You might expect that a magazine renowned for its staunch advocacy of healthy living and fitness would celebrate only healthful dining and that its food-related content would be penned only by paragons of physical fitness and health. Perhaps because it may want a broader, younger readership demographic, Men’s Health Magazine asked popular but vice-ridden sybarite Anthony Bourdain to author an article entitled “13 Places to Eat Before You Die.” Bourdain, whose seedy past includes heavy drinking, drug use, chain smoking and an addiction to pork wrote a thought-provoking “bucket list” which included restaurants and food–outstanding though they might be–which might actually accelerate your demise. What a way to go!
Interspersed within Bourdain’s lucky thirteen restaurants, some of which are among the world’s most exclusive and highly regarded, is a barbecue restaurant in Kansas City, Kansas. Almost as big a surprise is that it’s not Arthur Bryant’s the world-famous 800-pound gorilla of Kansas City barbecue. Instead, one of the thirteen restaurants at which you should eat before you die is Oklahoma Joe’s which Bourdain touted as “the best BBQ in Kansas City, which makes it the best BBQ in the world.” Men’s Health Magazine’s infatuation with Oklahoma Joe’s wasn’t exclusive to Bourdain’s bucket list feature. In 2012, the magazine named the restaurant “the manliest barbecue joint” in the country,” citing its 2011 sales of 400,000 pounds of brisket and hundreds of thousands of pounds more of pulled pork, ribs, chicken and sausage.
As you pull up to Oklahoma Joe’s, there are telltale signs that you might just be approaching greatness. License plates from virtually every corner of the fruited plain are indicative of pilgrimages made by barbecue enthusiasts who traverse the country in search of the best barbecue. Oklahoma Joe’s occupies a working multi-pump gas station and a convenience store you can’t pigeonhole with the 7-11 variety because its aisles are stocked with an astounding number of barbecue sauces and spice rubs, including many from other pantheons of barbecue greatness throughout America.
Lines of hungry diners snake out the door and spill out onto the parking lot. When you get to the door, you’re still about 45 minutes away from placing your order, but you’ll have access to paper menus which will probably be covered with drool by the time you reach the counter. The line slows to a crawl until finally, you get to a counter where you place your order, fill your beverage cup from a self-serve dispenser and keep an eye out for one of the 70 seats to come open. Fortunately, many of the orders are of the take-out variety and there’s a separate order and pick-up station for to-go orders.
Oklahoma Joe’s was founded in 1996 by owner Jeff Stehney who cut his teeth on the competitive barbecue circuit with his Slaughterhouse Five tournament team. The quintet garnered dozens of the most championships and accolades on the circuit including the American Royal in Kansas City and the Jack Daniels Invitational. The team’s dominance isn’t singularly focused on one meat or section of an animal, having won every single barbecue category they entered: chicken, brisket, pork, sausage, lamb and sauce. In 2001, at the International Sauce Contest, the American Royal barbecue society declared Oklahoma Joe’s sauce the “best sauce on the planet.”
My inaugural visit to Oklahoma Joe’s was with my friend and fellow barbecue aficionado Bill Resnik. As with many patrons on the lengthy queue, we were there because of the media hype, enticed by the promise of transformative barbecue. A Zagat rating of “27” means locals love it, too. As we stood in wide-eyed anticipation, we both noted something conspicuous by its absence. Oklahoma Joe’s didn’t greet us with the olfactory-arousing aroma of smoked meats wafting toward us like an irresistible siren’s call. Instead of the fragrant bouquet of seductive smoke, an almost anemic hint of smoke was all we discerned. We certainly hoped the flavor of smoked meats would make a bigger impression than their aroma.
The Oklahoma Joe’s menu features a number of BBQ sandwiches and specialty sandwiches in regular and jumbo sizes. The house specialty is pulled pork…and not just any pulled pork, but Carolina pulled pork. Three of the salads make no pretensions at pleasing vegetarians; they’re crammed with various meats. BBQ dinners, served with one side dish and Texas toast, showcase ribs, chicken, brisket, smoked turkey, smoked ham and sausage. You can also purchase meats by the pound. One pound serves three adults or one hungry sojourner.
The Carolina pork sandwich features pulled pork served on a toasted bun topped with spicy coleslaw and “Bubba” sauce. This is a messy sandwich, the type of which requires several napkins to get through. Much of the messiness is courtesy of the spicy coleslaw, which didn’t quite live up to its “spicy” descriptor, especially if meant as a synonym for “piquant.” The Bubba sauce is a vinegar-based sauce ostensibly with some heat behind it. Perhaps you can blame our New Mexico upbringing, but we didn’t get heat out of the sauce or the coleslaw. We also didn’t get much smoke though the pork did have a very pleasant, somewhat sweet flavor and it didn’t have any annoying fat or sinew.
A jumbo pulled pork sandwich topped with the restaurant’s house sauce is a better bet. There’s a lot of pork between the buns and it’s moist, tender and delicious with nary a hint of sinew or fat to be found. The “best sauce in the planet” didn’t quite live up to its billing. Good, but not great, it’s a ketchup-based sauce with a thin consistency and a flavor profile that’s mostly sweet. Fortunately it’s not applied too heavily so you can add some of the more interesting “Night of the Living Sauce,” a sauce with attitude. As with the Carolina pork sandwich, the jumbo pulled pork sandwich is “better than New Mexico” good, but didn’t completely blow us over as we had expected.
Side dishes include BBQ beans, potato salad, creamy coleslaw, dirty rice, spicy slaw and red beans and rice served in containers ranging from “side” (feeds one person) to half-gallon (feeds 10-12 people). The BBQ beans are superb, maybe my favorite item on the menu. That’s not a surprise considering the beans have earned the “best beans on the planet” distinction. Made with three types of beans, they’re not overly sweet, as some BBQ beans tend to be. The French fries are a bit desiccated, the result of a generous application of a seasoning mix. Orders include sliced pickles, a Kansas City barbecue tradition.
With only one visit behind me, it’s probably not fair to say Oklahoma Joe’s didn’t live up to its billing. Our expectations were stratospherically high and it would have been very difficult to meet them. In truth, our barbecue was very good, certainly better than we’ll find in New Mexico, but not “best on the planet” or even “best in Kansas City” good.
Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue
3002 West 47th Avenue
Kansas City, Kansas
LATEST VISIT: 7 September 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Pulled Pork, Carolina Pork Sandwich, BBQ Beans, French Fries