In the southeast corner of Kansas City, directly in front of an impound lot at the intersection of Blue Parkway and coal mine road, stands a small smokehouse named LC’s. It’s the kind of scene that overwhelms the senses: When you open the front door, a tide of smoke washes through the entrance and begins to saturate whatever fraction of your dresser drawer is currently on deck. You descend into a modest space of six to eight tables. There is no barrier between the dining room and the smoke pit, which stands directly behind the counter and opens directly in the face of the customer. This is the craft and the culture of barbecue at its best, taking no steps to dress, mask or otherwise protect the simplicity of its task from those who would dare attempt its undertaking on their own.
It’s a scene that I would be ashamed to photograph. LC himself permanently occupies one of the tables, beset with books, notepads and papers that ostensibly account for his success as a proprietor. When customers approach the gap between his table and the counter, however, they treat him more like a mafia Don.
“Mr. LC, do you have ham today?” asks an older man who, I can only assume, is a churchgoer.
“Yeah, you can get ham,” answers LC, who goes on to remind his customer of the extensive benefits the Cosa Nostra keeps in reserve for a hungry family with loyalty to offer.
“I seen you at the church,” the pitmaster chimes in as he inspects a brisket and pushes it back into the smoker. “Why you ain’t come around last week?” The ham loving, God fearing man shuffles his feet and offers some excuses out of earshot. Chuckles are exchanged and he gets his dinner plate to go. LC nods silently at the end of the transaction.
LC doesn’t acknowledge my existence until I step up to the counter and order a plate of burnt ends. A bovine counterpoint to pork rib tips, these fatty morsels of meat are whacked from the ends of a smoked brisket and placed back in the pit for a final burn. LC’s burnt ends are a hallmark of Kansas City BBQ. Each chunk is just big enough to fill the cradle of a human hand. Hearty, juicy, and multi-layered, each burnt end presents a sophisticated argument for beef. Its edges are crisp, red and black deposits of smoke. Encased within their candied protection is a tender, generously marbelized cut of meat that, when chewed, fires bolts of savory, fatty juice through clouds of smoky, well-done flavor.
LC’s burnt ends are blanketed in the archetypal Kansas City BBQ sauce: a sweet, rich tomato-based gravy designed to fill the crevices of any meat on the table. Like any good sauce, it completes the dish without overpowering the beef or exposing any weaknesses in its preparation. Most importantly, LC’s sauce provides the crucial service of melding beef with white bread in one messy, savory, superb mess that any man of honor would jump at the chance to clean up.
LC’s beans use a similar approach to inducing family loyalty. Heartened by chunks of smoked meat and sweetened by some combination of molasses, tomato and possibly brown sugar, they constitute a meal all their own, not unlike the Brunswick stew simmered in BBQ shacks of the Deep South.
The combination of burnt ends and beans at LC’s is a proposition for satisfaction that is carefully monitored by LC from the moment I place my order. Keenly aware that a third man has cut right to the heart of his operation, he surreptitiously watches every bite and tracks every movement without ever pushing back his seat. He watches as I clean out my beans. He watches as I chew on the fattiest morsels of burnt end beef he can serve. He watches as I slide my plate into the garbage can and make my way toward the door. It’s only when I am about to leave LC’s den that the grizzly godfather of Kansas City Q looks me in the eye and delivers a silent nod. In the underworld of barbecue, I am a made man.
5800 Blue Parkway
Kansas City, MO