When I’m away from Kansas City and in low spirits, I try to envision someone walking up to the counterman at Bryant’s and ordering a beef sandwich to go– for me. The counterman tosses a couple pieces of bread onto the counter, grabs a half a pound of beef from the pile next to him, slaps it onto the bread, brushes on some sauce in almost the same motion, and then wraps it all up in two thicknesses of butcher paper in a futile attempt to keep the customer’s hand dry as he carries off his prize.
I have no problem believing that when Calvin Trillin typed out these words in the early ’70s, Arthur Bryant’s really was, as he likes to proclaim, “the single best restaurant in the world.” Having now eaten at the original Arthur Bryant’s smokehouse at 18th and Brooklyn in Kansas City, I have no problem believing that it still is the single best restaurant in the world. My taste buds have yet to catch up to my beliefs, but it’s a matter of fact that taste buds can evolve. Beliefs are at their best when unblinking and pathological.
As far as beliefs go, Bryant’s deserves its own Monopoly square. Walking through the front door of this red brick institution, which stands alone at a vacated intersection of Kansas City, is enough to make you feel like a union member. The scent of smoke is immediate, the seating is unadorned, and the service counter is as intact as any memory in publication, existing only as the medium between a man and his lunch. A particular sort of reverence for Bryant’s is reflected in the expressions of its customers, most of whom enter the dining room with a look of relief on their faces. It’s the same expression I wear when I walk into Colima Burgers or put on a pair of clean drawers straight from the dryer.
My first meal at Bryant’s was a short end pork rib sandwich. The ribs had the tough-smoked texture that can only be the product of long haul barbecue: crisp and chewy on the outside, hearty and tender on the inside and laid on a blanket of white bread only a few fluffy steps away from sugar. That said, while Arthur Bryant certainly has a chapter in the good book of ribs, for one reason or another his short ends have come up a bit less biblical than many would testify. While the texture of my meat was perfect, its flavor was a bit hollow in comparison to the greats of Memphis and Oakland. The fabled sauces that put Kansas City on the BBQ map were all sweet and no heat, leaving Trillin’s legend to fill in the gaps.
The French fries— not just any fries, but fresh potatoes deep fried in pure lard— told a different tale. According to Bryant (according to Trillin), “Pure lard is expensive. But if you want to do a job, you do a job.” Cold as they were, the fries piled next to my short ends confirmed the value of the most heart-clogging, PETA-insulting work ethic in America. Where most fries would have chased the light, crisp archetype of that classic McDonald’s side, Bryant’s lard fried potatoes delivered a punch of meaty heft that could have constituted its own meal. It was as if the founders of In-N-Out had decided to turn their noses at health-conscious California and plant their fry baskets in the Buffalo graveyards of the Oregon Trail.
There are many who say that lunch hour at Bryant’s BBQ has overstayed its welcome. My own late lunch at 18th and Brooklyn may be proof of that dismissal, but in my own words, it’s just as much proof that Calvin Trillin’s undying devotion to the single best restaurant in the world is not misplaced. After all, when it comes to BBQ, I’m a believer.
Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque
1727 Brooklyn Ave