Nov 7, 2009

Oklahoma Joe's: KC's Four Napkin Gas Station Barbecue

In a posting a little while back, I mentioned a forthcoming soliloquy on barbecue. Ironically, it turns out that soliloquy is being delivered with my first four napkin review.

I am happy to live in a city that is widely regarded as the barbecue Mecca of the world. Sure, there are other regions that naively claim stakes to this title – your Texas’s, your Carolinas, your Tennessees (specifically Memphis) – but there can only be one true King of Barbecue, and that King is Kansas City. After all, we host the American Royal – the annual festival held in celebration of barbecue, where the best of the best are crowned each year! I don't debate this topic. KC is the barbecue capital.

With that out of the way, I move on to the second point of the soliloquy: barbecue and grilling are completely different things and should be regarded as such. Example: when the numbskulls on The Hills unwittingly claim they’re having a “barbecue” at their Malibu beach houses, they’re just grilling. To quote the authority of all authorities – the internet, and specifically Wikipedia – “…practitioners consider barbecue to include only indirect methods of cooking over hardwood smoke, with the more direct methods to be called 'grilling'". If you ever question whether you are, in fact, grilling or doing barbecue, ask yourself these questions: 1) am I using a smoker? and 2) Will a dry rub or barbecue sauce be used? You are only doing barbecue if you answer "yes" to both of these questions.

Now having established both the capital of barbecue as well as its correct definition, I’ll point out that there are several restaurants in Kansas City that do barbecue very well. Most are little shacks tucked away in discreet nooks of the city, but upscale variations are also found downtown, on the plaza and out south. And they all serve the exact same plates of food regardless of how it may be presented (though each claims their own slight variation makes their food the best).

However. Within the last decade, a leader has emerged... a place that draws ridiculous crowds every weekend of the year, and every week day during lunch. This is a place that embodies the no-frills atmosphere I love in a barbecue restaurant (it's literally located in a gas station), meaning it stakes its reputation solely on the quality of its delicious. smoked. meats.

This place not only has a massive Midwest following, it’s received some serious national accolades, my favorite among them being listed as number 13 on Anthony Bourdain’s column for Men’s Health Magazine: 13 Places to Eat Before You Die. Bourdain, who I’ve written about before and of whom I’m a big fan, has eaten the best of everything, from hyper delicacies at the world’s top rated restaurants (many of them also on this list) to wildly fantastic street foods and specialties at famed local joints across the globe.

Of all the places he’s been, and of all the foods he loves, he chose Oklahoma Joe’s barbecue in Kansas City, Kansas, for the final spot on his enviable list of must-eats.

Normally I wouldn’t take the opinion of one New York-based chef so seriously... certainly not on the subject of barbecue, and especially not one who spent most of his career cooking at a French Brasserie. But having watched all his shows and read the book he wrote about his career as a chef and the restaurant industry, I respect his viewpoint. When I saw Bourdain speak at The Midland downtown about a year ago, someone in the audience asked him where he was going to eat that night. He replied (paraphrasing), “I’m flying out of town so I won’t be eating here.” (pause and disappointment from the crowd…) “But if I did eat anywhere in Kansas City tonight, it’d be at Oklahoma Joe’s.” (eruption of applause from the OK Joe’s fans in the house!!!)

Okay, enough guffawing over its national media attention. Let me tell you what sets Oklahoma Joe’s apart from the rest with three simple words that encompass all that's important in barbecue: flavorful, tender meat.

On the topic of flavor: obviously the meat has to shine, but what gives barbecued meat such great flavor is smoke. Whether mesquite or hickory (mesquite being my favorite by far), that smoky flavor must completely permeate your food. On a slice of brisket, you should be able to see a bright pink ring that comes from the penetration of smoke into the meat. You always get this at Oklahoma Joe's. Moreover, when you smell your food, it should absolutely reek of that smoke. Heck, the restaurant itself should have smoke visibly hanging in the air, and you should be able to smell it if you're anywhere within a quarter mile radius of the place. I'm not joking! And if you get your 'cue as takeout, the bag of food and any finger that touches it should smell like it was soaked in a bath of mesquite. Your hair, the morning after eating barbecue, should smell like mesquite. That's how important the smoke is, and Oklahoma Joe's delivers on every one of these criteria.

Tenderness is paramount to the experience of eating barbecue. Rib meat should be falling off the bones - literally sliding off cleanly when you wrap your lips around that first meaty bone. Brisket and pulled pork should essentially melt in your mouth. To me, the tenderness of the meat at Oklahoma Joe's is what creates the clear separation between it and all other barbecue. Whether Gates, Arthur Bryant's, Jack Stack or some other tiny shack, I've had ribs that weren't smoked long enough and wouldn't separate from the bone, resulting in a texture similar to an overcooked pork chop. Not good. I've had "crunchy" slices of brisket that tasted like cheap, metallic hamburger. But I've eaten at Oklahoma Joe's more than any of these other places and have never - not once - had anything that wasn't incredibly tender.

Meat. Barbecued meat should not be gristly or have huge chunks of fat in it. I can't use the word "lean" because there is plenty of fat in some of these meats, and there should be. But it needs to be evenly distributed. The low and slow cooking process makes the fat in a good, clean piece of pork butt melt away. You will never eat at a barbecue place that doesn't serve some fatty meat, but I've had inedible, fatty burnt ends at Gates and Jack Stack, stringy brisket from Arthur Bryant's, Danny Edwards, Smokehouse and Winslow's, and discarded huge chunks of fat-ridden pulled pork at others before. Don't get me wrong - I like all these places for one reason or another (well, not Winslow's), but they just don't measure up to OKJ's where you always get bite after bite of perfect, delicious meat.

For my money, the best choice in barbecue is pulled pork. I love it all, even chicken. And brisket is a close second. But in barbecue, pork is king and I personally enjoy the satisfaction of demolishing a massive sandwich to the sticky interaction with ribs. I must admit, in a departure with Kansas City 'cue customs, I enjoy a pulled pork sandwich Carolina style - meaning that spicy coleslaw is piled on top of the pork, in the sandwich, giving it a cooling, contrasting crunch that, for some reason, does more for me than pickles alone can.

The experience of starting in on one of these sandwiches at Oklahoma Joe's induces gluttonous euphoria. Noticing a juicy chunk of pork tumble from the overflowing bun and fall on the plate causes pleasure sensors to light up in my brain.This food is a drug and I'm happily addicted.

And like the worst addicts, I fully intend to share my love of this drug with as many people as possible. It always disappoints me when I see KC Masterpiece on grocery store shelves, or when my company caters meetings for clients from across the country with bbq from the wrong restaurant. Because these aren't the best representations of Kansas City barbecue. That's why, when my wife and I were planning our wedding rehearsal dinner, what to eat was the easiest of all the decisions we had to make. Oklahoma Joe's wowed our out of town guests and thrilled those who were already fans. It does the same for me every time I bite into a Carolina-style pulled pork sandwich, still, and always will. That's why Oklahoma Joe's is a KC Napkins four napkin restaurant.

Rating: four napkins

Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue (Kansas City) on Urbanspoon


Foodie32 said...

I'd also like to note that the sauce they use at Oklahoma Joe's is exceptional. My favorite sauce is, and always will be Gates. But Oklahoma Joe's is the perfect example of Kansas City-style barbecue sauce. Slightly thick, molasses and brown sugar, a little spiciness and not too vinegary. The perfect contrast to the salty, smoky meat on which it's served.

Additionally, here are my quick thoughts on the sides at OKJ's:
Fries: exceptional (good seasoning!)
Onion Rings: average (which means good)
Potato Salad: average
Coleslaw: above average
Spicy Coleslaw: exceptional
Beans: below average (until you add in some bbq sauce. They're a little lacking in flavor until you do.)
Red Beans & Rice: average, but nobody else has this on their menu, so bonus points there.

Amanda said...

Wow!! Your first 4 napkin rating!!
I think OK Joe's deserves it. Delish.

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