Ardie Davis is a ‘cue legend of the Midwest: author of nine barbecue books, emeritus charter member of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, and holder of a PhB—that’s a philosopher of barbecue, mind you.
You can earn that degree from Greasehouse University, founded by Davis in 1986 and named after KC legend Arthur Bryant’s humble response to the praise bestowed upon his restaurant (“It’s just a grease house, after all”). This is assuming you’ve made it through the rigorous application process, which includes written and oral exams, a dissertation, and a barbecue plate critiquing. Its acceptance rate is similar to that of an top-tier college: there are fewer than two dozen members out of more than 200 applicants and counting.
“Barbecuers are the original philosophers,” says Davis. “I like to think that back when barbecue simply meant meat and fire, our human ancestors would sit around a campfire and talk about the meaning of life while eating ‘cue together. You know that expression ‘I have a bone to pick with you’?”
In Kansas City, the prevailing mode of thinking says that rib tips, crusty burnt ends, and St. Louis-style spare ribs are on par with any of the other revered barbecue traditions. Sauce is encouraged—sometimes sweet and tomato-based, or tangy and spicy. “In North Carolina, they think barbecue is only pig. I call that ‘hogma.'”
Kansas City’s barbecue identity started to take shape around the turn of the century, thanks to “rails, rivers, and resources.” Kansas City was a transportation hub with huge stockyards and agribusiness-related industries that attracted immigrants from the South. Later on, around 1950, baseball announcers spread the gospel far and wide as they raved about the smell of smoke to national audiences. Food writer Calvin Trillin’s famous 1972 Playboy article claiming Arthur Bryant’s—which popularized the burnt-end trimmings of brisket—”was possibly the single best restaurant in the world,” further cemented its status.
“That got the ball rolling,” says Davis. “Now it’s a destination.”
Old-guard institutions like Arthur Bryant’s and Gates laid the groundwork, while the sweet-sauce slathered ribs rose to prominence when barbecue contests became more popular in the ’80s.
“Whenever you try to nail down Kansas City barbecue as one way, you can always find exceptions,” says Davis.
From meaty St. Louis-style ribs, to a smoked pig’s head, here are eight under-the-radar KC picks from a barbecue scholar.
Burnt Ends from LC’s Bar-B-Q
Davis says: “You don’t always hear about this place. The owner is actually from Mississippi, yet his burnt ends remind me of more of an authentic burnt end than some of the others that just cube pieces of brisket. They’re tender and packed with flavor, thanks to a little bit of fat and bark. It’s closer to the trimmings that Arthur Bryant used to serve.” (Photo: Yelp/Andrew C.)
Rib Tips from Johnny’s BBQ
Address and phone: 5959 Broadmoor St, Shawnee Mission (913-432-0777)
Davis says: “They’re not fancy the way some other places are; it’s just a mix of rib tips and scraps from the pork spare ribs.” (Photo: Da Red Wagon)
Barbecue Sundae from Next Year’s Winner
Address and phone: 2306 NW Vivion Rd (816-587-4227)
Davis says: “The owner puts rib tips in a sundae jar with beans, rib tips, cole slaw, and tops it with glazed, smoked meat balls wrapped in bacon.” (Photo: Dixie Delights)
Pork Spare Ribs from SLAP’S BBQ
Davis says: “The ribs are neatly trimmed like you’ll get in a contest, and you’re more likely to get a sweet sauce with them. In contests, ribs can’t be fall off the bone. If they do, they’re considered overcooked, I don’t always agree, but that’s the judging standard. In any case, Slaps’s aren’t fall off the bone, but they’re delicious.” (Photo: Food People Want)
Lamb Ribs from Jack Stack
Address and phone: 13441 Holmes Rd (816-942-9141)
Davis says: “These are a Denver cut—more like a pork baby back in size, but even a bit smaller. People think it’ll be gamey because it’s lamb but it’s really not. They’re hickory-smoked, and if you didn’t know any better, you might think you were eating a pork spare rib.” (Photo: Yelp/Judy L.)
Mutton from Gates
Address and phone: 1325 E Emanuel Cleaver Blvd (816-531-7522)
Davis says: “Typically you’ll get the breast cut, and it’s very meaty. It tends to have more game flavor in it. The Gates family purchased a former place called Old Kentuck, which I assume had a Kentucky pedigree.” (Photo: Saiyan Island)
Smoked half pig’s head from Local Pig
Address and phone: 2618 Guinotte Ave (816-200-1639)
Davis says: “This one is fairly new. It’s a regular entree with roast corn, pickled red onions, loaf of bread, and Sriracha, and it’s only 22 dollars. It’s something I’m excited to try. I wish we had pig snoot at more barbecue restaurants.” (Photo: Facebook/Local Pig)
Pulled Pork Hot Dog from A Little BBQ Joint
Address and phone: 1101 W 24 Hwy, Independence (816-252-2275)
Davis says: “As far as I know, Julia Child never visited Kansas City, but I’m on a personal mission to find what I think would be her favorite hot dogs had we ever had the pleasure of hosting her here. First stop of course would be Costco for her favorite all-beef hot dog with sauerkraut and mustard. Next, if we only had time for one stop, it would be A Little Barbecue Joint in Independence, Missouri. There we’d feast on a “Harry S,” a big 1/4 pound hot dog in a bun, smothered with melted jack cheese and barbecue pulled pork with a choice of sauces. I think she would like a moderate squeeze of sweet and spicy Mad Housewife on it.” (Photo: Facebook/A Little BBQ Joint)