Some people say that barbeque is nearly a religion. After logging more than 2,000 miles and devouring so many ribs and burnt ends that I don’t even want to count, I’m a believer. Across Kansas, the passion for barbecue runs as deep as the flavors. Even hometown cafes, I’ve discovered, take their ‘cue seriously, something I notice on the first stop of my smoky, saucy sojourn.
At Wichita’s celebrated Pig In! Pig Out!, I walk past a wall blanketed with hundreds of ribbons that the smoke masters here have earned at competitions. Impressive as it is, I’m more focused on what to order on my first visit. The burly guy in front of me turns out to be a purist, walking away with a full slab of ribs and two slices of white bread. I hedge my bets on the combo, then carefully balance a foam plate heaped with ribs, brisket, beans and coleslaw to a table appointed with jugs of sauce and rolls of paper towels. Through my sauced-up fingers and, might I say, an expertly gnawed rib bone, I notice the ragged line of yet-to-order diners attention rapt, eyes fixated on the big wall menu as if it holds the secret to life. Most give it one final glance before ordering.
In all, I find Wichita to be a barbecue hotbed with more than a dozen great restaurants. Delano’s qualifies as a meat-eater’s paradise, and its spicy coleslaw and seasoned fries are pure bliss. Because it’s in a historic shopping area just west of downtown, diners can walk off some of the damage. At Jet Bar-B-Q customers drive through a renovated firehouse to get lunches of brisket, hot links or turkey. It strikes me as ironic that a firehouse smells so smoky good!
Steeped In Tradition
As I sample my way across the state, leaving behind piles of messy paper towels as calling cards, I see the same level of intensity that I saw in Wichita. I’m not surprised. This is, after all, beef country, and Kansas takes its barbecue seriously.
Kansas City, the big city on the Missouri River, is home to Rosedale Barbeque—worth a visit for a unique sweet, fruity sauce. So, too, are the stores that cater to purveyors of smoke. Rancher’s Gourmet in Overland Park is among the boutique butcher shops that sell prime Angus brisket and Berkshire pork shoulder. The store also offers daily tastings, with a rotating schedule that includes prime-grade beef, Berkshire pork, bison and seafood. In Olathe, renowned rubs and sauces fill shelves at the store attached to Jeff Stehney’s acclaimed Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ; the original restaurant is in a gas station off I-35 in Kansas City.
A Rib Here, A Brisket There
Beyond Kansas City, in the eastern two-thirds of the state (the western third works at perfecting chicken-fried steak), I am usually just a turn off the highway from a no-frills, family-owned restaurant with the intoxicating smell of meat slow-cooking in a cloud of hickory, oak, apple, even hedgewood. In Pittsburg, smoke curls from a cooker in front of the little Curbside BBQ & Coney’s (120 miles south of Kansas City). “I’m self taught,” head cook and retired postmistress Maggie Burlingame says proudly. I must say, she taught herself well. Maggie and her husband, Bill, make a mean pulled pork sandwich in this former gas station that’s conveniently close to the big appetites at Pittsburg State University.
Each mom-and-pop place I visit—from Roy’s Hickory Pit BBQ in Hutchinson to Boss Hawg’s in Topeka—has its own special rub and sauce. You may be able to buy a jar of sauce, but trust me, the recipe is a secret.
At Guy & Mae’s Tavern in Williamsburg (14 miles west of Ottawa; (785) 746-8830), I try to cajole the recipe from Mae Kesner. She and her late husband, Guy, set up a smoker in this tiny town back in the ‘70s. Each week, just about everyone in Mae’s extended family pitches in to turn out more than 1,200 slabs of ribs and other meats in the giant smoker. Weekends, diners from Ottawa, Emporia, Topeka and Lawrence jam booths and spill onto picnic tables outdoors, devouring ribs served on newspaper—a tradition credited to Mae’s disdain for washing dishes. Bandleader Doc Severinsen and baseball hall-of-famer George Brett have eaten here. Me? I’m not only not famous, but on my visit to this smoky shrine, I fail to lean forward as I eat my sandwich of tender, thin-cut eye-of-round roast. What’s in this new stain on my T-shirt? “It’s an absolute secret,” Mae says, laughing.