Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Kansas City BBQ

BBQ Snob and Smokemasterone had the priviledge to judge some great barbeque at the American Royal BBQ Competition in Kansas City this year. We decided to bring the whole FCGBBQ family as well, and of course we had to see what the rest of Kansas City had to offer. Most importantly, we had to sample the fine smoked meats to get a feel for the KC style, and to see how it stacks up against Texas BBQ.

BBQ Snob family

The first order of business was to become a certified BBQ judge (CBJ) in a class sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS). They have competitions all over the country, and becoming a CBJ will allow us to be judges at any one of these competitions. We went straight from the airport on this rainy Thursday morning to the class. Mike Lake was our instructor on this day, and he gave his no nonsense version of proper judging procedures. In addition to tales of the great parsley ban of early 2009, we also learned that a garnish of red tipped lettuce would cause a disqualification, while a human hair on the other hand, was fair game.

Some humorous terms were discussed. Some of the jewels include "integrity in the mouth", "pooling & puddling", "the money muscle" and "moulding your meat". On the serious side, judging rules are strict, but it's all done in the spirit of giving each competitor a level playing field.

CBJ class

After explanations of how to score meats on appearance, taste and texture, we were able to sample some meat to test our judging skills. The procedure is simple. The appointed table captain announces the entrant's number on each styrofoam bow of meat, then they display the meat to each judge for the appearance judging. The meats are then passed to each judge who takes a piece out of every box and places it on the cardboard "plate". Once all of the meat in that category has been distributed, the eating begins. Four categories - chicken, ribs, pork and brisket - are sanctioned by the KCBS, so each was sampled. All of the meat we enjoyed during the class came straight from Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue in southwest KC. Nothing was incredible, but most everything was satisfying. You can't really ask much for meat that's been stored for several hours awaiting our mock judging.

Judging plate

After judging class, we made our way to the hotel. A few minutes later, SM1 and I were on our way for our first bite official KC BBQ was Gates Bar-B-Q. This local chain of six restaurants had a location just down from our hotel in KCK. Gates is part of the Kansas City BBQ royalty, and is always mentioned alongside the likes of Fiorella's Jack Stack, Arthur Bryant's and Oklahoma Joe's. Upon entering, the cashier yells "Hi, may I help you" in a gesture that's meant to be hospitable but ends up sounding more like an impatient command.

One thing I was ignorant of at Gates is that a "mixed plate" contains three types of predetermined meat (brisket, ribs and ham), so when I asked for burnt ends, brisket and ribs, what I got was an order of each along with the mixed plate. Ham was processed and salty. The ribs were better, but the salty rub combined with the incredibly salty sauce worked together to form an efficient dehydrating concoction. The burnt ends at Gates were really just the entire crust of the brisket shaved off, mixed with fatty chucks of meat and chopped together. This made for a salty mixture of flavorful meat that had a mealy texture rather than the preferred crispiness. The fries were great, but not much else was including their three versions of sauce - original, hot, and sweet. They were all, you guessed it, too salty.

Gates mixed plate

Gates burnt ends

Hopefully, Gates was just a meager introduction to the KC style. If not, we were in for a long and dreadful weekend for our palettes. We had an aggressive BBQ itinerary planned for Friday. It all started with LC's Bar-B-Q, which is a local favorite. Here we ordered a mixed plate that contained ribs, sliced brisket and ham. We also went for some sausage and the burnt ends.

LC's spread

The sausage was odd in that it had no casing, but this smoked bulk sausage was well spiced and well smoked. The ribs had been sauced with the meaty side down, so the nice crust stayed dry. Each bite was better than the next, and this slightly sweet sauce was a great compliment. Brisket was better than Gates, but the thin slices lacked smokiness. At this point we were learning that the KC style allows the brisket to be tough and flavorless, while these deficiencies are taken care of with the thin slices and additional flavor from the sauce.

The best item at LC's was the burnt ends. They were true chunks of brisket with plenty of smoke flavor, and just the right amount of chew. I also admired that LC has one type of sauce, and if you don't like it...too bad.

LC's burnt ends

We dropped the ladies at the Plaza for some shopping and continued or BBQ quest alone. Our next stop was Woodyard BBQ in KCK. This converted house provides a unique dining experience with orders taken at the kitchen counter and what looked like a former bedroom serving as one of the many dining rooms. A sampler of brisket, ribs, chicken and sausage was on the menu, so we added a burnt end sandwich for a nice afternoon snack.

These burnt ends were similar in quality to Gates, but the sauce was better. Ribs needed more meat, but the flavor was passable, while the Eckrich like sausage was bad. Chicken was the best with a smoky flavor while brisket tasted more like deli roast beef than smoked meat.

Mixed plate at The Woodyard

Burnt ends at Woodyard

We passed Oklahoma Joe's on our way to Woodyard, so it wasn't hard to find our way back. We tried nearly every one of their offerings at the CBJ class, so we went straight for the standard ribs and sliced brisket. The brisket was the best on the trip. It was moist and tender while still having that smokey flavor. That flavor had the ability to shine through due to the light application of sauce. St. Louis style ribs were just as good as they were in class. Moist, tender and full of flavor that matched well with the sauce. A hot sauce is also available, but it needs much more heat to match the name.

Ribs and brisket at Oklahoma Joe's

After a walk around the Crossroads art district in the evening, we stopped for dinner at Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue in the Freight House. This is a white table cloth joint referred to by locals simply as Jack Stack. We ordered a wide variety of meats that are not pictured due to the poor lighting. An appetizer of a crown prime beef rib was an excellent piece of smoked beefiness, and a plate of sliced sausage was rich and flavorful.

For the main course, the famous lamb ribs were a bit fatty and gamey for my tastes, while the standard pork ribs and sliced brisket were both decent if not memorable. A variety of burnt ends were ofered, so we opted for the pork version which ended up being nothing more than chunks of pork subjected to an open flame until charred. It tasted more like charcoal than meat. The sides here a re really the winners. Cheesy corn, the aforementioned onion rings, baked beans and creamy coleslaw were all worth going back for.

Rib plate at Jack Stack

Saturday morning began with a trip to Arthur Bryant's to try and beat the rush. This place gets busy, and the line doesn't exactly move along briskly. Luckily our arrival at 10:10 allowed us to get through with no line to order a few huge sandwiches, including the open faced burnt end sandwich. In all we sampled sliced pork, beef, ham, rib and sausage.

Brisket had been sliced very thin with the grain, so it was still a bit chewy and cold, but no very flavorful. Sliced pork was great with (too much) well rendered fat and good smokiness. Sausage was from a bologna sized log and was thin sliced. It was odd, but had good seasoning. Ribs had a good crust and texture as well as great flavor, but the burnt ends were the best. Being the beginning of the day we got true bits of burnt brisket ends, and the flavor of the meat and the original sauce together was perfect. The other two sauces, a sweet version and a spicy version, had odd flavors that would take some getting used to.

Brisket sandwich, ribs and fries at Arthur Bryant's

Burnt ends at Arthur Bryant's

Thinking we were done for the day, we happened upon Winslow's Kansas City Barbecue while tooling around the City Market district, and we couldn't pass it up. A brisket and rib plate came unsauced, and for the first time we saw thick sliced brisket. Overall, this was closer to good Texas BQ rather than KC style, and the smokiness was there to match. Each slice of brisket had a good crust and they were moist and tender. The ribs also had a well formed crust with rosy meat beneath, but they had a stored flavor to them. Both sauces here were pretty bad with a perfumy flavor.

Winslow's ribs and brisket

We held off from eating more BBQ for the rest of the day as we had several pounds of meat in our near future that would be waiting for us on the judge's table.

We arrived at the Royal promptly at 10:00 am. A daunting line of judges stood before us, but we were assured by the veterans that the line would move quickly, and everyone would get a seat. With over 500 teams entering this day's competition, we would need every one of the nearly 600 judges present. As a newly certified judge, I was seated at a table with three other CBJ's and two civilians, while SM1 was seated one table away.

A sea of judges

Smokemasterone at his judging table

We trudged through six entries of chicken, seven ribs, six more entries each of pork and brisket, and three entries of the unsanctioned sausage competition. Since I signed up for the post, I had assumed that one this day I might have a chance to eat some of the best BQ I'd ever eaten, but it wasn't to be so. One of the chicken entries was great while others were so sticky sweet, I had to scrape the sugary rub from my lips. Some of the ribs had such a thick goo on top, they might as well have been coated with molasses. Two of the rib entries were worth finishing, but every brisket entry was bad to marginal. All of the pork entries were decent, but none were elevated to greatness, and the sausages were all downright bad.

I couldn't take photos of the entries while in the competition, but I took a shot of my doggy bag to give you a sense of what I was eating. That brisket slice on top has a god smoke ring and looks appetizing, but I promise you I've had dowzens of better slices in the Lone Star State.


So what id we learn in Kansas City? Competition BBQ is prepared to get the most bang out of a few bites rather than to create quality meat that could be enjoyed as a meal. KC brisket is almost always sliced thin, while each joint is judged mainly on their sauce. Most importantly, I learned that I live in the best state for BBQ. Texas BBQ is smokier, more flavorful, and much less dependent on sauce. I'll gladly choose the products of Texas pit masters over those in Kansas City, but they still put out some quality smoked meat in KC. If only we had burnt ends around here.

- BBQ Snob


smokemasterone said...

My experience at the adjacent judging table was a little more positive. Same story with chicken. One of them was so heavily glazed that there was no way to bite through the skin at all. The rest would have made really nice Sunday lunches, but nothing extraordinary. There was also a piece of brisket more suitable for use as a dog toy. One of my fellow judges gave up on it without actually managing to bite through it at all. We had some tasty ribs and pork as well as a couple unusual but interesting sausage entries. Still, I was a little disappointed. The other judges at my table with several competitions under their belts indicated they had better in the past.

Dunk said...

Great piece on KC BBQ. Love your blog. I write one as well and am impressed by the number of places you guys have visited.

If you're ever in TN let me know.

-Mark Dunkerley


ribking1 said...

that would have been a good experience, thats what i did in memphis.. the burnt ends looked awesome,and it also looked like one of the items had a mustard based sauce on it.. ilike that.. glad yall had a good time..
jim hashknife

Anonymous said...

Nice family picture..........thanks for sharing your mugs!

Anonymous said...

Remember,this is his personal opinion. Not all competition meat is the same. And another thing to remember, the almost 600 competitions teams that cooked both the invitational and/or open were from all over the country as well as, I know of, England. So, just because you may only like Texas Q, that doesn't mean that there isn't any good Q any where else. Again, this is his opinion on his experience, and my opinion on my experience cooking Q in 7 states in the SE as well as the KC invitational and open. And yes, our team got a call for our brisket in the invitational, and we are NOT from Texas.....

BBQ Snob said...

Simmer down there Anonymous. As you can see from the post, I enjoyed quite a bit of the BBQ I had in KC, but the competition entries that were set in front of me that day could not be ranked as some of the best I've had. The briskets that I ate that day ranged from chewy to dry, and the flavors ranged from horseradish to almost indetectable. I wouldn't have like any of them whether I ate them in Texas or Peoria. Congrats on your brisket. My assumption is that our table just got a bad draw that day.

Anonymous said...

so you thought most of it was no good but yet you still brought some home in a doggie bag..typical judge

Anonymous said...

The first bite of bitter tasting, oversmoked mesquite wood bbq in the DFW area prepares your mouth by numbing it to any futher taste of food. If you like the smell, taste and carcinogens found in this area, go for it. I live here and travel all over the US. Don't eat BBQ in DFW, they can't cook.

BBQ Snob said...

Out of more than 120 joints in DFW, I can count on one hand the few that use mesquite. Hickory dominates with pecan and oak taking a distant second and third. Where have you been getting so much mesquite smoked meat in DFW?

KC Snob said...

Too bad you missed the burnt ends at OK Joes, they will change your life! They are only available on Wednesday and Saturday because they are the real del, only the points that are rerubbed and tossed back on to smoke for a few more hours. The rest of the joints just cube up te whole brisket. Respectfully, but arduously disagree with the contention that TX is better than KC. I suppose it has to do with what we grew up on.


Each joint is judged on the essence of Texas 'cue...sliced brisket and pork ribs. Sausage is only considered if house made. Sauce is good, but good meat needs no adornment to satisfy. Each review can only be based on specific cuts of meat on that particular day. Finally, if the place fries up catfish or serves a caesar salad, then chances are they aren't paying enough attention to the pits, so we mostly steered clear.