates of burnt ends ($9.55) it became famous for. Burnt ends, the smaller, tougher bits from the point end of a brisket, were originally considered scraps and even given away before restaurant owners realized how much customers enjoyed them (and would be willing to pay for them). In texture, they’re a bit like meatier rib tips, but without that crunch of cartilage. Instead, the crunch comes from the meaty chunks getting fired again in the smoker. Everyone knows that burned bits are the best part of any barbecue: Kansas City turned it into an art form. I queued up and stumbled out 30 minutes later, full of pickles, fries and tender, blackened beef.
Was Arthur Bryant’s still the king, though? I thought the burnt ends were slightly better at LC’s Bar-B-Q, 15 minutes southeast of downtown. The crunchy, chewy, flavorful ends were perfect, as was the atmosphere: no frills, with a big smoker behind the counter. After paying for my plate of ends and a bottle of water (after tax, a bit under $15), I asked the man behind the counter where L.C. was. “Big man ain’t here right now,” he replied. “Is L.C. a nickname for something?” I asked. “No, it’s just L.C.” he said. I asked, pushing my luck: “It’s not initials? It doesn’t stand for anything?” He said, “Man, look: It stands for L.C.” I took his word for it.
Union Station in the heart of Kansas City, Mo. (Anna Petrow/The New York Times)
Barbecue, while Kansas City’s prime attraction, certainly isn’t the only thing going on. I explored the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum (housed within the same complex, $15 for a combo ticket) in the 18th and Vine district. The baseball museum is the stronger of the two, offering biographies of players, memorabilia and a detailed history of the forming of the Negro Leagues — but it was what I discovered after the museums closed that was really spectacular: The Blue Room Jazz Club, attached to the museum complex, hosts a killer open mike every Sunday night called Neo-Soul Lounge ($5 cover).
“We got to support our own,” said the emcee for the evening, who was funny and did a good job keeping things running smoothly. “Even if the music is, like, not good.” The audience groaned. “No, I’m serious! We need to support local artists.” Fortunately, bad music was not a concern: The open mic was a Murderers’ Row of vocal talent, one person to the next. A small, seemingly shy young man came up and belted a gospel song with the excellent house band, and a local artist who goes by Mae C., sang a song called “Warning Signs of True Love.” I sipped my $5 stout from Martin City Brewing Co., a local brewer, and enjoyed the performances, which only seemed to get better as the night went on.
I had a couple of excellent beers during my stay in Kansas City, incidentally. While I was at the fun Up-Down bar playing its substantial collection of vintage arcade and pinball games (Sunday special: six domestic beers and 80 tokens for $25), I tried a Tea Weiss ($6) from Crane Brewing, a brewery based in a Kansas City suburb. I love sour beers, and this is one of the best I’ve had: fruity and mouth-puckeringly tart but eminently drinkable.
In addition to the great barbecue, beer and music in the city, I took the opportunity to indulge in a pastime I rarely enjoy: shopping. Kansas City is an excellent place for it, especially for used and vintage threads. After I left my two new motorcycle-riding friends at Blip coffee in West Bottoms, I walked over to Hickory Street, where there are at least a half-dozen great thrift stores all within eyesight of one another.
The enormous Le Fou Flea is perhaps the most impressive, if only for its size: a four-story warehouse of clothes, shoes, books and knickknacks. Across the street is Varnish and Vine, a slightly more upscale store opened about nine months ago by a nice guy named Michael Lays. I also popped into the Pink Daisy, a store with more of an Americana feel that rents space to multiple local vendors.
My big score, though, was at the Gathering Place, which didn’t have the broadest selection of the places I had been but seemed to be the best curated. I felt like splurging: A Pendleton wool winter jacket with a plaid pattern caught my eye. It was in immaculate condition and fit like a glove — a rare experience for a tall person like me. After I chatted a bit with Doris Graves, the friendly owner, she agreed to a small discount and let me have the coat for $58.
I had another good experience in Old Westport, a popular neighborhood with the bar crowd. Several people warned me away from hanging out there at night, so I went during the day instead. I stopped into Bunker, a store with a slightly hipper-than-thou vibe to take advantage of a 50 percent-off sale on new jeans (I picked up a pair for $23) and then headed across the street to Mills Record Co. The friendly owner, Judy (and her dog, Loretta Lynn), gave me a tour of the store that deals primarily in vinyl. There is a good selection of used band T-shirts, too (I snagged an old Weezer shirt for $14).
In the end, though, it does come down to the barbecue. Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, formerly known as Oklahoma Joe’s, was a short walk from my Airbnb. Joe’s is inside of a functioning gas station, and the line forms early. By the time I got there around 11:30 a.m., the line was well out the door. My eyes were watering at the sight of the full slabs of baby back ribs, but I got something more in line with my frugal budget: A Z-Man sandwich with brisket, provolone and onion rings for $7.79.
Another evening near closing time, I walked into Ricky’s Pit Bar B Que, a charming dive filled with old trinkets and photographs. “We got the best smoked catfish in the world,” said Ricky Smith, who has owned the business with his wife, Bonnie, since 1985. I got an enormous portion of smoky, flaky, slightly spicy catfish with potato salad and coleslaw for $20. It was excellent — but was it the best? A hard claim to back up in a city with so much great food. But between mouthfuls of flaky, tender catfish, I wasn’t about to argue.