I am in Kansas City, Missouri, on a mission--to get into the kitchen of the world's most famous barbecue stand, Arthur Bryant's. This place serves straight up heaven on white bread, and I can't wait to sop up its secrets.
It reigns as the high holy temple of K. C. barbecue, yet the decor won't inspire a sonnet. Don't go late at night. Don't expect friendly service. But there's something special about Bryant's, a restaurant that's woven into the fabric of this city's consciousness. How do they do it?
The knife cuts through the beef, carving out the perfect brisket for a rush of diners who will arrive in a few hours. I turn the 14-pound bad boy over, trim off an end, and place the raw cut on a baking sheet. "Not bad," says pit master Ray Echols. Then in a flash of steel and blur of hands, Ray trims five briskets in the time I took to complete one.
Clues to the mystery begin to bubble up. First, all great barbecue starts with the wood and the quality of the meat. Arthur Bryant's selects gorgeous cuts of ribs and giant briskets and uses fruitwood and hickory that you'd want to build furniture out of--not burn. Second, Bryant's uses double-strength pickling vinegar in the sauce, which makes for one hell of a punchy tang.
The Barbecue Laboratory
As I leave at the end of the day, splattered with sauce and reeking of smoke, I pause to take one last whiff of barbecue and overhear two patrons discussing Bryant's new menu items. That gets me to thinking. I believe Bryant's biggest secret lies in their willingness to experiment. The city lives under a great cloud of hickory; men and women fire up their imaginations and create culinary flops and masterpieces side by side. That inventiveness fortifies Arthur Bryant's and perhaps even Kansas City as the King and Queen of 'Cue. Long may they reign.
Arthur Bryant's: 1727 Brooklyn Avenue, Kansas City, MO 64127; www.arthurbryantsbbq.com or (816) 231-1123.