When in Rome, the saying goes. And that’s exactly what we did recently in Kansas City. We went to Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque.
While the food didn’t sync with my Texas tastes, the atmosphere was wonderful at this classic joint on the edge of downtown.
Of course, when talking about Bryant’s, sooner or later, Calvin Trillin’s 1972 Playboy article gets mentioned. Trillin, from Kansas City, wrote then: “It has long been acknowledged that the single best restaurant in the world is Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque at 18th and Brooklyn in Kansas City.”
Most likely, barbecue lovers and others have seen a truncated or paraphrased version of Trillin’s full thought, focusing on the “single best restaurant” idea, and sometimes presented with more literal truth than the author himself intended.
In 2010, BBQ Snob Daniel Vaughn did a good job of putting Trillin’s claim in its proper perspective. For me, Trillin was using hyperbole and irony while following in the long literary tradition of barbecue bloggers that we recently cited. Trillin’s real message: Bryant’s was/is a great place precisely because it isn’t the finest dining establishment on the planet.
But there’s no separating Bryant from his legend. The opening paragraph of his obituary in the The Kansas City Star in 1982 read:
“Kansas City barbecue king Arthur Bryant died today after he collapsed at the restaurant where he fed presidents, movie stars and common folk. He was 80.”
The Star, a pretty fair newspaper, gave Ernest Hemingway his start. But that’s another story.
In town for a family wedding, there were 17 in our group at Bryant’s when it opened on a Saturday morning. Among us, we sampled just about everything on the menu. Some of the Californians with us loved Bryant’s pulled pork, tossed with an ample amount of the joint’s famous sauce.
On one wall, near a photograph of then president Barack Obama shaking hands with customers, is a photo of a jar of Bryant’s sauce on top of the geographic South Pole. The sauce made the journey eight decades after Amundson and Scott.
The sausage and turkey also got solid reviews from our group. The brisket, however, was like roast beef and the ribs were bland. The place uses an electric slicer for some meats and the operator cuts brisket, turkey and sausage very thinly, meaning the meat can begin to dry on your plate as you find your table.
Still, the joint has strong admirers. There was a line of customers when we arrived just before 11 a.m. and a longer line almost out the door when we left just after noon. At the table next to us were four long-time regulars. They started with a platter of french fries. Then the meat tray, piled high, arrived.
“This place is white table cloth now, compared to 45 years ago,” Brian Terry, one of the four, said.
We also talked to Barry Immele, a retired firefighter who has been driving busloads of food tourists to K.C. barbecue joints ($65 for four stops) for several years.
“If you got a good rub, you don’t need no sauce,” Immele said.