The Missouri Barbecue Trail – Missouri Life
By Susan Katzman
June 30, 2016
Move over Texas. Make room Carolinas. Step aside Tennessee. Missouri is emerging as the hip, new, smokin’-hot top spot of the barbecue world. No ribbing. Barbecue is flaming up here, there, and everywhere—all over the state.
Of course, barbecue has been in Missouri from the get-go, especially if you define barbecue as cooking meat over an open flame. However, the barbecue Missouri knows and loves today—the richly sauced, slow-smoked, intensely flavorful modern-Missouri barbecue—can trace its roots to Kansas City and one man, Henry Perry.
When steamboat cook Henry Perry settled in Kansas City in the early 1900s, river and railway transportation had transformed Kansas City into a meat-producing and -packing center. Also a trademark of turn-of-the-century Kansas City, the region had an abundance of hardwood trees—a source of flavor-heavy fuel. Seeing potential, Perry bought scraps of meat from nearby stockyards, slow-smoked them, and set up a pushcart stand. He quickly became known for ribs, which he topped with a pungent, vinegary sauce and sold for twenty-five cents a slab. Eventually Perry moved his operation to an old trolley barn and created Kansas City’s first barbecue restaurant.
When Perry died in 1940, Charlie Bryant, one of Perry’s employees, inherited the restaurant and, in turn, sold it to his brother Arthur in 1946. Arthur tweaked the sauce and changed the name to Arthur Bryant’s.
Around the same time, in 1946, George Gates opened a barbecue place of his own and hired Arthur Pinkard, a former Perry employee, as cook.
Arthur Bryant’s and Gates Bar-B-Q thrived happily ever after.
Today, the two granddaddies are joined by more than a hundred other barbecue places in Kansas City alone.
Whereas other states become known for a certain style of barbecue, the Show-Me-State showcases a variety of styles. This melting pot includes the best of the rest of the states as well as unique cuts of meat—pork steaks and St. Louis ribs—served with tomato-based sauces.
The worst part about Missouri barbecue is choosing just one place to go. The saying is if you ask one hundred Kansas City residents where to find the best barbecue, you will likely get one hundred different answers. However, that’s not quite true. We tested the theory by grilling a slew of Kansas City barbecue enthusiasts, including Kansas City Mayor Sly James; Carolyn Wells, founder of the Kansas City Barbecue Society; Bethanie Schemel, co-owner of KC Barbecue Tours; and Lindsay Howerton, vice president of Original Juan Speciality Foods, a bottler of private label barbecue sauces and rubs. With little variation, our poll yielded the same five names.
St. Louis doesn’t have as many barbecue outlets as Kansas City, but the Gateway City is a virtual barbecue boomtown with new places opening faster than beer bottles on a hot summer day.
We asked two experts, “What are the five best barbecue outlets in St. Louis?”
Both Johnny Fugitt, author of The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America, and Brian Wahby, co-creator of the Q in the Lou St. Louis barbecue festival, agreed on the top three, but not the last two. So we turned to George Mahe, dining editor of St. Louis Magazine, to complete the list.
Now for a few disclaimers:
- Most barbecue restaurants offer a variety of meats and sides; we mention the top sellers.
- Most places serve several sauces that represent variations on a theme of a tomato-based original. We tell the number of sauces, but don’t describe them.
- If the restaurant has several outlets, we feature the oldest.
- We listed places in alphabetical order by region.
- We love them all!
Arthur Bryant’s has lured in hungry customers since first opening, and despite skyrocketing to fame in 1972 when journalist Calvin Trillin called it “the single best restaurant in the world,” the restaurant hasn’t strayed from its original recipe for success. It’s still a casual place where celebrities and regular folks alike line up to order at the lunch counter. A menu hangs over the counter that sits at the end of one of two simple dining rooms. Behind the counter, the main pit and work area sit within view of the customers. After orders are filled, diners find their way to tables where they find a trio of sauces in plastic squeeze bottles.
To the delight of crowds who are hooked on the packed brisket sandwich, burnt ends, and fries cooked in lard, the recipe for dry rubbed and slow smoked barbecue hasn’t changed, either. The only modern update is the addition of Boulevard beers to the legendary menu.
Russ Fiorella Sr. opened Smokestack Barbecue in 1957. His son Jack branched out with his own Smokestack in 1974. Today, the family tree boasts five Jack Stacks associated with the Fiorella name, plus a catering and shipping operation that mails fully prepared foods nationwide. The Holmes Road property is the flagship and a great place to understand why the brand is so popular. It’s a multi-room, black-linen napkin, family-friendly restaurant that serves milk to the kids, beer and wine to adults, and well-loved barbecue to all.
The most popular items fluctuate between burnt ends and the fit-for-a-king prime beef rib that’s so big it could feed a family. Both specialties are smoked over hickory wood and served with one of three distinctive sauces. Pit beans, cooked in the same smoker as the meats, rank as the favorite side.
“Hi, may I help you?” the greeter shouts as diners walk in the door of a Gates Bar-B-Q restaurant.
The unexpected greeting startles newbies, but regulars just shout back an order, join a line, grab a tray, head to the counter to pick up their meal, and pay in Gates’s cafeteria-style system.
The Brooklyn Avenue location, the oldest in the chain, has one dining room in the shape of a trolley car that’s filled with wooden tables and booths where you seat yourself. The restaurant also sports a full bar, but only beer and soft drinks are sold in the cafeteria line.
All six Gates Bar-B-Q outlets feature the same red roofs, “struttin’ man” logo, projected greeting, and four sauces. And they all produce outstanding barbecue. The beef brisket, pork ribs, and barbecue beans just happen to be the bestsellers.
To call LC’s casual is an overstatement for this hole-in-the-wall, grease-on-the-floor barbecue joint.
LC’s is a bare-bones, one-room place with about a dozen tables, a choice of basic beers, and counter service. A smoker sits behind the counter, and every time it opens, smoke lands on the tables, chairs, and customers’ clothing like a take-home souvenir. But what goes onto the plate makes up for the lack of dining refinement.
LC’s is the burnt-ends king, and nothing beats a large pile of the crispy, flavor-filled, fatty meat chunks that are doused with one of the two house sauces and served with sliced white bread and just-cut potatoes fried in lard.
If long lines are an indication, this new kid on the block is already one of the most popular restaurants in town—a town known for legendary barbecue.
Named for its address, Q39 doesn’t fit the usual mold. The full-service restaurant sports a stylish urban design with exposed brick, stained concrete floor, dark wood furniture, and an open kitchen. The food, as well as the setting, takes barbecue to a new level.
“We make everything from scratch,” says chef and owner, Rob Magee. “We grill over a wood fire as well as barbecue using indirect heat.”
Q39’s menu includes favorite meats, plus a variety of items not found in your typical barbecue joints, including a veggie burger, grilled salmon salad, and smoked fried chicken. Brisket is the bestseller and comes with a choice of three sauces.
The bar offers a range of craft beers and creative cocktails, and the whole dining experience provides sophisticated, contemporary barbecue pleasure.
Ribs as big as dinosaur bones are the signature dish of Dempsey’s, the place to stop on I-70 halfway between KC and Columbia.
“I try to warn folks,” says owner Tim Dempsey. “Half a slab of ribs fills a platter and a full rack fills two.”
Tim bought the place in 2014, remodeled, and began offering table-service barbecue to locals and travelers alike.
The large restaurant sports wood-paneled walls, a fireplace, and a back room bar lined with empty Jesse James bourbon bottles that were used to make Dempsey’s two barbecue sauces.
Dempsey’s is a family-friendly affair. Tim’s mom and siblings help cook. His wife does the bookkeeping, and their teenaged daughters wait tables when they aren’t in school. Hand-cut fries win title of the most popular side.
What started as a drive-thru shack with one picnic table is now winning awards as one of the best barbecue restaurants in the state.
Today, Shotgun Pete’s occupies a nineteenth-century brick storefront not far from the University of Missouri campus. The tiny dining room radiates authentic charm with a tin ceiling, movie posters on the wall, handmade wooden booths, tile tables, chalk-drawn menu, and a counter where you can order all sorts of classic barbecue.
All cooking takes place in the courtyard smoker that owner Philip Peters calls a magic box. Pulled pork and pork ribs tie for the most-sold items, and the barbecue nachos—a concoction of corn chips, cheese, smoked meat, barbecue pit beans, and slaw—are a hit with hungry students. Customers choose sauce from the six house-made options at the sauce station. Also, don’t miss the barbecue sundae: your choice of meat, beans, and cole slaw or potato salad served in a sixteen ounce Styrofoam cup.
When Bogart’s runs out of food, the doors close for the day. So if you want to try this highly sought-after food, show up early because the meat will sell quicker than you think.
The one-room, counter-service restaurant has been packed ever since opening catty-corner from the Soulard Farmers Market in 2011. Bright yellow walls covered with an assortment of celebrity signed menus, photos, logo T-shirts, and dollar bills give Bogart’s a festive feel, and the mostly shared seating accommodates as many as seventy people outdoors and thirty-six indoors, adding a neighborly sense of friendliness.
The menu includes all the usual suspects, plus a tri-tip sirloin and house-made pastrami. Pit beans and ribs, which pitmaster Skip Steele brands with an apricot glaze, are the bestsellers. Meats are served unadorned, but diners have a choice of four sauces.
Pappy’s opened in 2008 and forever changed the St. Louis food scene.
Mike Emerson, one of the owners, says that the hillbilly decor and Memphis-style barbecue are what helped make a name for this barbecue joint.
Assorted sized tables, some shared, fill the original space, and a new back room helps Pappy’s accommodate a crowd. Walls lined with menus signed by celebrities, barbecue memorabilia, and other décor, such as a boar’s head wearing Mardi Gras beads, add to the fun. No alcohol is served, but that doesn’t matter because the food is what draws the long lines of customers who wait to order and pay at the restaurant’s small service window, which only takes one order at a time. Smoked with a brown sugar dry rub that caramelizes in the heat, Pappy’s ribs are the most-talked-about item on the menu. Sweet potato fries are the favorite side. Four sauces round out the flavors at thisMidwest meat destination.
As the restaurant tag line states, Salt + Smoke is about three Bs: barbecue, bourbon, and beer.
Meats dominate a menu that has some surprises, such as toasted ravioli with burnt ends filling, smoked trout, and a falafel burger. Smoked brisket, rubbed only with salt and freshly ground pepper and served without sauce, wins title of bestseller. The mac and cheese is the most popular side, especially with kids.
The bar features craft beers, wine, and bourbon, scotch, and rye whiskies. Four sauces—including white barbecue sauce, native to Alabama—sit on tables. The full-service restaurant accommodates about seventy-five outdoors and ninety indoors in one large room divided into semi-wall partitions. Tables in various styles, all made of Missouri white pine, and red and white checked napkins add to the pizzazz of this casually chic neighborhood favorite.
Since it first opened in September of 2012, Sugarfire Smoke House has spread over St. Louis like wildfire. Today, the outlet boasts six locations.
Lines form at the Olive flagship even before the doors open and flow down a long corridor to the counter for cafeteria-style service. Colorful menus on a chalkboard help customers decide on choices as does the look-in kitchen, where orders are prepared and put on paper-lined metal trays for serving.
Dry-rubbed, smoked, and served without sauce, the restaurant’s brisket is the bestseller.
Diners can choose a sauce from a repertoire of nine that change frequently. Side dishes also come in a changing variety, but four of the seven or eight are always available. Soft drinks, beer, wine, and an alcoholic milkshake round out the beverage list.
A cozy place with exposed brick walls, funky art, sixteen tables, and a bar, the Shaved Duck is a St. Louis original. Although several duck dishes grace the menu, the restaurant spotlights barbecue and other foods that fit the category of what Scottish-born owner Ally Nisbet calls rustic American, comfortable cuisine. Burnt ends top the bestseller list. The smothered fries—covered with rib meat, pulled pork, and cheese sauce—and the house cured and smoked bacon, served with pears and blue cheese, tie for second place.
Be warned, this super cool, full-service restaurant doesn’t take reservations. It can take a long time to be seated, but it’s enjoyable if you wait in the busy bar area, sample craft beers or old-world wine, and listen to live music, a regular attraction at the Shaved Duck.
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