A humble Kansas City restaurant boasts Bill Clinton, Steven Spielberg and Jack Nicholson among its famous fans
MOST of the world first heard of Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue in 1974, when The New Yorker magazine’s esteemed food critic Calvin Trillin declared it the single best restaurant in the world.
Really? A barbecue joint? In Kansas City? Even odder, he argued that the most delectable order was something called burned ends. Since that day, tens of thousands of gourmands have made their way to this cow town on the Great Plains to find out what all the fuss is about. And so, on a recent trip to Kansas, have I.
Kansas City was once dubbed the Paris of the Plains for its wild night- life ( at least during the Prohibition years of the 1920s) but it’s safe to say that a meal at Arthur Bryant’s has little in common with, say, your average three-michelinstar boite in France.
Even finding the place can be mildly unnerving. I drive through the lonely backblocks of the city — getting lost a couple of times — under dark, old railway bridges and past desolate yards. I finally spot a plain, red-brick bunker with a neon sign. This used to be a thriving neighbourhood back when the city’s biggest baseball stadium was just a few blocks away. But that got knocked down 40 years ago. Now Bryant’s stands alone.
Friends have warned me either to go at 11.30am or 4pm, because it gets too crowded at lunch and dinner. I’ve chosen the latter, when the last of the lunchgoers are picking their teeth outside in the sun. I push open the door and enter the famous restaurant, which is flooded with sunlight through the front windows.
It looks like a cafeteria from 1958 which, of course, is exactly what it was, catering to baseball fans and players. There has been no renovation; there’s just bare, white walls, fluorescent lights, beaten-up Formica tables and chairs. The only decoration is an array of photographs of celebrities who have dined here. I spot Steven Spielberg, Eddie Murphy, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Jack Nicholson, all grinning voraciously over monstrous plates of meat.
Of course, despite appearances, there have been a few changes at Bryant’s since Trillin gave his rave review. The octogenarian Bryant died while working here in 1982. (A cartoon in the local newspaper showed St Peter at the pearly gates greeting him with the query, ‘‘Did you bring sauce?’’).
When new owners took over, quality suffered for a time. But things were quickly corrected and today Arthur Bryant’s is back in the hallowed ranks of America’s most famous restaurants.
I approach the counter and look up at the half dozen choices written on the wall.
‘‘What you havin’ there?’’ barks an attendant.
I ask, naturally, for the burned ends, even though I’m not sure what they are, and a tall glass of homemade lemonade. A plate appears with a small pyramid of meat cubes, all doused in a lurid orange sauce and sitting on two pieces of buttered white Wonder Bread. I pull up the nearest vinyl chair. To be honest, the sight is not all that appetising. I’m not an obsessive carnivore, and the vision of all this meat unaccompanied by anything green — other than two modest slices of pickle — is just a little hard core. Then I take a bite. The flavour explodes in my mouth, starting with the sauce. Every barbecue joint in the West has its own sauce, and Bryant’s, mixing paprika and vinegar, is zingy, to say the least. Then comes the intense smokiness of the meat, crisp and delicious.
No wonder burned ends are commonly referred to by locals as meat marshmallows or nuggets of barbecue gold. They’re addictive. I finish the plate and find the chef looking at me through the serving window.
He nods, without changing expression. I feel like I’ve passed some arcane test.
Barbecue in America has a mythic status. There are, experts agree, four great barbecue regions: the Carolinas, Memphis and Texas each have their own distinctive style but in the fourth region, Kansas City, they all mix into a triumphant blend.
That’s because Kansas City has traditionally been the crossroads of the midwest. It used to have the biggest stockyards outside Chicago, and is located near expanses of oak and hickory forest, the staple fuel for smoking. And the African-americans who came here in the 19th century brought the cooking traditions of the south. It’s no accident that the Kansas City Barbecue Association, which was started in the 1980s, has become a national organisation overseeing 80 grilling competitions. (Still, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Its logo is: ‘‘Barbecue — not just for breakfast any more’’.)
Barbecue is now America’s ultimate slow food, and burned ends the slowest of all. Technically, they are the crisp, blackened edges of the beef brisket, which is the cut from the chest area of the steer.
Because this is tough meat ( pectoral muscles get a lot of work), it requires long, slow cooking to become tender. After eight hours, the outside becomes blackened — ‘‘like a meteorite’’, as one critic put it — while the inside remains juicy. It is served in bite-sized cubes, with the char or bark covering at least one side.
Originally, burned ends were dismissed as overcooked and so were trimmed off and snacked on by the kitchen staff. At Arthur Bryant’s, they were put on a plate up at the counter for customers to munch on while they waited for their order to come out. But thanks to Trillin, a Kansas City native who became obsessed with their potent flavour and rich, chewy texture, they became hugely popular. (‘‘I dream of those burned edges,’’ Trillin rhapsodised. ‘‘Sometimes, when I’m in some awful, overpriced restaurant in some strange town . . . a blank look comes over my face: I have just realised that at that very moment someone in Kansas City is being given those burned edges free.’’)
Arthur eventually began charging for them as a dish in their own right, much to the chagrin of the regulars.
Burned ends are now so wellloved that they are served in Kansas City’s swankiest restaurants. So on my last night in the city, I wander the up-market Country Club Plaza, which was built in the 1920s in art deco style. ( Ernest Hemingway lived in a building here when he was a cub reporter for The Kansas City Star). I go into the elegant Fiorella’s Jack Stack, which could not be further in vibe from Arthur Bryant’s. Under soft lighting, I sink into a comfortable leather booth. There is even a wine list. And the burned ends, I have to say, are as good as Arthur Bryant’s, and the sauce easily as delicious.
The waiters are all clean-cut midwestern men in their 20s, with the square heads and haircuts of college gridiron players. And hearing my exotic accent, they are keen to be helpful. So I ask one if I can get anything like burned ends in New York.
He looks baffled. ‘‘I think real barbecue is actually against the law there,’’ he says.
I laugh, but he isn’t joking. Due to fire-safety laws, he insists, restaurants can’t have the proper ovens in many places. But the problem runs deeper, he explains slowly, as if to a child: ‘‘Kansas City barbecue can only be made in Kansas City.’’
The sauce, the hickory wood, the history, the sheer passion for meat . . .
I guess we’ll all have to head to the midwest in order to get the real Kansas thing. arthurbryantsbbq.com jackstackbbq.com
Arthur Bryant’s resembles a cafeteria from the 1950s, because it hasn’t changed since it catered to baseball players and fans from a nearby (and long gone) stadium
The restaurant’s exterior is a red-brick bunker with a neon sign