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The Burnt Ends of Kansas City: A Guided Tour

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Given that Kansas City boasts the most barbecue restaurants per capita in the U.S. (at least among major metropolitan areas), I'm not sure that my recent tour of twelve smokehouses there qualifies as "definitive," or even comprehensive.


But, if my hometown, food-writing legend Calvin Trillin, could substitute humorous hyperbole for authority, then I might have a worthy kernel or two to offer here. I recently reread Trillin's famous love letter to Kansas City barbecue (and sundry cheap eats) that appeared in a 1972 issue of Playboy magazine. It not only remains one of the most-cited pieces of writing among Kansas Citians, but promises a barrel of laughs decades and countless readings later. Entitled "No! One of the Worlds' Foremost Authorities on Ribs, Cheeseburger, French Fries and Frosty Malts Takes a Gourmet Tour of Kansas City," the article (filed under "Opinion" by his editors) reads to me more like a myth, resurrecting delicious giants from my childhood and beyond, blurred by a greasy film of nostalgia. Many of them — like Winstead's, known for their thin-patty burgers — still haunt our city today, sadly, shadows of their alleged, former glory.

For Kansas City barbecue, Trillin's article reigns more like a charter. It established Henry Perry as the father of Kansas City barbecue, thereby making Charlie Bryant — the man who took over Perry's barbecue restaurant in 1940 — the scion and heir to his legacy. Charlie's business eventually passed to his brother Arthur. And it was under Arthur Bryant's ownership that Trillin, in his 1972 article, conferred upon the restaurant the bombastic title of "the single-best restaurant in the world."

Trillin's writing also set into motion the gears of commerce and romance over a scrap of meat at Arthur Bryant's that Trillin described as the "burned edges of the brisket." He wrote of it: "The counterman just pushes them over to the side and anyone who wants them helps himself. I dream of those burned edges. Sometimes, when I'm in some awful, overpriced restaurant in some strange town, trying to choke down some three-dollar hamburger that tastes like a burned sponge, a blank look comes over me: I have just realized that at that very moment, someone in Kansas City is being given those burned edges free."

Not for long. Barbecue restaurants quickly capitalized upon Trillin's anecdote and started selling those "burnt ends." At their best, "burnt ends" are the crisped and charred "bark" from the fattier corners of the brisket — beef crackling that has been blackened by smoke. Deemed too burnt and fatty to eat, traditionally these trimmings were set aside as the cook's snack. But following Trillin's article, the demand for these scraps quickly outpaced production. So, at most barbecue restaurants, burnt ends turned into something entirely different.

Burnt Ends, Explained

To understand modern burnt ends, you must understand brisket. Brisket is a uniquely American primal cut from the lower front end of a cow, comprising part of the animal's pectoral muscles. Owing to an abundant amount of connective tissue, brisket must be cooked slowly to melt all the collagen, making it particularly suitable for long-smoking.

Brisket is made up of two muscles, separated by a layer of fat. The larger, leaner muscle is called the "flat." On top of the flat is a smaller, thinner, and more-marbled piece of meat called the "point," also known as the "deckle." The point is capped with a thick layer of fat, which is often removed before cooking.

Unable to meet the demand of customers looking for the type of burnt ends that Trillin described, the vast majority of barbecue restaurants now fabricate them from parts of the entire brisket. Most remove the point muscle and either cook it separately, or remove it after the entire brisket has cooked, returning the point to the smoker to char on its own. In these cases, the flat muscle is sliced and served as "brisket," and the extra-charred point muscle, with fattier, looser-grained meat, is chopped up as "burnt ends." Some use only the flat muscle for burnt ends; these are usually lean and dry, and as a result, often liberally sauced. And others cook the entire brisket, chop everything up, and then smoke the cubes of meat to darken them even more.

Regardless of the method of cooking or smoking employed, the burnt ends of today are rarely the burnt ends of Trillin's yesteryear.

Most of the burnt ends I encountered fell into two camps: they were either dry and bark-like (almost like charred jerky), or moist and tender (mostly cubed meat). Some places served something of a hybrid: juicy cubes of meat with a thick, tough, and barky rind. Only two of the places I visited served the sort of crispy, crackling-like crust that I consider to be true burnt ends: Gates and LC's. However, it is important to keep in mind that the longer meat sits, the drier it becomes. So, it is possible that even true burnt ends, after sitting for a while (especially if under heat lamps), will dry out. That means that restaurants with a higher turnover rate are more likely to have fresher brisket, which means their burnt ends are more likely to be crustier, juicier, fattier — better.

In the tradition of Kansas City barbecue, burnt ends are almost always served on a foamy mattress of white bread, and always with sauce. Thick and sweet —and often spicy, too — sauce is the one, true hallmark of Kansas City barbecue. Served this way, it's too sloppy to be called an open-faced sandwich. Although some "white collar" barbecue restaurants try to fashion them this way (sometimes, more white bread is stacked on top of the meat). The purpose, I suppose, is to use the white bread as a sponge to sop up all of the fat and sauce.
I adhered to only two rules on my tour of the following twelve restaurants:

1. My standard order was the burnt ends (as with all barbecued meats in Kansas City, they appeared, invariably, in the form of a "platter," "dinner," "plate," or "sandwich") with a side of barbecue beans; and

2. If a restaurant had multiple locations, I visited the original location.

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[Photo: Bonjwing Lee]

Arthur Bryant's

I wonder what Trillin would think of the burnt ends that Arthur Bryant's serves today. They certainly aren't the burnt ends that he described in 1972. For as long as I have been ordering Arthur Bryant's burnt ends, the large, cubed meat has been tough, and the outer rind of bark has been dry. The meat now comes coated in Arthur Bryant's "Rich and Spicy" sauce, which is sweeter and spicier than the paprika-choked "Original" sauce for which Bryant is famous. As with all Arthur Bryant's barbecue, the burnt ends are served on white bread with sliced pickles. (1727 Brooklyn Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri 64127; arthurbryantsbbq.com)

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[Photo: Bonjwing Lee]

Danny Edwards BBQ

Danny Edwards's father Jake arrived in Kansas City in 1938 and set up Jake's Barbecue, which remained open until 1981. Danny, then known as "Lil' Jake," opened his own barbecue restaurant in 1980 using his family's recipes. He became most well-known for his slogan, "Eat it, and beat it." It was a reminder to the customers of his 18-seater on Grand Boulevard in the heart of downtown Kansas City of the long line of customers waiting for seats. In 2007, Edwards was forced out of his Grand Boulevard space and he relocated to a much larger space on Southwest Boulevard. Danny Edwards's burnt ends are taken from the point muscle. They are smoked until barky and charred, and then chopped into small bits, sauced, and served with a slice of white bread on the side. The day I went, the meat was dry — surprisingly dry for deckle meat — and too dry for me. (2900 Southwest Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri 64108; dannyedwardsblvdbbq.com)

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Gates Bar-B-Q

When the woman behind the counter yells out "Hi, may I help you?" with an alarming volume and ferocity, you had better know what you want. Gates Bar-B-Q was founded by George Gates and his family in 1946. Their first cook, Arthur Pinkard, had been a cook under Henry Perry. For years, I shied away from Gates because their barbecue was way too salty, and not very good. But, this time, their burnt ends knocked my socks off. When asked, the young carver behind the station held up a hunk of brisket and showed me the crispy corners that he was cutting off for my order. Using two cleavers, he chopped all of the burnt scraps into bits and piled them on white bread (normally it's served on a hoagie, you have to request white bread). He asked me if I wanted them sauced. I said yes. He reached for a giant brush in a canister and generously painted the meat, and then shingled more white bread on top.

The best way to describe Gates' burnt ends is brisket feuilletine. They reminded me of Rodney Scott's famous pulled pork in South Carolina. Scott separates the crisped skin from the pulled pork meat and then chops the two back together so that every bite is mottled with crystals of crunchy crackling. Gates' brisket burnt ends are just like that. And it's marvelous. On this latest visit, the meat was still noticeably salty, saved only by the tanginess of the restaurant's signature sauce, speckled with celery seed. (1221 Brooklyn, Kansas City, Missouri 64127; gatesbbq.com)

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Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue

One of the few barbecue restaurants in Kansas City to offer mail order, Fiorella's Jack Stack is also one of the few barbecue restaurants that have expanded to become a local chain. Its commercialization can be seen in the variety of burnt ends offered: brisket, ham, and even sausage. Purists roll their eyes. What I found at their original location in Martin City were large cubes of brisket from both the point and the flat. The pieces from the flat were particularly dry, the ones from the point, particularly tender and fatty. It was an uneven plate of meat.

Out of curiosity, I also ordered a plate of the pork "burnt ends," which were essentially cubes of pork butt, slightly charred for color. Fatty and tender, these were much more consistent than the brisket ones. But as a Kansas Citian, I reject the cubed pork butt ones as burnt ends. Both the pork and brisket burnt ends at Fiorella's Jack Stack are served with a small slice of white bread and two sides. The beans here, which I describe as dark and stormy, are unspeakably good. At Martin City, the beans pool beneath the meat in the smoker, soaking up the drippings. (13441 Holmes Road, Martin City, Missouri 64145; jackstackbbq.com)

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LC's Bar-B-Q

When Anthony Bourdain told me that he wanted his Kansas City episode of No Reservations to be the "barbecue show to end all barbecue shows," two names topped my list of recommendations. LC's was one of them (Oklahoma Joe's was the other). You might question a lot of things when you walk into this roadside grease pit off of Blue Parkway in a part of town where no one would otherwise stop. You might wonder if the lacquered, taxidermy fish on the walls are actually LC's conquests, or whether LC actually knows what is in the overstuffed Rolodex on his "office" desk that sits along the back wall, where he can often be seen napping.

You might also question whether throwing an unseasoned brisket into the smoker, stoking the flames, and then dousing it all with a hose is actually a recipe for success, or whether the amount of smoke that method produces inside the restaurant, where the smoker sits, is actually safe for humans. But the one thing you won't question is LC's burnt ends. When they are good, they are fantastic. Fresh out of the smoker, the blackened crust is bubbling and crisp, the meat is a juicy and flavorful, with a generous amount of fat running throughout. LC's sauce, which is more vinegary than most Kansas City sauce, a foil for the richness of his meat.

One of my favorite things about LC's is that, unlike most other barbecue restaurants, LC's serves his meat piping hot (on white bread, of course). But mind the plates, as they're often greasy and saucy on the underside; it's definitely a sloppy affair. The beans here are fantastic, full of burnt end bits. And, when fresh out of the fryer, the French fries here are a joy. They're the wedge kind, with a thick, shell of a crust and a fluffy, steamy interior. (5800 Blue Parkway, Kansas City, Missouri 64129; Since the restaurant has no website, I note that, to my knowledge, the restaurant is opened every day for lunch and dinner except Sundays, unless the Royals or Chiefs have a home game.)

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Oklahoma Joe's Bar-B-Que

Oklahoma Joe's was born of the barbecue competition champion team "Slaughterhouse Five" (they've won titles at the largest, and arguably, most-prestigious barbecue competition in the world — The American Royal in Kansas City — among countless other competitions). A relatively young barbecue restaurant — it opened in Kansas City in 1996 — Oklahoma Joe's has quickly attained cult status in a city of well-seasoned elders. What Trillin did for Arthur Bryant's, Anthony Bourdain did for Oklahoma Joe's when he named it one of the "13 Places To Eat Before You Die" (along with places like elBulli, The French Laundry, and Sukiyabashi Jiro) in a 2011 issue of Men's Health magazine.

I have eaten at Oklahoma Joe's dozens of times, and in my experience, the quality has been consistently high, which explains its success. The original location, inside a working Shamrock gas station on the corner of 47th Avenue and Mission Road, just a couple of blocks on this side of the Kansas-Missouri border, only serves burnt ends Mondays and Saturdays at lunch, and Thursdays at dinner. Like many others, Oklahoma Joe's separates the two muscles of a smoked brisket, and returns the point muscle to the smoker to darken (this was first explained to me by Doug Worgul, author of Thin Blue Smoke, who now works for Oklahoma Joe's). The charred point is chopped into small cubes and served on buttered toast with sliced pickles and a side (I chose beans). Here, you sauce your own meat. Oklahoma Joe's burnt ends have a nice char on the outer edges and the meat is tender, some of it layered with fat. It's consistently good. (3002 West 47th Avenue, Kansas City, Kansas 66103; oklahomajoesbbq.com)

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Papa Bob's Bar-B-Que

Papa Bob doesn't seem to mind that he's most well-known for something he calls the "Ultimate Destroyer," a foot-long hoagie battleship carrying over four pounds of smoked meat, with sauce and gratuitous slices of bread layered between. It appeared on that show Man v. Food, which made that meaty tanker the most famous thing about Bonner Springs, Kansas other than tornadoes. I knew none of this when I sat down at Papa Bob's red, diner-like counter and ordered his burnt ends, which turned out to be surprisingly good. Papa Bob (his last name is Caviar, by the way) only uses the point muscle for his burnt ends, which he cuts into cubes and serves with a carousel of over a half-dozen sauces, all of which are made in-house (my favorites were his two, more-vinegary chicken wing sauces). The meat was moist and tender, with a nicely charred crust. The burnt ends came naked on a plate with a pickle spear and a choice of two sides. (11610 Kaw Drive, Bonner Springs, Kansas 66111; papabobsbbq.com)

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Q39

Rob Magee, a restaurateur and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, opened this "rustic-urban" newcomer on 39th Street earlier this year. Magee is a veteran of the barbecue competition circuit, leading the decorated Munchin' Hogs barbecue team. At Q39 the meat from the point muscle — which is removed from the whole, smoked brisket — is sliced into strips and then served on a bun with sauce (if the point meat is still too fatty, it is sometimes returned to the smoker to render and darken). I suppose Q39's burnt ends are only related to Trillin's burnt ends in spirit, but it is some of the most tender and well-smoked meat I had on my recent tour. But at $9 for a few ounces of meat on a bun with no sides included, it was also some of the most expensive meat I had. (1000 W 39th St Kansas City, Missouri 64111; q39kc.com)

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Quick's Bar-B-Q & Catering

Quick's, which opened in 1964, is the only barbecue restaurant I visited that uses only the flat muscle of the brisket for its burnt ends. As a result the burnt ends here — served shredded — were dry and jerky-like. You'll need sauce, the spice level of which increases as you work your way from the smallest to the largest squirt bottle on the table. The burnt ends dinner at Quick's comes with sliced white bread, sliced pickles, and your choice of two sides. (1007 Merriam Lane, Kansas City, Kansas 66103; quicksbbqandcatering.com)

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Rye

Rye is the only non-barbecue restaurant I visited. I include their version of burnt ends as an example of how the romance for these local scraps has bled into the mainstream. I also include them because they were very good. James Beard Award-winner Colby Garrelts will be the first to tell you that his burnt ends aren't traditional. Currently, Rye smokes the entire brisket and cuts all of it — both the point and the flat — into large cubes to use as burnt ends. Since the brisket is cooked specifically for this purpose, both the flat and point pieces were smoked to be moist and tender, sporting a cosmetic char. These "burnt ends" were served as an "open-faced sandwich" on a thick slice of "Texas toast" with house-made sauce, a side of quick pickles, and cottage fries. (10551 Mission Road, Leawood, Kansas 66206; ryekc.com)

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Smokin' Guns BBQ

After nearly a decade on the barbecue competition circuit, Phil and Linda Hopkins opened Smokin' Guns BBQ in North Kansas City in 2003. The day I went, the place was packed at lunchtime with soccer fans cheering on the U.S. World Cup team on one of the many flat-screens that line the restaurant's bar. The burnt ends here come from the point muscle, which was chopped and served, unsauced, with a roll, a pickle spear, and your choice of two sides (I chose beans and onion rings; the beans were very sweet, and the onions were very breaded). The burnt ends I had here were surprisingly dry. (1218 Swift Street, North Kansas City, Missouri 64116; smokingunsbbq.com)

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Snead's Bar B-Q

This magnificent, formica palace sits on the forlorn intersection of South Holmes Road and 171st Street in far-flung Belton, Missouri. Opened in 1956, Snead's was also mentioned in Trillin's 1972 article for its version of burnt ends, which they call "brownies." Snead's brownies are actually just cubed meat from the point. They're tender, with a bit of fat running through some pieces. The thick, black char wasn't as crispy or crunchy as I would have liked, but it wasn't dry or tough either. I liked Snead's brownies a lot. The meat came on a slice of white bread with sliced pickles and a Dixie cup of creamy coleslaw. Sauce on the side. (17101 S Holmes Road, Belton, Missouri 64012; sneadsbbq.com)

The "No Tipping the Cooks Allowed" sign at Arthur Bryant's (to discourage cooks from pocketing extra dough for giving out extra meat). [Photo: Bonjwing Lee]

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