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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

First Stop: Kansas City

It was at the airport that we learned Kansas City lives and breathes barbecue the way New Orleans does gumbo. We’d simply asked the man behind the rental-car counter what his favorite barbecue spot was. “Gates, definitely Gates. Best burnt ends—you’ll want the mixed plate, too, with fries,” he said. Then a coworker chimed in. “Naw, meat’s too fatty at Gates,” Brian said. “Okie Joe’s is the place. The sauce is spicier there, too.” Everywhere we went in Kansas City, we ran into barbecue. As we fired up the Buick, tightening a loose hose clamp, we watched Mick’s neighbor Larry load coolers into an SUV, headed to Peculiar to compete in “the Peculiar BBQ Roundup.” Our session with Ardie Davis at Oklahoma Joe’s was a superb first impression, but it wasn’t until we rolled into the parking lot at Arthur Bryant’s and saw the mountain of cordwood just beyond the kitchen’s back door and the chuffing smokestack that we realized there was an element missing from our O.J.’s experience: the process.

Inside Arthur Bryant’s, a snaking line stretched to the door, and as we inched toward the order window, an opening in a Plexiglas wall, we watched, riveted, as the workers performed the rough-and-tumble procedure: pulling a whole brisket, blackened and quivering, from the white-enameled brick smoker; throwing down a broad sheet of red butcher paper; slapping on it a few slices of Wonder bread followed by a generous heaping of brisket ribbons; piling a fistful of steaming, thick-cut fries on top; then rolling the heaping mass into a package the size of a swaddled newborn.

In the fundamentals of pit cookery, Arthur Bryant’s shone: brisket beautifully marbled, lightly smoky; pork ribs perfectly moist, not too salty; the sauce, rust-colored, almost gritty with dried spices, with a delectable Worcestershire-coriander inflection and a brisk vinegar bite. But since the taste, the texture, the flavor is so tied to a sense of place, it stands to reason that the way the establishment envelops you in the process—and its past—matters.

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