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.