Grill seek­ers

A hum­ble Kansas City res­tau­rant boasts Bill Clin­ton, Steven Spiel­berg and Jack Ni­chol­son among its fa­mous fans

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - TONY PER­ROT­TET

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

PIC­TURES: TONY PER­ROT­TET

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

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