Steve, you're making me hungry and "homesick" with the pix and descriptions of Bryant's.
I may have told the story of my first Arthur Bryant's experience here at Roadfood before, so bear with me those of you who have read it before.
Back in 1979, when my bride-to-be first decided to move up to Chicago to be closer to me, I flew down to KC to help her pack up the truck and haul everything north. We thought it would be a good idea to have a big farewell gathering that would also serve as an opportunity for me to meet her family.
Prior to meeting my wife, I had never been to Kansas City; barely knew it existed outside of the Beatle's cover version of the song. I knew about Bryant's by reading an article (possibly written by Calvin Trillin for the old LIFE magazine) posted in the front lobby of the original Winstead's restaurant down on Brush Creek near Country Club Plaza (although in the article it was referred to as "Charlie Bryant's). Even then, I was a barbecue expert, at least in my own mind. I knew we had to go there for this last bash before the move.
The clan, twenty or thirty of them, gathered at the appointed time in the weed filled empty lot that then served as Bryant's parking lot. We crossed the street and entered what was the greasiest, filthiest, most ramshackle excuse for a restaurant I had ever seen. The walls were dingy and smeared; you walked very carefully for fear of slipping on the grease caked floors. There were two soda pop machines along the long wall where you waited in line for your 'Que.
When we got up to the counter, I listened as my future in-laws all ordered strange things like "burnt ends" and "sliced brisket". Hell, my own wife-to-be ordered a HAM sandwich! HAM
?!? Are you crazy woman, that ain't barbecue! I got up to the counter and I ordered myself a full slab of ribs, by God! And fries!
Let's take a step back here and give you folks a bit of background. Coming from Chicago, I had always fancied myself as a 'Que connoisseur, having dined on Leon's ribs and others. What I didn't realize was that, as good as Leon's ribs were, the rest of the drivel I was eating wouldn't even qualify as Barbecue among the true cognoscenti. Chicago 'Que meant ribs, chicken, and hot links, a very spicy sausage that seems to be indigenous to the area. Only in the last few years are we catching up to the rest of the great smoked meat cities.
Outside of Leon's and a handful of others on the South Side, there was no real Barbecue; I was just too stupid to know it. Almost everything else I had eaten in my life, that I thought was barbecue, was in fact baked or boiled (shudder), with some sauce slapped on at the end. In some rare cases the precooked meat might have been tossed on a grill for some additional browning and the veneer of authenticity.
When I tasted Bryant’s ribs, they were so far removed from my past experience; I found them to be barely edible! Worse was the mouth puckering sauce, hot and gritty from all the spices used in its making. Where was my sweet sticky barbecue sauce that I had grown up on? Of course I had slathered the ribs with the sauce before I had tasted either, because who knew it would be that nasty. My wife’s grandmother had insisted on paying for those ribs, so I choked down as many as I could before finally giving up, saying I was “full”.
The next day, as we prepared for the trip north, I tried some of the leftover ham sandwich in the fridge. It wasn’t half bad. I thought, maybe I shouldn’t have gone for the ribs. Maybe a sandwich would have been a better option.
It would be twenty years before I’d have the chance to find out.
By this time I was in the sauce end of the ‘Que biz. Dad and I were in KC doing demos. Dad had read about Bryant’s in numerous travel magazines and wanted to check them out. Reluctantly, I agreed.
This time, having gotten some practice over the interim years at plenty of other KC greasehouses, I was at least smart enough to get the burnt ends. It was a revelation! I couldn’t believe how much Arthur Bryant’s had learned about Barbecue in the last twenty years! Finally, they were getting it right. In fact, these were the best burnt ends I had ever tasted! Even the sauce had improved.
Realizing that it was my own lack of experience that created the bad first impression, I started to regret the twenty year gap since my last visit. Since that time we visit Bryant’s almost every Christmas when we visit.
So this story is in response to all those folks who complain that AB’s has been going downhill. From this man’s perspective it has actually gotten better.