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‘Flavor is the most subjective part’: Learning to eat Kansas City BBQ like an expert

Barbecue Hall of Fame

Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of How to Eat Kansas City Barbecue Like an Expert, a series that follows food and travel journalist, Kae Lani Palmisano, as she applies Barbecue Hall of Famer Ardie A. Davis’ barbecue judging criteria to Arthur Bryant’s, Gates, and Joe’s. Click here to watch Part 2, here to watch Part 3 and here to watch Part 4.

The world of barbecue is vast. It’s a tradition that has deep roots starting with Native American communities, and continued to proliferate through the stewardship of Black chefs, whose adaptations over the last few centuries have spawned regionally-specific barbecue styles across the country. From the tangy taste of Alabama white sauce to the mesquite-tinged meats of West Texas, every style of American barbecue comes with its own history, techniques and flavors.

But what makes Kansas City-style barbecue special to Kansas City? And what separates good barbecue from great barbecue?

As a food and travel journalist, I wanted to dig in—literally—and learn more. To put my taste buds to the test, I ate at three legendary Kansas City institutions – Arthur Bryant’s, Gates, and Joe’s – all in a single day.

Barbecue is personal, and judging what makes excellent barbecue can be pretty subjective. So before I set out on my barbecue blitz, I spoke to Ardie A. Davis, the creator of the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste Contest. Not only is he a master judge in the barbecue circuit and a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, he was also inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. He invited me to his backyard to learn more about Kansas City-style barbecue and how to eat it like an expert.

All Barbecue Roads Flow Through Kansas City

“We bring it all together,” Davis said, describing what he believes to be Kansas City-style barbecue. “Very few of our best pitmasters were really raised in Kansas City. Many of them came [from elsewhere], like Henry Perry, the founder of Kansas City barbecue. He was out of Shelby County in Tennessee.”

In a way, all barbecue roads flow through Kansas City, as pitmasters from across the country bring their tastes and techniques with them to the heartland.

Kansas City style barbecue officially starts with Henry Perry who traveled up and down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, learning different barbecue styles before bringing his signature flavor — a vinegar-based Memphis-style sauce — to Kansas City. Since then, Davis said what we know as Kansas City-style barbecue has changed, now encompassing thicker, sweeter tomato-based sauces and a wide variety of meats.

“I don’t characterize Kansas City style as one particular thing,” Davis said. “I’d say it’s a conglomeration. You can get any kind you want here.”

How to Eat Kansas City Barbecue Like an Expert

With so many different kinds of barbecue to enjoy and over 100 restaurants to choose from in the metro, Kansas City’s barbecue scene can be overwhelming.

But according to Davis, if you want to judge barbecue for yourself, it comes down to three criteria: appearance, tenderness and taste.

“Does it look good? If you bought it at a restaurant, would you be tempted to eat it?” Davis said. Then, you have to taste the barbecue for tenderness and flavor.

“You want it easy to chew, but not mushy,” Davis advised.

“Flavor is the most subjective part,” he said, explaining that you have to suspend your own preferences to judge the barbecue clearly.

“When I judge, I want to taste some smoke, because it’s barbecue. I want a kiss of smoke. If it’s bitter, they’ve over smoked it.”

I told Davis about my barbecue blitz and asked him what he’d recommend at each spot on my itinerary. For Arthur Bryant’s, Davis recommended I try the beef and fries, at Gates he told me to go for the brisket, and at Joe’s he said he loved getting the Z-Man.

How to Eat Kansas City Like an Expert is part of our Guide to the City of Fountains. If you or someone you know is new to Kansas City or you want to get to know more about your hometown, sign up below for the City of Fountains newsletter!