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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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