My grandparents are from two neighboring farm towns deep in the heart of Missouri. I once visited Hardin with a population of around 500, walking the same streets my dad’s family once did, surrounded by fields and wide-open spaces. After moving from their small towns, Kansas City and the surrounding suburbs became home to my extended family. KC always felt like home to me, and every time I would come for a visit, it was as if I never left. There were rituals that took place every vacation back to the heartland. My dad and his cousins would go to a baseball game, hit the casinos, and stop to get some of the best barbecue in the country. I would give my dad a hug as he headed out the door in his jersey, waiting for the days where I was finally old enough to take part in this rite of passage, and have a real and authentic Kansas City night. Now at 20, I’ve sat through the steaming hot baseball games at Kauffman stadium, I’ve seen the casinos from the car window as we speed past on the highway, but the best part about our family tradition has got to be the barbecue.
To me, BBQ is the month of July, fresh cut grass, the first sip of a cherry coke on a scorching summer day. Whether it’s North Carolina or Texas, California or Tennessee, each region of the United States adds their own flare and style to their BBQ. While I may be a little biased, Kansas City barbecue reigns supreme over all. Differentiated by its tomato or molasses-based sweeter and thicker sauce, and its variety of meats (In Kansas City, ANYTHING is fair game to be grilled and smoked) KC BBQ is one of the most famous styles of barbecue. If you were to ask a local where the best spots in the city are, you are most likely to get one of four answers: Arthur Bryant’s, Gates Bar-B-Q, Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Q, and Jack Stack. Each person seems to have loyalties to one, and my family’s ties will always be with Arthur Bryant’s. So, when I went to Kansas City for Easter break this semester, it was only right that one of our afternoons was spent there.
Bryant’s opened in 1908, and not much has changed since then. When I walked in with my cousins and my mom just a few weeks ago, it looked exactly how I had left it years before. But this is just the thing that makes Byrant’s so special. My cousin Jason said, “the atmosphere makes it different. It’s one of the oldest in the city. It’s not as fancy as some. It’s kind of gritty. It hasn’t changed since I’ve been going there.” In the prime 18th and Brooklyn location, it was once just blocks away from the home of the Kansas City Chiefs. The old brick building with the red and white awning stands alone as the main attraction on the street.
Walking in, you’re instantly greeted by the smell of meat cooking in the back, coated in sauce and spices that will make anyone drool the second they step inside. The walls are lined with photos of all the famous faces who have made an appearance at the restaurant. You’ll see presidents like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, as well as Hollywood stars like Steven Spielberg. The old, almost diner-style interior makes it feel cozy and comfortable, turning it into a place you could spend hours sitting down and catching up over a meal of burnt ends (a KC specialty), coleslaw and fries. When in line to order, it’s crucial to be prepared. Lines that go out the door can move in just minutes, and before you know it, someone from the kitchen will be asking what you want.
This time around, I went for my usual rack of baby back ribs, knowing they were going to be covered in the classic Kansas City sweet sauce. However, when it came down to the sides, I just wasn’t sure. The smiling man in the kitchen saw my hesitation. He laughed, “don’t worry young lady, I got you” and disappeared to the back to fix up my special meal. When he returned, he had a heaping pile of their potato casserole sitting next to my ribs. Needless to say, it was the perfect side.
I topped my meal off with a large Diet Coke and made my way back to sit at the table with my mom and cousins. I joined the ranks of the clean plate club that afternoon, and left feeling full and satisfied. Bryant’s, and KC BBQ in general, is more than food. When talking to Jason, he’ll tell you Bryant’s is about family. In his words, it’s “baseball, Bryant’s and family”. For me, it’s about love. Love, culture, flavor and looking at the people you come across in life and saying, “I got you.”
Cover photo and article photos courtesy of Maddie Simms and Arthur Bryant