Young and Hungry

Dear Calvin Trillin: You’re Wrong About Arthur Bryant’s

Before I moved to Texas and spent more than a decade exploring the Lone Star State's smoked meat houses, I lived for two years in Kansas City, the cow town prized for its fountains and its ability to keep another liquid — alcohol — flowing during Prohibition.  I still have an strong affinity for K.C., which was only reinforced during a recent visit.

The original Arthur Bryant's on Brooklyn Avenue hasn't changed much since my last visit a good 15 years ago. The Formica tables, the red banquet chairs, the faded snapshots on the wall, they're all still there. The countermen remain as abrupt and efficient as ever. The brick smoker continues to huff and puff and turn out vast amounts of brisket, pork ribs, and the semi-famous "burnt ends" (which, in my case, weren't burnt ends at all, but thick hunks of brisket slathered in AB's "Rich & Spicy" sauce). It's as if Arthur Bryant's were less a restaurant than a giant barbecue time capsule that you can re-enter at will.

Frankly, I love that the place has resisted modernization with a sort of Amish zeal.

But if Arthur Bryant's, the restaurant, was just as I remembered, Arthur Bryant's brisket wasn't. Memory and time have simultaneously romanticized my A.B. experiences and shattered them permanently. Until I stepped back into the K.C. institution last week, I could at least understand and appreciate the enthusiasm behind Calvin Trillin's famous line — that Arthur Bryant's was "...possibly the single best restaurant in the world" — even if I couldn't fully endorse it.

My recent tasting of A.B.'s brisket, however, finally convinced me to stop drinking the Calvin Kool-Aid altogether. Actually, I won't even sniff the stuff anymore. The brisket wasn't bad exactly; it just wasn't worth gushing over. I ordered a pound of brisket and burnt ends, which was served on a colorful platter evenly divided between the two meats. The former was sliced so thin you couldn't even adequately determine its level of charring, but generally speaking, I'd say I've been better bark on braised short ribs. (Nothing like a meat joke to win our a tough barbecue room, eh?) More problematic, I could barely taste any smoke on these ribbons of brisket, particularly compared to Arthur Bryant's pork ribs, which were salty and smoky and blackened to a crisp on the exterior.

Truth be told, my brisket was closer to roast beef than barbecue. The sliced meat required a heavy dosing of Arthur Bryant's original sauce — a chalky concoction that packs a sour pucker and paprika-and-pepper kick — and a wet kiss of white bread before I considered it barbecue. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say I adored this squishy, spicy barbecue sandwich once it was all wrapped in Wonder Bread.

But under no conditions would I label Arthur Bryant's the best restaurant in the world. It's not even the best barbecue restaurant in the world. Or in the United States. Or in Texas. Now, I realize that in the years since I've resided in K.C., I have changed my brand of Kool-Aid to the version with a Longhorn stamped on the package. I make no apologies for it.

Off the top of my head,  I can name five Texas smoke houses that are far superior to Arthur Bryant's. It's not even hard: Kreuz Market in Lockhart, City Market in Luling, Louie Mueller in Taylor, Dozier's Grocery & Market in Fulshear, and even Goode Company in Houston. Hell, based on taste alone, rather than history, I'd also put our own Urban Bar-B-Cue ahead of Arthur Bryant's.

I take no pride in tipping over sacred cows, but when it concerns smoked meats, I don't believe in blind jingoism. I guess you could say I believe in informed jingoism.

  • Tommy J

    Gates has always been better. You go to Bryant's for the tradition, the show, the volume.

  • http://www.capitalspiceblog.com Capital Spice

    Judging Kansas City barbecue joints by their brisket is begging for disappointment.

    Kansas City barbecue is first and foremost about the ribs. For most of these places, brisket is a distant second (or worse).

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/youngandhungry Tim Carman

    I don't know about that. K.C. barbecue, particularly Bryant's, is as much about the sauce. Check the history. Besides, as Texan Dotty Griffith pointed out in her book, Celebrating Barbecue, "Barbecue in Kansas City represents the best of both worlds. Both geographically and stylistically, Kansas City is the bridge between Texas and Southern barbecue styles." In other words, beef, particularly brisket and burnt ends, plays a significant role there. I'd argue that the quality of the meat out of the smoker, however, is (somewhat) less important in K.C. than in Texas, since sauce plays a pivotal role in this style of 'cue. I personally like the gritty AB sauce, which gives the brisket sandwich its character and flavor. If not for that, though, it would be a bust. Interestingly, I thought AB's ribs didn't need a lick of sauce.

  • http://www.capitalspiceblog.com Capital Spice

    Fair point...the sauce does make or break Kansas City 'cue. And you can definitely get everything from brisket to sausage to sliced pork depending on where you go.

    But from personal experience - both in Kansas City restaurants and at Kansas City Barbecue Society competitions - the point of pride is usually the ribs. I haven't found many places in the area bragging about their brisket (with the exception of LC's out on Blue Parkway).

    You've piqued my interest on the history...going to have to go read up on it now. Any other recommendations on good sources?

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/youngandhungry Tim Carman

    CS,

    Don't get me wrong. I'm not denying that ribs are king in the pantheon on K.C. 'cue, but as the ex. director of the K.C. Barbecue Society once said, "here, if it moves, we cook it." More to the point, in my experiences at K.C.'s cue joints, I noticed that brisket was a major seller at many of them. I'd hate to put a percentage on it, but brisket HAD to rival ribs for the top selling item. Given that, I don't believe you can just dismiss brisket as something K.C. doesn't do, because it's a "rib town." The joints should be judged by their major items, and brisket is definitely up there. Still, I realize that my brisket bias has changed over the years. K.C. just doesn't do Texas-style brisket; its style is far different --- less bark, less smoke, plus a whole lotta sauce. I've grown to prefer the Texas style for its elemental style of rub, smoke, and time. Ultimately, this all boils down to preference.

    As for references, a K.C. Star reporter Doug Worgul penned perhaps the most authoritative book on K.C. barbecue, titled Grand Barbecue.

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  • wild bill

    1. Jack Stack BBQ
    2. Oklahoma Joes
    3. Bryants

    This is how I rate KC BBQ, have you eaten at Jack Stack or Oklahoma Joes? Should try those next time your in town.

    Thing about Bryants is that you either love or hate the sauce, also I don't think the smoking technique there is as good as other places. Personally I love Bryants sauce and if an $8 sandwich can make me full for lunch and dinner and taste that good then that is a pretty darn good deal.

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  • http://www.sportingnerds.com ScoJo

    Oh, I love me some Arthur Bryant's. There's really no meat like it. And the sauce is the perfect compliment, you don't need to slather it on, just accent it. That said, this is a very personal thing. There's good BBQ and bad BBQ and I'm good with any good BBQ.

  • http://www.sportingnerds.com ScoJo

    ...but who goes to KC for brisket? I'm sure it's good, but when I think brisket, I think Texas or Jewish holidays.

  • John Navarre

    fuck you.

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