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Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, Overland Park, Kan./Kansas City, Mo.

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Look at a map of the United States, and it’s not hard to see why Kansas City is world-renowned for its barbecue. Being both in the center of the country and the second-largest metro area in the farm-heavy Midwest (behind only Minneapolis-St. Paul) made Kansas City a logical choice as a center for meat packing and distribution in the era before air travel made it so much easier to get from point A to point B.

With all of the meat both coming in and in their own backyard, it only made sense for Kansas City to develop a signature cuisine based around the meats, leading to Kansas City becoming a mecca for barbecue nationwide. In large part because of the variety of meat available, one of the staples of Kansas City barbecue became the willingness to smoke any and every kind of meat available. Unlike the pork-loving Southeast or brisket-happy Texas, Kansas City has never had one kind of signature meat. Whether it’s pork, beef, ham, turkey, chicken or sausage, the City of Fountains has always put everything in the smoker and doused it in sauce.

The other staple of Kansas City is that legendary barbecue is a longtime family affair. Of the Big Four barbecue restaurants of Kansas City, which include Arthur Bryant’s, Gates, Joe’s Kansas City/Oklahoma Joe’s and Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, only Joe’s Kansas City can truly be considered an outsider, having only arrived in Kansas City in the 1990’s and being started by a group of friends rather than one family. Bryant’s got its start in 1946 when the Bryant brothers of Charlie and Arthur went into business together, and Gates came the same year when George Gates started Gates and Sons Bar B Q.

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But in the case of Jack Stack, rather than being a family affair, this seems to be more of a case of family gone wrong. The origins are similar to Bryant’s and Gates, as Russ Fiorella began Smoke Stack Barbecue in 1957 and had his children work in his modest restaurant, keeping with the family affair theme. But the story took its first turn in 1974, when Jack Fiorella, the oldest son, became frustrated with working under his father and pushed for a second Smoke Stack location, allowing him to run his own restaurant and emerge from his father’s shadow.

But five years later, the shadow still loomed, so much so that Jack decided to open a second restaurant that would not bear the Smoke Stack name in an effort to distance himself from his father’s success. In an incredible bit of foreshadowing, he called the restaurant Hatfield and McCoy’s, using the same menu that had worked for Smoke Stack. It didn’t work a second time. In barbecue-crazy Kansas City, both restaurants suffered because there was nothing noteworthy about either place. It was just the same food they could get at Smoke Stack with a new name, which wasn’t good enough. Predictably, Hatfield and McCoy’s didn’t last, closing after less than two years.

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When he returned to Smoke Stack, Jack and his wife, Delores, decided they had learned their lesson, and it was time for a change. Doing things Russ’ way hadn’t worked out, so the husband and wife team decided that they would take risks and do things their way. Gone was the small menu, replaced by an extensive one that included sides made from scratch and nontraditional items such as fish, lamb and shrimp. Gone was the traditional barbecue shack, as Jack and Delores opted for a more upscale feel to their restaurants, providing full service and comfort expected from a higher class than barbecue. Gone were Jack’s cost-cutting practices that sprung from a desire to show that he could succeed on his own. Instead, he focused on providing the best food possible, regardless of the cost.

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All of it worked. This time, Jack’s Smoke Stack location became one of Kansas City’s most popular restaurants, which led to the final twist of the story. In his second attempt at success, Jack had created his own identity so well that his siblings no longer believed his restaurant was even a Smoke Stack location. As a result, when Jack decided he wanted another location for his restaurant in 1997, his siblings informed him that he would no longer be allowed to use the name Smoke Stack for his new restaurant. Much like Joe’s Kansas City, which had the pedigree but not the rights to the original name, Jack’s response was to re-brand both of his restaurants. Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue was born, marking Jack’s final step out of his father’s long shadow and his final break from the family business. Actually, he ended up destroying the family business. While the other Fiorella siblings held to the traditional menu and each eventually saw their Smoke Stack restaurants close, Jack Stack continued to innovate and claimed its place alongside Gates, Bryant’s and Joe’s as one of Kansas City’s most beloved barbecue places. Jack even learned from his own frustrations with his father and created a succession plan to allow for his son and son-in-law to gradually take control of the business and be ready to run it when he stepped aside. Given how his risks turned out, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Jack’s probably not the most popular guy at Fiorella family reunions.

Well, Jack’s original family might have fallen apart over the years, but luckily, mine hasn’t met that fate. If it had, I might not have completed my excursion through the Big Four of Kansas City barbecue, because this was actually a recommendation of my youngest brother Zach. Zach’s wife Krista is originally from Overland Park, Kan., which means Zach has made several trips north recently from Texas to be with her and her family. During that time, he’s developed a taste for Jack Stack Barbecue, and proceeded to inform me that he thinks it’s the best barbecue he’s ever had. As I mentioned, Zach lives in Texas, which certainly does barbecue right, so that’s pretty high praise there, and there’s no way that Amy and I could pass up this chance to find out. After previously getting a recommendation from my cousin in Indiana, it was now time to see what my brother had to offer in the culinary world.

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First things first: this is not your typical barbecue place, as Amy and I confirmed once we walked in. It’s not quite The Drover in terms of atmosphere, but it’s definitely high class. The booths are segmented, the lighting and decorations scream fine dining and they’ve got a strong appetizer menu. Appetizers are not usually a strength at barbecue places, but as we’ve established, daring to be different is what makes Jack Stack what it is. Here, you’ve got two highly recommended options based on reputation and sight: the fried mushrooms and the onion rings. We opted for the fried mushrooms, as both of us are noted mushroom lovers and figured that would be our best bet.

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Boy, was that a stroke of sheer brilliance on our part, because these mushrooms are absolutely amazing. At most places, when you order breaded and fried mushrooms, you receive a basket of small mushrooms, which can sometimes lead to a few mushrooms where the ratio is 90 percent breading, 10 percent mushroom or worse. That’s never a problem at Jack Stack, because they don’t use small mushrooms here. They use full-formed, full-sized mushrooms, which are served on a wooden skewer. Never seen that before here, but it’s actually a great form of presentation.

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It’s also a great sign of high quality, because you can’t skewer a mushroom that doesn’t have a strong interior, or it will fall apart. Here, the mushrooms are large and firm, providing the almost-meat taste and texture that you get from a really good Portabella. Plus, the breading is crispy and flavorful, giving it the right amount of seasoning and texture to complement the mushroom. The third element is also perfect, the sublime horseradish dipping sauce. With horseradish, a little goes a long way, and Jack Stack’s sauce provides a small kick that enhances the mushroom rather than overwhelms it. Really, the mushrooms are pretty much perfect. I can’t think of a single thing I would change here. You get five in a half-order, and that’s the right size for two people. I’m guessing a full order gives you 10, which could be a full meal.

But as far as the meal goes, you’re likely here for some kind of barbecue, and this being Kansas City, that likely involves burnt ends. For those who have never been to the City of Fountains, burnt ends are much more appetizing than their name might suggest. Basically, burnt ends are the tips of the meat being smoked that are sliced off and then thrown back into the smoker so that they can be fully tenderized. That results in the outside crisping up and getting a charred, smoky exterior, while the interior reaches the tender texture that well-smoked meat is known for having.

I love burnt ends, but when it comes to barbecue, I love to get myself some brisket. Luckily, Jack Stack provides the perfect option for people like me, offering the barbecue combo lunch, which allows you to choose two different styles of meats in one meal. With four different kinds of burnt ends (beef, ham, pork and sausage) and five kinds of sliced meats (smoked pork, roasted ham, brisket, polish sausage and smoked turkey), three kinds of ribs (beef, pork and lamb) and a bone-in chicken, that gives you 13 choices at your disposal.

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The combo lunch usually comes with fries, but along with its barbecue, Jack Stack is known for two of its sides: hickory pit beans and cheesy corn bake. The hickory pit beans have actually won acclaim from Bobby Flay and are smoked in Jack Stack’s barbecue pit and loaded with chunks of brisket. Sounds like something special, but I had to go with the corn bake on this occasion. There’s just something about the idea and taste of vegetables au gratin that really works for me. To complete my meal, I went with pork burnt ends, mainly so that Amy could try a few.

Holy cow, was this incredible. First, there’s the burnt ends, which are simply amazing. Burnt ends usually involve brisket, but the pork version is just simply amazing. The meat just melts in your mouth, and the smokiness of the exterior is perfect with the barbecue sauce. The brisket itself is also wonderful, juicy and full of the kind of flavor that comes from smoking meat over hickory firewood. As I know from working for a decade with my father in his firewood business, quality hickory wood produces great barbecue, and Jack Stack’s commitment to quality is definitely evident here. This brisket is simply outstanding.

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But the best thing here was the cheesy corn bake. Jack Stack’s website says that it’s a combination of cream cheese, cheddar, corn and smoked ham, and however they bring that combination together, it’s basically liquid gold. The cheeses melt perfectly, and the smoked ham provides a nice contrast with the creaminess of the cheese and corn combination. This is seriously one of the best side dishes I have ever eaten, and I’d come here for just the corn bake. The only side dishes I can think of that are on this level from a barbecue place are the white cheddar macaroni and cheese at Jethro’s and the sides at Slow’s, and I’d honestly put this ahead of Jethro’s and on par with Slow’s. I never thought any side from a barbecue restaurant could beat those out, but this one does.

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Amy had a hard time making her selection, but eventually, the idea of a barbecue baked potato caught her eye. Amy loves potatoes, and trying one with Kansas City barbecue involved was a combination that she couldn’t resist. However, although the combination works, it wasn’t Amy’s favorite. She was much more enamored with the burnt ends and ended up wishing that she had ordered those instead, preferably with some fries. Unfortunately, the fries were one thing we had to skip on this trip, and that’s a shame because of how good Jack Stack’s French fry seasoning is. We took a bottle back with us, and discovered that it’s incredible on potatoes. As soon as we tried it, Amy and I agreed that on our next trip, one of us is getting the fries. Probably her, because I don’t see myself giving up that corn bake.

That brings me to the major question about the Kansas City barbecue Big Four: how does it compare? Personally, when it comes to just the meat and sauce, I have to give a slight edge to Joe’s Kansas City. There’s just something about that brisket that makes it a little more juicy and a little more flavorful, in my opinion. But when looking at the restaurants as a whole, I have to say that Jack Fiorella had it right when he chose to expand the menu, because the sides and appetizers are what push Jack Stack over the top. As good as Joe’s fries are, I’d choose the corn bake over them, and the mushrooms are an appetizer without an answer.

High-class and creativity might not have been what people first expected from barbecue, but Jack Fiorella has never been one to play by the rules. After all, he played by the rules once, and it nearly bankrupted him. Rewriting the rules and doing things his way has proven a much better strategy, and it’s made an already fantastic barbecue town even better. Clearly, this place has earned its spot in the Big Four, and my brother knows what he’s talking about in the Kansas City culinary world. Good call, Zach, good call.

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Recap

Time to go: Lunch or dinner. Jack Stack opens daily at 11 a.m. at all five of its locations and closes no earlier than 9 p.m., which only occurs on Sunday. On all other days, it’s open until at least 10 p.m.

Wait during my visit: None. Overland Park is a good-sized Kansas suburb, but it’s not so large that traffic is always an issue. It could get busy at the right times, but at 11:30 on a Sunday, it’s not going to be bad unless the Kansas City Chiefs are playing.

Location: We visited the location at 9520 Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park, Kan. Other locations exist in Kansas City on the Missouri side and in Lee’s Summit, Mo.

Cost: Upscale barbecue doesn’t come cheap. You should plan on about $15-20 a person for lunch and $20-25 a person for dinner. But trust me, it’s most definitely worth every cent.

Parking: Not an issue, Jack Stack features a large parking lot on site and is in a fairly decent-sized shopping and restaurant center.

Seating arrangement: The upscale format means that they want to keep things classy, and that means nice booths and tables.

Website: Jack Stack

Specialty items: Burnt ends, breaded mushrooms, cheesy corn bake

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Stroud’s, Fairway, Kan./Kansas City, Mo.

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When one thinks meat in Kansas City, there’s a good chance that they’re thinking about barbecue. After all, this is a city that not only brings in barbecue lovers from across the country year after year for the World Series of Barbecue, but the local media managed to stage a 64-restaurant bracket competition this March, consisting solely of barbecue restaurants in Kansas City. Put simply, the City of Fountains is well-known for smoking its meat and doing it well.

But there’s more to Kansas City than just barbecue, as there often is in cities known for one famous dish. When everyone else is doing one thing, the easiest way to stand out is to do your own thing and make it the best that you can. Since the 1930’s, while most of Kansas City has elected to focus on pulled pork, ribs and Kansas City strip steak, Stroud’s has opted for poultry, shying away from the smoker in favor of old-fashioned pan-fried chicken at four locations on both sides of State Line Road. Yes, for those who have never been, there really is a road called State Line Road that serves as the dividing line between Missouri and Kansas until you get to the Missouri River. There are also two Kansas Cities, one in each state, known respectively as KCMO (Missouri) and KCK (Kansas). This place can get very confusing very quickly for the out-of-towner.

What isn’t confusing is the chicken at Stroud’s, and oddly enough, that specialty wasn’t a decision that Guy and Helen Stroud reached on their own. In fact, back in the 1930’s, Stroud’s was yet another Kansas City barbecue restaurant, serving mainly beef, not chicken. But in the 1940’s, World War II began, and suddenly, beef was being rationed. Well, that wasn’t going to work if the restaurant was going to stay in business, so the Strouds took advantage of the fact that chicken was not being rationed and began serving pan-fried chicken instead of barbecue. When the war ended, the Kansas City strip returned to the menu, but the brisket never came back. The Strouds had discovered that their chicken was worthy of carrying the menu as their flagship entree, and 70 years later, that hasn’t changed. They’re still choking their own chickens, as their shirts proudly say.

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In fact, it’s only become more entrenched in Kansas City culture. Since embracing its status as the home of pan-fried chicken and changing owners in the 1980’s, Stroud’s has proceeded to win accolades from across the country. The restaurant has shown up on numerous restaurant shows, and esteemed judge and food blogger Simon Majumdar, one of my favorite Food Network personalities, has gone as far as to claim that if he had his choice for his last meal, he’d pick Stroud’s. Considering that he’s got one of the most sophisticated palates in the world, that’s pretty high praise. I also knew it to be warranted, as I’d been here once before in 2011 with my friend Sam Wilson and absolutely loved this chicken. With that being the case and Amy’s love of all things chicken, this was definitely something that she had to try for herself.

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The first thing you notice about Stroud’s is the smell, which isn’t exactly what you would expect from a fried chicken place. Instead of the savory smells of chicken, you get the very recognizable sweet scent of warm cinnamon. There’s a great reason for that, but I’ll get to that later. Instead, the first question is how to start your meal, which depends on how adventurous you’re feeling. If you’re up for the so-called garbage parts of the chicken, the livers are actually quite delicious, fried the same way as the chicken and providing the perfect amount of both meat and skin. I got these on Sam’s advice on my first visit and very much enjoyed them, proving that when it comes to chicken, Stroud’s knows what it’s doing.

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If livers and/or gizzards aren’t your thing, your best bet is to stick with either the soup or salad that comes with any meal here. Personally, I’m a big fan of Stroud’s homemade chicken noodle soup, which is made with wide, thick noodles, just like a good noodle soup should be. Even better, the soup contains big chunks of chicken and the broth is spiced perfectly. I honestly prefer cream-based soups to broth-based soups, but a well-spiced broth can work very well, and this one certainly does. This soup is an absolute must for me.

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Amy, on the other hand, opted for the salad, which is also very well done, with multiple kinds of lettuce, fresh cucumbers and olives and plenty of shredded mozzarella cheese. If not for the quality of the soup, I would highly recommend this salad. It’s very good and a great way to start a meal with a taste of freshness. It’s just the soup is on a really high level, which makes sense given the chicken that has made this place famous.

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Speaking of the chicken…oh, the chicken. First off, Stroud’s doesn’t go light in any sense of the word when it comes to chicken. The smallest chicken meal they have is three pieces, with one being a breast and the other two being whatever you choose that isn’t another breast. For bigger appetites, you can choose to go for a four-piece meal that includes all dark meat, all white meat or one of every major part. There’s also an option for nothing but chicken breasts, which lands you three of them. Second, all of their chicken remains pan-fried, which means that it can take some time to prepare, but the result is well worth it.

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The keys with pan-fried chicken are to make sure that the crust is crispy but not soggy, the breading works with the chicken and that the meat itself remains moist and juicy rather than greasy. That takes time and experience, and that’s why Stroud’s has been doing this for as long as they have. The breading is perfect, nice and crisp without being too greasy or too messy.

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The chicken is perfectly moist and flavorful from first bite to last, and this is honestly probably the second-best chicken that I’ve ever had. The only place I can think of that’s better is Willie Mae’s, and when the only place that can beat you out of the long list of chicken restaurants that I’ve visited is a New Orleans legend, you’re doing something right.

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Stroud’s doesn’t stop there with its chicken, however, because it includes a sizable helping of gravy with every chicken dinner. Trust me, you definitely want their gravy. The gravy is the classic pepper gravy that goes on a good country fried steak, which gives you an idea of what you’re getting with this gravy. Much like the chicken noodle soup, it’s spiced perfectly. The pepper presence is fantastic, and this is also a perfect complement to the mashed potatoes or even the fries, depending on what kind of potato you’ve chosen with your meal. I don’t even really like most gravy, but I absolutely love this stuff and could have it on just about anything. The green beans include chunks of ham, a nice surprise, while the potatoes are again strong and flavorful. Meanwhile, the fries are similar to those of Five Guys, but thicker. Absolutely full of potato and flavor, while served at the perfect temperature and texture. One other thing, if you’re ordering with more than one person, rather than bring out individual portions of their duplicate side items, Stroud’s will fill larger bowls and allow you to take as much as you want. We found that out when we again had a little too much food, but neither of us minded at all. Actually, too much food is kind of how things work here, because Stroud’s will bring side refills if you ask. I don’t know if they charge extra or not (I’m betting no) because I’ve never actually taken them up on that offer.

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But I haven’t even gotten to the best part about Stroud’s yet. If you thought the chicken was the best thing about this place, think again. Remember that cinnamon smell that I mentioned when you walk into Stroud’s? Yeah, there’s a reason for it: Stroud’s homemade cinnamon rolls. Most places serve you bread with your meal, but at Stroud’s, the bread is covered with sweet cinnamon sugar and served warm, creating an absolutely wonderful taste. The sugar melts onto the bread when it’s made, and the bread’s texture is perfect. These are soft and almost seem to melt in your mouth. Stroud’s offers the option to have these rolls either with your meal or for dessert, and even though they’re very sweet, I actually recommend taking them with your meal. These things are so good that you want to be absolutely certain that you have enough room to enjoy every bite. Even a day later in the hotel room when they’re no longer warm, these are awesome, but when they come out hot and fresh, there’s nothing like them. Totally worth the trip on their own.

It’s not quite the best chicken in the world, but it’s pretty darn close, and the generous portions of quality sides more than make this a must-visit on either side of State Line Road. Sometimes, things happen for a reason. I’m sure Stroud’s could have been a very successful barbecue place, but after more than seven decades in the chicken business, I don’t think they’re complaining about how things worked out. Throw in those ridiculously awesome cinnamon rolls, and you’ve got something that’s truly special here.

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Recap

Time to go: Lunch or dinner. Make sure you bring an appetite, though, because Stroud’s usually does not offer a lunch portion. I think the Overland Park location might, but Fairway definitely does not.

Wait during my visit: Minimal. We were seated right away, the wait comes when you’re waiting on the chicken to be fried and served to you.

Location: There are four of them in the Kansas City area, two on the Kansas side in Fairway and Overland Park and two in Missouri in Independence and in Kansas City proper. Our location was at 4200 Shawnee Mission Parkway in Fairway.

Cost: Providing a lot of food doesn’t come cheap, so you shouldn’t be surprised that this is on the expensive side. Plan on about $20 per person here. One strategy you can try if you’re not that hungry and can agree on types of chicken you want is to order one dinner and two sets of sides. If you do it that way, it’s $9 for the additional person and you’ll end up at about $30 for two people.

Parking: Not a challenge in Fairway. Finding it can be a chore because of how Shawnee Mission Parkway is set up, but there’s a lot there once you do find it, so no worries.

Seating arrangement: Tables and booths against the windows, chairs elsewhere.

Website: Stroud’s

Specialty items: Pan-fried chicken, chicken noodle soup, cinnamon rolls

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Oklahoma Joe’s, Kansas City, Kan.

Kansas City is known around the country for having some of the nation’s best barbecue, and it’s easy to see why. In the heartland of America, the meat is right there, so it comes to you as fresh as can be. Plus, while other areas have one kind of barbecue that they tend to stick to (Texas brisket, Carolina pork, St. Louis ribs), Kansas City goes ahead and barbecues everything and uses multiple sauces to find the right flavor.

And to find the best flavor in the City of Fountains, you head to a gas station.

No, I didn’t make that up. Oklahoma Joe’s is literally located inside a gas station in Kansas City, Kan., and it’s the home of what Kansas City residents have voted the greatest barbecue in the KC metro area, which spans both sides of the Missouri River and includes both Kansas City proper and what I refer to as the wealthy Kansas suburbs, places such as Bonner Springs, Overland Park, Lenexa, Olathe and KCK, all of which are well-known in the barbecue world.

KCK isn’t where Oklahoma Joe’s got its start, but it’s where Oklahoma Joe’s took off. The restaurant’s roots actually trace to Stillwater, Okla., where the Oklahoma Joe’s Smoker Company was headquartered. When Oklahoma Joe’s set up shop in KCK, the Oklahoma location closed and Oklahoma Joe’s became synonymous with Kansas City.

The reason is because Oklahoma Joe’s knows what it’s doing with its barbecue. The restaurant calls its pulled pork its house specialty, and when I see something like that, that means I’ve got to try it. Of course, me being the way I am and having an equal love for beef brisket, I couldn’t try one without the other.

It proved to be a wonderful decision. Oklahoma Joe’s has several awards for winning barbecue contests in Kansas, and all of them are well-deserved. The pork and beef are so good that the sauce isn’t even that necessary, but complements the meat perfectly. There’s very little sauce on there, and the meat is so tender and juicy that the taste is wonderful. Throw in some of the restaurant’s perfectly spiced fries and you have a meal that really can’t be beat.

The sandwiches at Oklahoma Joe’s aren’t huge, nor are they overloaded with toppings like at some places. The only toppings you get are a little bit of barbecue sauce and a couple pickles, but really, you don’t even need those. When you have great barbecue, all you need is for it to shine on its own and you have something memorable. If it shines on its own in a place like Kansas City, where barbecue is as much a part of the culture as the baseball season ending in September, you’ve really done something special with your sandwiches.

The most accurate thing I can say about Oklahoma Joe’s is that it’s the best barbecue sandwich I have ever eaten, and seeing as how I’ve traveled across the country, I can really think of no higher compliment for it. If you really love barbecue, you absolutely must make the trip to the gas station.

Recap

Time to go: Lunch or dinner, but earliest is better. Oklahoma Joe’s lines can get very long as the day goes on, and if you come at the wrong time, you’re going to be waiting for quite a while.

Wait during my visit: Small, but that’s because I was in line five minutes before the restaurant opened at 11 a.m. I was the ninth person in line. By the time I sat down to eat my sandwich, the line was already out the door. That’s how popular this place is.

Location: Oklahoma Joe’s can be found inside a gas station at 3002 W. 47th Avenue in Kansas City, Kan. There’s a second location in Olathe, one of the wealthy Kansas suburbs.

Parking: Not a ton, but since it’s a gas station, there’s some available.

Cost: Very affordable. You can get a sandwich and fries for under $10 here.

Website: Oklahoma Joe’s

Specialty items: Barbecue, specifically the pulled pork.

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