After an unforgettable lunch at the Idle Isle Cafe in Brigham City, Utah, my next couple of days of eating during my cross-country road trip left me wanting, to say the least. Dinner in Rawlings, Wyoming, was a Domino's pepperoni-and-anchovies pie delivered to my hotel room, and the next night's highlight in Lincoln, Nebraska, was a turkey sub and some Cool Ranch Doritos from Subway. But I accepted those two sorry meals with grace as I was gearing up to take a delicious detour down to Kansas City, Missouri, home to over 100 barbecue restaurants.
My visions of barbecue soon turned into the beckoning smell of smoked meat as I pulled into the parking lot of the legendary Arthur Bryant's on a rainy Sunday morning. I've made pilgrimages to Memphis, the Carolinas, and the Texas hill country, and welcomed being able to check Kansas City off my barbecue bucket list.
It wasn't yet noon and there was already a line of tourists, families, and neighborhood regulars stretching to the door. The set-up is pretty no frills—cafeteria style bathed in harsh fluorescent lighting. While I was snaking my way up to the front counter I was concentrating on the menu but equally mesmerized by their wall of fame. Aside from a 2008 photograph of a campaigning John McCain and Sarah Palin, the pictures seemed frozen in time, with shots of Michael Landon, Robert Redford, Wilt Chamberlin, and Steven Spielberg—all enjoying platters of satisfying barbecue.
My favorite, though, was a framed photo of a vintage James Spader (sporting some weird facial hair and an equally unfortunate fedora) tucking into some pork ribs. And let James Spader serve as a milepost of sorts, because by the time you get to him you need to be ready to get down to the business of ordering.
Kansas City barbecue is all about the sauce—typically a sweet house sauce and a spicier version—but they're also famous for burnt ends, the crispy scraps and trimmings from a beef brisket. Not to be confused with bark, another barbecue delicacy, the burnt ends can be tough and a little chewy in spots, but are so infused with smoky flavor and they practically melt in your mouth. Like many "poor man" cuts of meats, the demand for burnt ends now means that instead of relying on scraps, the fatty brisket points now hit the smokers with the full intention of transforming them into burnt ends.
Once you're in chute, where you lean down to tell the counterman your order, there isn't much time to chit-chat or ask questions. While I enjoyed driving solo across country I could have used a partner-in-pork here, just to maximize my ordering capacity. I rounded out my order of burnt ends with rib tips. These are the leftover cuts of meat from the lower end of the spare rib after the rack is trimmed St. Louis style.
Cartilage runs through these in a haphazard manner making them a messy production, but the payoff is worth the effort. The combo was served with slices of white bread and an order of pretty forgettable French fries (they weren't so bad as unnecessary, stealing valuable eating room from the meat).
I wrapped up my leftovers in butcher paper and drove up Brooklyn Avenue to a Gates Bar-B-Q outpost for round two.
As soon as you walk in the door you're not so much greeted as assaulted by the server shouting their trademark query: "Hi, may I help you?" This line of questioning continued, ringing out every few seconds, before I had a chance to get my bearings, and even after I placed my order. Throughout the whole ordeal I was unsure if she was still talking to me. I was one of just a handful of people in line and it didn't help that her back was to me most of the time.
I ordered a to-go platter of short end ribs along with some beans, pickles, more white bread, and an extra cup of sauce. These stayed in my cooler, the scent tempting me as the 'cue rode shotgun on my drive out of town. (Unfortunately, there's no photographic evidence as there was a "midnight snack" incident later that night in my St. Louis hotel room.)
Murray's Ice Cream and Cookies
Before I hightailed it out of town I had time to hit one ice cream parlor and Murray's Ice Cream and Cookies seemed like the place to check out.
Inside there's a lot of white walls, rainbow borders, and pastel neon action—all very Peach Pit circa Brenda/Dylan-era 90210. I think I caught the server on an off day. It was a quiet Sunday, and I was probably one of his first customers.
He didn't seem up to playing along with my Woodward and Bernstein routine: what's the most popular flavor? How many total flavors do you make? Do you use all local ingredients? What's the difference between a Lumpy and a Smooshie?
Murray's shuts down in the winter, and I can see why they have a loyal fanbase of customers who count down the days until they reopen. Maybe next time I'm in town I'll try a Lumpy, whatever that might be.
Murray's Ice Cream & Cookies
4120 Pennsylvania Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri, 64111 (map)
About the author: Brad Thomas Parsons is a Brooklyn-based writer who has interviewed many of the food world's biggest names, including David Chang, Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, Danny Meyer, Ina Garten, Jamie Oliver, Paula Deen, and Giada De Laurentiis, among others. He is currently at work on his first book, Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails and Recipes.