Shortly after Arthur Bryant died in 1982, the Kansas City Star published a cartoon showing St. Peter greeting Arthur at the gates of heaven and asking, “Did you bring sauce?” Perhaps not even in Heaven can such a wondrous sauce be concocted.
Arthur Bryant’s is probably the most famous barbecue restaurant in the country, if not the world–an institution to which celebrity and political glitterati make pilgrimages. If Schlitz was the “beer that made Milwaukee famous,” then Arthur Bryant’s is the barbecue that made Kansas City one of America’s four pillars of barbecue (along with Memphis, Texas and the Carolinas). In a city where barbecue is exalted, Arthur Bryant’s may no longer be indisputably the one restaurant everyone mentions as their favorite, but it remains a revered institution. In 1974, renowned New Yorker magazine author Calvin Trillin declared in Playboy magazine that “the single best restaurant in the world is Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue at 18th and Brooklyn in Kansas City.”
Approaching the restaurant may make you giddy with anticipation. You might not even notice that the original restaurant is situated in the seedy side of town where buildings are boarded up and surrounding streets are nearly deserted. The aroma of barbecue being slow-smoked with a combination of hickory and oak will probably have you salivating with unfettered desire, but you’ll have plenty of company from the line of diners snaking the building. That lust grows as you and those equally ravenous patrons share stories about first experiences with the legendary barbecue (the barbecue brotherhood which grow from Bryant’s barbecue queues could serve as an example for divided nations). The small talk ceases when you finally make it to the counterman where you place your order.
The counterman drops a slice of Wonder Bread on your plate (or on butcher paper for take-out orders) then unceremoniously snares a huge pile of beef and deposits it on the bread. He then takes a squirt bottle and festoons the meat with a Day-Glo colored orange sauce, a unique, grainy “secret recipe” concoction of paprika and vinegar quite atypical of the sweet sauce served at other Kansas City barbecue restaurants. The sauce is fiery, tart and addicting. Three more slices of Wonder bread top the “sandwich” creation which is accompanied by a handful of sliced pickles. A single order of French Fries can feed a small army.
Sandwich is a vast understatement for the enormous mound of beef, pork or “burnt ends” piled onto a half acre (okay, maybe a little overstatement there) of orange wrapping paper (to go orders). By the time that paper is unwrapped, the bread has been rendered virtually incapable of serving as a vehicle for the steamy meaty accompaniment bathed in sauce. The meat is vegetarian conversion glorious in all its manifestations. The beef is better than you’ll find in Texas (forgive me Ryan Scott, but if it’s any consolation, Arthur Bryant did come from Texas), the pork as perfect as ‘cued in Memphis and better than both are “burnt ends,” barbecue beef brisket parts (not scraps mind you) as tender as butter with caramelized edges that seal in flavor. Charred and smoky, the burnt ends are a Kansas City tradition.
Arthur Bryant’s barbecue is so good you might wish you could consume it like pigs eat their dinners from the trough. It’s so good that only utterances of pleasure will interrupt your vigorous mastication. It’s so good that even though an individual sandwich can feed a family of four, you’ll polish it off and want more. The smoky aroma and tenderness of the pork, beef and especially those terrific burnt ends will imprint themselves on your memory for a long time.
Ribs are an Arthur Bryant specialty. The sweet fragrance of smoking hickory wood penetrates the meat with a just-right hint of smoke. The thin bark is where the terrific meaty flavor is most concentrated. There’s not much fat on the ribs, but you will encounter the oft annoying membrane. You can purchase ribs by the half or full rack or by weight (a full pound is just about right). While sauce is wholly unnecessary, the sauce which works best with the ribs is the original sauce.
The beef burnt ends will give you more hickory smoke flavor than other meats. At first glance, New Mexicans might mistake them for carne adovada and indeed, there are some similarities. Not every bite-sized piece of meat will be tender or fat-free, but it will be delicious. The fattiness should be expected with burnt ends as well as chewy pieces. The burnt ends are smothered in Arthur Bryant’s sweet sauce which is more typical of the sauces you find in Kansas City.
Perhaps the one meat not even the great Arthur Bryant’s can smoke to perfection is ham. While the ham has a good flavor and it isn’t overly salty, it’s also rather dry. The caramelization around the edges is a nice touch, almost like the small ring which characterizes the low-and-slow smoking process. The sauce which goes best with the ham is the “sweet heat” sauce which offers both a pleasantly piquant level of heat as well as sweetness. This is a ham which would go better on a sandwich than on a plate with mashed potatoes and gravy.
As with all great barbecue restaurants, Arthur Bryant’s offers a number of barbecue accompaniment-worthy sides. The aforementioned French fries are lightly salted and go well with the original sauce (to use ketchup is to desecrate them). An order is large enough for a small, developing country. The restaurant obviously takes its time preparing the baked beans which are sweet, but punctuated with tanginess perhaps emanating from the original barbecue sauce. Then there’s a light smoky flavor and pieces of meat mixed in.
There are two other Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue restaurants in Kansas City, but the original offers the very best dining experience. Arthur Bryant’s barbecue is everything it is reputed to be and oh so much more. It’s almost 800 miles away from Albuquerque, but it’s worth a trip from anywhere in America.
1727 Brooklyn Avenue
Kansas City, Missouri
LAST VISIT: 9 September 2012
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BETS: Burnt Ends, Pork Sandwich, Beef Sandwich, French Fries, Ribs, Baked Beans