The Best BBQ in Kansas City, According to a Local
Anyone who’s from Kansas City (Missouri or Kansas) has an opinion about BBQ. Home to the largest BBQ competition in the world, it’s easy to understand why.
And, while you’d think it might be challenging to narrow down the Greater Metro Area's 100 or so BBQ restaurants to a top-five list, pretty much any local can do it. In fact, if you meet someone from Kansas City who doesn’t have a top five, I would question the legitimacy of their ties to the city. After all, we have a reputation to uphold.
As more destinations across the country claim to have the best BBQ, it's more important than ever for Kansas Citians to have a strong knowledge of our roots. They trace back to Henry Perry in 1908 when he would sell slow-cooked ribs, wrapped up in newspaper for 25 cents a slab. While prices have certainly changed, quality Kansas City BBQ has not. But which places have the absolute best BBQ in Kansas City?
Born and raised in Kansas City, I have a top five ranking that’s sure to spark some debate — with anyone who’s up for the challenge.
I’ll be the first to admit that my list tends to be a bit more old-school. While Slap’s has made it onto other people’s lists in recent years, I’ve allowed another newcomer to take the No. 5 spot (knocking off Rosedale Barbecue, for those wondering).
Entering the KC BBQ scene in 2014, Q39 stands out as one of the best for those who enjoy competition-style BBQ. In fact, I met with some Kansas City Barbeque Society members who served as judges on plenty of BBQ competitions over the years, and they’d argue it’s one of the only restaurants that has mastered the art of maintaining the quality — specifically moisture in the meat — required at a BBQ competition. The result? Consistently delicious BBQ platters every time you visit.
For those looking for the tried-and-true Kansas City BBQ experience, skip the less traditional menu items — I’m talking about the smoked beef brisket poutine and bacon-wrapped shrimp — in lieu of the judge’s plate. That way you’ll get to pick three different kinds of meat and judge for yourself which is best. All you need is a little white bread to build your own sandwiches.
4. Jack Stack Barbecue
Some would argue that Jack Stack is maybe too fancy to compare it to some of the other hole-in-the-wall spots on this list. After all, there’s blackberry salmon on the menu … but don’t judge a BBQ place by its white table clothes. Started in 1957, Jack Stack now has six locations and is one of many KC barbecue joints that will ship their food across the country right to your door.
It’s another restaurant that’s consistently good, and it has some of the best ribs in town. Just sink your teeth into one of the crown prime beef ribs, and you’ll see what we’re talking about. Just make sure to save room for a stack of the thick onion rings and some cheesy corn bake. And, while I've never been a huge fan of baked beans (I know!), Jack Stack's version is packed with chopped brisket that melts in your mouth.
3. Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque
Remember the previously mentioned KC BBQ legend Henry Perry? Well, Charlie Bryant took over his restaurant in 1940 when Perry died, also bringing his brother Arthur into the BBQ biz. When Arthur took over from Charlie, the restaurant was renamed, and the rest is history. Still located in the 18th and Vine neighborhood, Arty B’s (yes, that’s what I call it) is so famous that several presidents — Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, to name a few — have all stopped in here.
I’ve waited until now to bring up BBQ sauce (for which Kansas City-style BBQ is known) because the sauce at Arthur Bryant’s is quite unique. It’s not the traditional sweet and molasses-y sauce that most people think of when they think of BBQ sauce. It’s more vinegar-based with a variety of spices that bring out the heat. People either love it or hate it, and I think it goes without saying where I stand.
Since Bryant was known as the King of Ribs, it’d be in your best interest to order a slab. The best part? They’ll be wrapped up in butcher paper like in the good ol’ days.
2. Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que
Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain put Joe’s on the map when he named it one of the “13 places you need to eat before you die.” At the time, Joe’s was still called Oklahoma Joe’s and was only operating out of its original location in a gas station. But the BBQ empire has expanded to three other locations since then — and Kansas City is grateful for that.
Having opened in 1997, Joe’s Kansas City is still a relatively new spot compared to others on this list, but what makes it so special is its Z-Man sandwich. It consists of smoked brisket, onion rings and provolone cheese, all on top of a Kaiser roll, and it’s melt-in-your-mouth good. Just make sure to order a side of fries. The seasoning salt that goes on them puts McDonald’s fries to shame.
1. Gates Bar-B-Q
When it comes to my No. 1 choice, I have to point to the sauce. Gates Bar-B-Q sauce is by far the best in the city, using a combination of spicy and sweet (and no molasses!) that simply can’t be beaten. It, too, has some serious KC roots — after all, George Gates teamed up with Arthur Pinkard (previously a cook for Perry) in 1946 to compete with the Bryants.
Now with five locations across the city, Gates continues to be an institution, with lines out the door. I also have a personal tie to the spot. When I was 4 years old, I was so excited to go there for dinner with my dad that I ran, tripped and practically flew into the corner of a wall, unfortunately, having to trade in a beef-on-bun for a night at the ER. (No joke, I still have the scar to prove it.)
For a taste of a Kansas City classic, order the burnt-end sandwich — filled with chopped pieces of brisket that are so flavorful and greasy, you’ll be begging for thirds. And did I mention they’re slathered with the sauce? It really doesn’t get any better than that. Just don't forget to order a strawberry soda to wash it all down.