Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Restaurant 21: Arthur Bryant's (Kansas City, Missouri)

RESTAURANT: Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque
LOCATION: 1727 Brooklyn Ave. Kansas City, Missouri
DATE: May 14, 2005
FOOD: Mixed Meat Sandwich of Pork & Sausage, side of French Fries, Pickles
BEVERAGE: Pitcher of Boulevard Pale Ale (Kansas City based brew)
PRICE: $15.00

The smell of meat, thick as quality barbeque sauce permeates the air. Men flash knives and brisk smiles as they slice and sweat behind the glass partition separating creator from customer. Massive racks of ribs, half chickens, vats of sauce clutter an already hectic kitchen. A line of people, nearly extending out the door, wait patiently to order, their feet shuffling over sticky linoleum floors. Eclectic in composition, these people of diverse backgrounds inspect walls crammed with photographs and press clippings, all pulled here by the same lure. Outside, bright sunshine illuminates an otherwise neglected Kansas City neighborhood, the affluence of former patrons like Steven Spielberg and Sally Fields forgotten amidst abandoned lots of overgrown weeds and cracked sidewalks.

Arthur Bryant’s is as much an institution of Kansas City as the Chiefs or the memory of the Negro-league Monarchs. Founded in the early 1920s, Arthur Bryant’s has been delighting customers from all over the world ever since. Lauded by many magazines as the “best barbeque in the United States”, the original Arthur Bryant’s remains an unassuming and humble establishment, with cheap red seats and iron bars across the door. Entering the restaurant, it’s quickly apparent that this is the environment in which great barbeque thrives.

In a city where debates about the best barbeque are as heated as a Washington filibuster argument, Arthur Bryant’s has maintained its reputation despite competition from the likes of Gates and LC’s. Kansas City barbeque has a ketchup base, a stark contrast to the mustard blends of the Carolinas. Perhaps the sauce is the best place to begin any evaluation of a barbeque restaurant. Arthur Bryant’s is luxuriously thick, tangy, but burning with a soft fire of spice that leaves the tongue humming. Unlike the watery pretenders purchased in stores, it’s quickly apparent that this sauce has barely been strained (if it has at all), the component of thick, sweet molasses obvious in every licked finger and ruined paper napkin.

The procedure to order at Arthur Bryant’s is part of the restaurant’s attraction. The options are limited: sandwich or just barbeque; three selections of sides: fries, beans and coleslaw. Extra sauce? Pickles? The main decision is what meat (or meats) to have. The take-out orders are rolled in maroon butcher paper, fries and meat compressed in a heap of flavors. This isn’t Blue Smoke. One thing Arthur Bryant’s lacks is any sign of pretension.

The sandwiches come with Carnegie Deli sized piles of meat. It is a vegan’s nightmare, a carnivore’s utopia (Libby, overwhelmed by the smells and sights of meat couldn’t even go through the line and had to find a table in back while Steph and I ordered). My selection, the two meat combo of pulled pork and sausage was beyond words. The sausage was robust, but without the heat of Italian sausage, like gyro meat or doner kebab. The pork managed to be even tenderer than Dinosaur’s, pliable enough to be served in a retirement home cafeteria and fatty like moist spare ribs. Food done by experts is always the best.

The health food fad has clearly passed Arthur Bryant’s, as all sandwiches come served on plain Wonder Bread, loafs of which are stacked behind the glass ordering divider. They are the perfect bread for this meat, used to absorb juice and oil and as a convenient way to handle the sandwich, rather than to add any flavor. The meat has hints of sauce, but hasn’t been drowned in it. Coupled with the salty fries and the surprisingly tasty Kansas City brewed Boulevard Pale Ale, Arthur Bryant’s left me in a state no other barbeque has ever been able to. Stuffed, we were put into food comas that left us in a sleepy daze, lingering among the leftovers on our plates. I needed time to recover, but it was mostly because the barbeque had been so amazing and less because I was full. If this wasn’t the best Kansas City barbeque, I would love to be the taste tester to decide what was. Arthur Bryant’s alone is motivation enough to come back to the city.

Arthur Bryant’s has survived for a reason. By the door there hangs one of many testimonials from Arthur Bryant’s loyal customers. There is one particular that caught our attention. A photo shows a middle-aged man with his arms spread and radiating life. An attached letter informs the reader that he was the husband of the letter’s writer, and had died suddenly. Knowing him to be a life-long lover of Arthur Bryant’s, his widow asked the restaurant to keep her husband’s memory alive by hanging his photo. It is the first thing you see entering the restaurant and the last thing you see leaving. As mentioned earlier, this isn’t just barbeque, it’s a community institution.

RATING: 8.5/10

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