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America's Best BBQ Restaurants

Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City, Illinois.
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Photo: Courtesy of Oklahoma Joe's

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Beyond the shamrock gas station’s pumps and past the racks of Hostess cakes, a warren of tables and booths makes up the Kansas City, Kansas, barbecue joint Oklahoma Joe’s. On a steamy Wednesday in July, the dean of Kansas City barbecue, Ardie Davis, sat alone in the restaurant beneath drowsy ceiling fans, looking at his watch.

When he spied us, Davis shot up from his seat, and though it was just after 11 a.m., dashed toward the cashier to place his order: sliced beef brisket, pork ribs, French fries, beans, and burnt ends.

The woman behind the counter looked up from her register. “Burnt ends ain’t ready yet,” she said. “Y’all gone stick around?”

“Wonderful,” Davis replied, and explained: you won’t find these caramelized morsels from the edges of the brisket, where the seasoning gathers as the fat renders, on the menu, they’re only served on Wednesdays and Saturdays; in a half-hour’s time, the lunch line would extend out the door, and then…who knows when they might run out?

Davis wasn’t taking any chances. An avuncular retiree with a sturdy build and snowy hair, he’s the author of five books about barbecue and has been a competition-barbecue judge for 25 years. Oklahoma Joe’s began life on that circuit in the early 90’s as the Slaughterhouse Five, a team of barbecue enthusiasts who got together to cook at weekend championships around the Midwest and the South. The team won so many awards that by 1996, they opened a restaurant. Compared with Kansas City institutions like the circa-1920 Arthur Bryant’s, O.J.’s was a modern place, using state-of-the-art smokers that cook meat with a combination of natural gas and wood.

When our food arrived, Davis took a bite of the rib, which pleased him immensely. “See this bark here?” he said, pointing to a reddish-black shard of crust on the surface of the rib. “You want it crispy like that on the outside, but tender on the inside. And there,” he said, pointing to a layer of almost lurid pinkness just beneath the skin that extended the length of the rib, “that’s the smoke ring, the sign that it’s been properly smoked. O.J.’s uses more wood than gas. You go to some places and you can’t taste any smoke at all.”

The ribs were, indeed, redolent of white oak and porky, and they disappeared quickly. The brisket was fall-apart tender, a tad dry but then there were sauces to dress it with (permissible in Kansas City).

Finally, the burnt ends came, and they were wonderful: salty, glistening with smoke-tinged fat, and prickly with the heat of black pepper. To us, they seemed to be the best bit, but Davis was having none of it. “They’re too salty, and there’s no bark on ’em,” he said, but conceded, “Concerning taste, there’s no argument. That’s what makes barbecue fun.”

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