Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dispatches from planet BBQ: Arthur Bryant's

arthur bryant's 1 fig. a: beans, ribs, fries, sauces

I would imagine we've all had the experience of going to a restaurant with high expectations, but going to a place like Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, MO, is an altogether different experience. This is a barbecue joint--a "grease house," as Mr. Bryant used to put it--of the highest order, easily ranking among the 10 most famous in America.

Arthur Bryant's 3 fig. b: world famous

This is an establishment that Calvin Trillin once referred to as, "possibly the single best restaurant in the world," in the pages of Playboy (in an article that later appeared in American Fried). Of course, Trillin hails from K.C. originally, but there was a lot more than just hometown pride behind his claim. There were ribs, there was Arthur Bryant's legendary barbecue sauce, and, most importantly, there were burnt ends.

So when you got to a place like Arthur Bryant's and it actually manages to meet or exceed your expectations, you know you've experienced something special, and that's exactly what happened. I was blown away (which is pretty amazing for a place whose patriarch passed away almost 30 years ago).

I mean, just look at those ribs in the image up top. And you can't tell from the photo, but those beans are the real deal. Tender, smoky, savory, and laced with a major dose of Arthur Bryant's phenomenal burnt ends. Even their fries are excellent. And their brisket? Ridiculously succulent. I haven't had the pleasure of a barbecue tour of Texas (yet), so I'm hardly an expert, but this brisket was a work of beauty.

Arthur Bryant's being a serious barbecue joint, your ribs, your brisket, your bbq pork, etc., all come to you unsauced (unless you're taking them to go, in which case you'll be asked if you want them slathered or not). Arthur Bryant's is world famous, in part, for their sauce, but, generally, the saucing of the barbecue is left up to you, the customer. You take your tray to your table, and there you'll find a battery of Arthur Bryant's special brews: their original sauce, a sweet sauce, and a spicy sauce. Both the sweet sauce and the spicy sauce have their adherents (and with good reason: they're excellent), but Arthur Bryant's true believers all swear by the original recipe, and nothing but. Who can blame them? It's an utterly beguiling barbecue sauce, unlike any other I've ever tasted. Jane and Michael Stern have described the sauce as, "a gritty, red-orange blend of spice and sorcery that is not at all sweet,... packs a hot paprika wallop and tastes like a strange soul-food curry," and, as strange as that last part may sound, there's something to it.

arthur bryant's 2 fig. c: decor

The interior of Arthur Bryant's flagship restaurant is pure mid-20th-century soul,* from its no-nonsense decor, to its cafeteria-style service, to its low-key, down-tempo blues & soul soundtrack. It's also a true barbecue shrine. Arthur Bryant's website features photographs of Tom Watson, Calvin Trillin, and Jimmy Carter under the caption "Our Fans," but its walls feature images of fans like Steven Spielberg and Sally Field alongside African-American heroes like Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Charlie Parker.

That hickory-smoke flavor and the tang of that Arthur Bryant's original sauce lingered deliciously on my fingertips for hours after my visit, even after I'd washed up, but eventually, sadly, they faded away, like everything else in this mean, old world. And ever since, all I can think is: "how the heck will I ever be able to get back to K.C.?" Thank God I left Arthur Bryant's with a bottle of their magical elixir.

Arthur Bryant goes to heaven fig. d: Mister Bryant goes to heaven

Arthur Bryant's
1727 Brooklyn Ave.
Kansas City, MO
(816) 231-1123

Arthur Bryant's 4 fig. e: Arthur Bryant's is it!


* While the Arthur Bryant's tradition has roots that date back to the early 20th century, the 1727 Brooklyn location was established in 1958.


Michelle said...

You've done it again! Thank you for making me supremely stoked for future eating experiences. I'm taking my first road trip through the South next week, and will be passing through Louisville, Nashville, and Memphis. Off the top of your head, do you know any bbq joints I should check out? I'm already considering a slight detour to visit Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams.

aj kinik said...

Wait a second! Is this Michelle Michelle? I thought you were overseas...
Anyway, either way, I think you're in for the time of your life. My one and only trip to Louisville was painfully short, but I had a killer breakfast at Lynn's Paradise, and, if you're into bourbon, you'll find no shortage of places with insanely good selections (including Lynn's). I found everything I could possibly want at the Liquor Barn, where they had an entire supermarket-size aisle (two-sided) called Bourbon Alley. Unfortunately, the last time I was in either Nashville or Memphis, I was a vegetarian so I don't have any actual intel (but I've heard great things about Cozy Corner and Leonard's in Memphis, and Swett's in Nashville--maybe some of our readers can chime in with actual first-person recommendations).

If you have the opportunity, by all means, visit Benton's. If you find yourself in the vicinity of Princeton, KY, stop in at Newsom's Country Store (home of Col. Newsom's hams)--you won't be disappointed, and the new batch of country hams should be available by now.

Have a blast!

michelle said...

Save me some sauce!