In Search of Southern Cooking in
America at Large:
A Sauce Worth Drinking
I’ve never really understood the level of fanatical devotion to which bottled barbecue sauce is shown. Google just about any national brand of sauce, be it KC Masterpiece or the venerable Sweet Baby Rays and you’ll find countless fan videos extolling the virtues of one particular brand of sweet, red glop over all the others. To me, they all taste like sugar and chili powder with a touch of ketchup—not exactly what I would want to dump all over grilled meat. I’ve always been in the “sauce is for dry barbecue” camp.
It took a drive through Kansas City recently to realize how shortsighted I’ve been.
Kansas City-style barbecue traces its history back to the early twentieth century, when Henry Perry first started selling slow-cooked ribs out of a trolley barn situated east of downtown. Fast forward a couple of decades, and two of Perry’s cooks, Charlie Bryant and Arthur Pinkard, had formed their own restaurants. Bryant’s place was soon taken over by his brother, (another) Arthur, and then renamed Arthur Bryant’s. Pinkard teamed up with George Gates to form Gate’s Barbecue. Between the two eateries, the barbecue style now widely associated with Kansas City—a variety of meats smoked over hickory served with a thick molasses and tomato sauce—was formed. These days, Bryant’s and Gate’s are still churning out barbecue, attracting franchise deals, former Presidents, and television programming at a rapid pace.
I’d eaten at Arthur Bryant’s years ago. My family was on one of our road trips, this time across the country, and stopped over in KC for lunch. I’m sure my dad had found Bryant’s listed in a travel guide, or perhaps in our atlas, so we braved the crowds at the original location to see what the fuss was about. All I remember from that meal was how tiny the slices of white bread looked when piled under the mountain of pork and sauce. I was pretty sure I had ordered a sandwich, but this looked more like an eating challenge than slow-cooked pork between two slices of bread. We ate ourselves sick; and as entertaining as it was to laugh and groan about our bellyaches, I never had the urge to return.
Yet after driving out of Kentucky this summer, I figured it would be a crime to skip KC on this drive. Instead of going back to Bryant’s, we decided to check out a newer entrant to the scene, Oklahoma Joe’s. Situated on the Kansas side of the city, Oklahoma Joe’s has become famous for their competition-winning sauce, long lines, and the fact that their original location is in a gas station. Anthony Bourdain also thinks their food is kick-ass, naming Joe’s one of thirteen places to visit before you die: “Here, the brisket (particularly the burnt ends), pulled pork, and ribs are all of a quality that meet the high standards even of Kansas City natives. It’s the best BBQ in Kansas City, which makes it the best BBQ in the world.”
We pulled into Joe’s on the early side of a Thursday lunch rush; the place was already packed, so we shuffled into line and prepared for a long wait. Despite the nagging feeling that this line was not actually a line for barbecue but instead a wait for a brand-new amusement park ride, our forty-five minutes in the queue gave us plenty of time to read the menu and plot the most efficient plan of meat-attack. It’s hard to not go overboard when sampling barbecue; all meats are fair game, of course, but there are also sides and sandwiches to consider. A quick glance around the room revealed the sandwiches to be gigantic non-sandwiches (like at Arthur Bryant’s) and the sides to be the oft-ignored barbecue standards of coleslaw, beans, and the like. Honestly, it was a relief to cross sandwiches and sides off of our must-order list and stick to the Bourdain-ordained basics: brisket, pulled pork, and ribs (sadly, burnt ends are only available on Wednesdays and Saturdays).
Ordering at Oklahoma Joe’s is a lot like ordering at the Varsity in Atlanta (see above video). There’s a lot of yelling involved. You yell your order to the first man in the assembly line. This guy yells some version of your order (all in code, of course) to the crew in the back, who slap meat, butter-wheeled toast, and coleslaw onto a plate. Less than a minute later, your tray of food appears, magically containing each and every item you ordered. It’s a little disconcerting to go through this process when you’re not about to eat a fast-food chili dog, but the discomfort is well worth it once the food hits the table.
Our two-meat plate arrived with a slight drizzle of sauce over the pulled pork and brisket, a couple of slices of too-thin Texas toast, and a bowl of totally serviceable coleslaw. Oklahoma Joe’s claims pulled pork is a specialty of the house; while I found it plenty moist and flavorful, my heart belonged to the luscious, smoke-tinged brisket.
We also ordered a rib plate (gotta eat ribs in Kansas City). Tender, ever-so-smoky, and slicked with a thin layer of sticky sauce, the ribs were some of the best I’ve had. After ignoring the mayonnaise-soup-like potato salad, we were in total barbecue heaven.
Eaten with just the slick of sauce served with our meats, Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ was stick-to-your-fingers and find-extra-sauce-on-your-pants good. Yet it wasn’t until we started pouring on even more sauce that the meats turned extraordinary. This sauce was no run-of-the-mill bottled slop; it quivered right up to the edge of too-tangy, too-spicy, and too-sweet without once toppling over. Its bright zestiness made the brisket beefier, pork richer, and ribs even more exceptional. This sauce was no cure-all for over-grilled meat—it was a masterpiece in its own right. Even after demolishing our meals, we continued squirting sauce onto our spoons and fingers (shhh…don’t tell).
In fact, we even bought a bottle of the stuff to bring along to California, marking the first time I have ever kept barbecue sauce in my fridge.