October 28, 2004
Does anyone remember Struttin' Gates Barbecue? I think it was around 1992 when this Kansas City icon opened an outpost on East Desert Inn Road. Sometime thereafter, but way before our gourmet food boom, I took a tour of Kansas City's best joints to see what made it's 'cue superior to so many others. After four days of Arthur Bryant's ribs, Fiorella's Smoke Stack sausages, Gate's Hot Links, and the burnt end sandwiches at Little Jake's Eat it and Beat It, I decided that Kansas City truly deserved its place in the pantheon of smoked pork.
Now this concession wasn't easy for someone who was raised below the Mason Dixon Line, to make. I mean the Kansas City places tended to be big, splashy, suburban joints-Arthur Bryant's excepted--with lots of gleaming furniture, big signs, and big parking lots out front. It was if all that squeaky clean Midwestern sensibility was superimposed on the ultimate po' folks food.
Where I came from, barbecue was cooked behind a shanty by an old African-American guy named Zeb, or Luther, who had a kitchen timer in his head, and hickory smoke in his veins. The shacks they served from were usually just off a country road, with no address to speak of, but a hand painted wooden sign that said "BBQ ahead --Thursday and Saturday. Sometimes you'd snaked down a dirt road for a mile or two until you saw and smelled the ethereally sweet smoke. And you still weren't sure where you were until you came upon a line of gleaming new Beamers and Mercedes, all lined up with beat up pickups, rusted out station wagons, and Volkswagon vans redolent of a different type of smoke. Folks of all colors and stripes were there to get the best 'cue in the county, and it seemed to me that even in the era of Jim Crow, smoked pig was color-blind.
Talk to one of those pit masters and they'd tell you not to trust any meat made in some fancy-pants setting, since the guy doin' the cookin'--would be too impatient and too concerned with meeting his overhead to let the slow smoke work its magic on the meat. By and large I still agree with that philosophy, but over the years, places like our long-gone Gates, Otto's in Houston Texas, and our very own Memphis Barbecue, have won me over with superior meat cooked for suburbia.
And if you hadn't noticed, there's a barbecue bonanza going on around here...Lucille's, Famous Dave's, and Barbecue Masters have all opened in the past few months, and Praise The Lord and pass the 'taters, Mike Mills' Memphis Championship ribs are now available way too close to my neighborhood for my cholesterol count. So I've decided to put aside my reverse-barbecue-snobbery and give these new joints a fair shot. So tune in next week when we go pickin' on some pig.
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