Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City!

The title of this post is courtesy Rogers and Hammerstein.

Well, I can tick off one more item off my life’s to-do list — one which, until this trip, I didn’t know I had.

We originally decided to fly to Kansas City on this trip because Southwest promised a non-stop flight from Detroit. They lied; we landed in Chicago’s Midway airport. But on the flight I read the in-flight magazine, which included an article about Kansas City. The city has a few things to boast about, including a great jazz scene, soul food, and apparently some of the best barbecue in the world.

In particular, the travel article mentioned a restaurant known as Arthur Bryant’s and his Burnt Ends Open-Faced Sandwich, which amounted to hunks of meat on Wonder bread, of all things, coated in what was reputed to be among the best barbecue sauce in the whole world.

After resolving to avoid the chain restaurants during our last trip to Nebraska and being rewarded with a wonderful beef briscut sandwich, I knew I had to get me some K.C. barbecue cooking. Our itinerary called for us to be in Kansas City the evening before our morning flight out. Vivian has been travelling wonderfully, so perhaps a night on the town wasn’t a bad idea. So, armed with some research on the best barbecue places in the city, we decided to make a go of it.

There was some trepediation over the location of some of these restaurants. There are parts of Kansas City that one doesn’t want to be in after dark, and truth to tell, one wouldn’t want to walk up to Arthur Bryant’s, even during the daytime. The restaurant at 18th and Brooklyn is housed inside a 1920s brick building which may be the only occupied business on its block. There is a section of housing to the south, but very little else can be found in the blocks surrounding it. Despite this, Arthur Bryant’s itself is full of people and surrounded by cars. Stephen Speilberg ate there, as did a few former presidents, and stepping inside, you know it’s got to be about the food. The restaurateurs (a family that bought it off the Bryants, I think) don’t care one whit about the decor, which could be charitably characterized as “cafeteria style”.

The menu is printed on the back wall of the restaurant, and you get in line and place your order, which is then assembled in front of you. Various smoked meats are piled onto Wonder bread, plus fries or pickles or baked beans or whatever tickles your fancy. Takeout orders are especially interesting; just watching people from all walks of life collect their evening meals tells you that you are in for an experience. Want a beef sandwich? Well, then the fixings for a beef sandwich — meat, sauce, bread — are dumped on a sheet of butcher’s paper, along with the fries and the pickles, and then the butcher’s paper is wrapped up like a slab of ground beef at the deli. My burnt ends open faced sandwich was delivered on a plate, with a bed of Wonder bread and a handfull of fries, which Erin helped me bring to the table. We also had “red cream” soda.

Yes, it’s just hunks of meat with thick cut fries on top of Wonder bread, but one bite gave me a sensation I’d not had since I’d visited Schwartz’s in Montreal. I can’t really do justice to it in words. It is a bold taste, but it is subtly spiced. And one thing that impressed me even more is that the sauce for each special was different. Michael and Rosemarie had a slab of ribs that was heavy on the cayenne. The baked beans had, I think, tamarin in it. It was rich, it was smokey, it was wonderful.

Arthur Bryant’s attracts a wide range of people, as I’ve said, and one other thing that made this visit special is that we sat next to an individual who gave us a sample of K.C’s local colour. A bearded gentleman in a felt hat sat down and announced, to no one in particular, that he used to do his business calls from the pay phone that used to be hooked to the wall near his table. “That was my cell phone”, he joked. When Michael asked for directions to see the Christmas lights on Kansas City’s famous plaza, he said, “well, you gotta know that the plaza is in the southwest part of the city. So there are two things you gotta do: you gotta go south… and you gotta go west.” He then proceeded to give us some good directions and a fairly detailed account of the city. We introduced ourselves, chatted about the local scene, and went on our way.

One can tell that Kansas City is really suffering in places. The area around Arthur Bryant’s is deserted for almost six blocks. Then, for a two block stretch along 18th Avenue, we pass through the 18th and Vine Jazz Heritage district, which was lit up and hopping. It really shone like a bulb in darkness. But Kansas City is also rich in history. The Kansas City Star offices where Ernest Hemmingway got his start still stands, and we also paid a visit to Union Station, a remarkable beaux arts building that was saved from demolition and lovingly restored into a major attraction for the downtown. To raise the money to save this jewel as a working railroad station, four counties in two states cooperated to set up America’s first bi-state sales tax.

You can sense the wide gap between the haves and have nots in Kansas City. The city boasts fountains, plazas and loads of public art, thanks to an infusion of money from the mafia in the thirties and the forties. Recent efforts have brought large sections of the city back, but blocks remain that have been largely abandoned. Fortunately, Kansas City is unique. Even on this quick visit, I can see that the city has a lot of people with interesting stories to tell; like how a man made a barbecue so good his restaurant still stands in an area that is almost entirely demolished. It has a reputation that easily extends beyond its borders, and that counts for a lot.

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