When you think of Missouri, the first things that come to mind are probably the Gateway Arch, live music, the Lake of the Ozarks and Route 66. But did you know that the state is also a destination for impressive eats — especially some of the best barbecue in the United States, if not the world? This makes the state one of the top places that Canadian barbecue connoisseurs have to visit.
Why has Missouri barbecue reached mythical status? It’s all about specific cuts of meat, like ribs, not commonly found in other barbecue destinations and the sauces, which have influenced barbecue cuisine everywhere. The easygoing vibe, rich history, culture and one of the best barbecue rivalries anywhere is why you need to book a barbecue pilgrimage to Missouri this year.
Barbecue Rivals: Kansas City and St. Louis
Calling all barbecue lovers: If Missouri isn’t already on your foodie destination wish list, now is the time to discover all of the reasons why it deserves a spot. For your first adventure to the state, plan a road trip along the I-70 corridor between Kansas City and St. Louis to explore different types and cuts of meat prepared with flavourful dry rubs and sweet and tangy sauces. Longtime rivals over who has the best ’cue, these two cities are Missouri’s main barbecue hubs, and although they’re only about four hours apart by car, each has its own unique style. Restaurants in both cities offer mouthwatering traditional barbecue and modern, innovative dishes you won’t find anywhere else.
Kansas City Barbecue
When you’ve earned the title of “Barbecue Capital of the World” like Kansas City has, you know that this region takes its barbecue seriously. In fact, it has more barbecue restaurants per capita than any other city in the world!
Henry Perry is credited with creating Kansas City’s signature style of barbecue in the early 1900s. He slow smoked spice-rubbed meat — including beef, pork and lamb — and served it with a thick tomato and brown sugar- or molasses-based sauce. The distinct style was born in the renowned 18th & Vine Jazz District during the heyday of Kansas City jazz, so music and Kansas City barbecue have always shared a close relationship. Perry’s impact stretches beyond Kansas City, as his style of barbecue sauce has become a standard across America.
One of the restaurants continuing the tradition started by Perry is Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque, considered by many to be the most popular barbecue restaurant in the United States. Located at 18th and Brooklyn, the restaurant was opened by Perry in 1908. It was later taken over by his employees — brothers Charlie and Arthur Bryant — when Perry passed away. Arthur was a legendary pitmaster, affectionately known as the “King of Ribs,” and his trademark barbecue sauce has brought famous actors and directors, professional baseball players, and presidents through the restaurant’s doors. It even made its way into modern pop culture thanks to the hit TV series Ted Lasso. Arthur Bryant’s legacy has lived on, long after his passing in 1982, with his namesake restaurant still serving some of the best smoked meat in Kansas City, making it a must-visit for any barbecue fan.
While you can’t go wrong with a rack of baby back ribs, sliced turkey, pulled pork or smoked chicken at Arthur Bryant’s, you definitely have to try Kansas City’s most famous barbecue dish: burnt ends, flavour-packed pieces of meat cut from the point of smoked beef brisket. The meat is chopped into cubes, smoked some more and tossed in sauce, then served straight up with an assortment of sides or as an open-faced sandwich. Once you’ve sampled a bit of everything at Arthur Bryant’s, don’t forget to pick up a bottle of their signature sauce to take home.
For a more modern approach to barbecue, you can’t go wrong with Q39, located on 39th Street in the heart of Kansas City, in one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods and entertainment districts. While they offer ribs, brisket and chicken, their more unique dishes include smoked and grilled pork belly — served in tacos, banh mi and their version of a BLT — or their Mac and Q, which is homemade mac and cheese topped with a selection of barbecued meats.
St. Louis Barbecue
Much like Kansas City, St. Louis is known for its love of barbecue, which makes sense since both cities were meatpacking hubs. St. Louis-style barbecue has roots in both the South and the Midwest, combining culinary traditions brought to Missouri by migrants with the cuisine of German and Scandinavian immigrants.
St. Louis is known for topping its barbecue with generous amounts of sauce. Traditional St. Louis-style sauce is made with a thick tomato base and vinegar, to counter the sweetness. The most famous of these sauces, created by Louis Maull in 1926, is still one of the most popular local brands. The city takes its sauce seriously and consumes more of it per person each year than any other city in the United States!
The cut of meat that put this city on the map is St. Louis ribs, which go back to the mid-20th century when local butchers began cutting ribs so they have less gristle and more meat. Sourced from the belly of the hog, the ribs have plenty of fat for a rich flavour, and the square cut is flatter and easier to grill evenly. St. Louis ribs are usually coated with a dry rub before they are cooked and then finished off with a succulent, finger-licking sauce.
Bogart’s Smokehouse, located across from Soulard Market — the oldest farmers market west of the Mississippi River — has been serving apricot-glazed St. Louis-style ribs since 2011. Other smoked specialties include pastrami, tri-tip sirloin and prime rib. Be sure to get there early because they often run out. Once you’ve had your fill of barbecue, head out to explore the historic Soulard neighbourhood, which is also home to St. Louis’ popular Mardi Gras celebration.
Another spot to add to your Missouri barbecue list is Salt + Smoke, located in the Delmar Loop, a vibrant cultural district known for its eclectic shops, galleries, live music venues and, of course, restaurants. Salt + Smoke serves a drool-worthy brisket along with more than 200 craft beers. Although they’ve expanded to other locations across the city, this is their original spot, most notably recognized for its location next to the statue of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer and Missouri native Chuck Berry.
Other signature St. Louis-style barbecue offerings found around the city include thick-cut pork steaks, sliced from the shoulder of the hog, grilled and then slathered in sauce, and pulled pork butt, which is commonly sauced and served on a bun.
Festivals and More Barbecue Experiences
Great barbecue isn’t just restricted to big cities like St. Louis and Kansas City. You can find other tasty options across Missouri. Branson is home to Danna’s Bar-B-Que & Burger Shop (which has made several “best of” lists over the years), and you can find Missouri Hick Bar-B-Que in Cuba, on Route 66.
If you love food festivals, Missouri is the place to celebrate barbecue during the summer and fall months – often with a side of great music. Whether you visit the Bluegrass and BBQ Festival in Fulton, Hannibal Bar-B-Q Festival, Ozarks BBQ Fest in Springfield, Q BBQ Fest in Kansas City or Q in the Lou in St. Louis, you’re sure to have a great time.
Discover more about the Show-Me State and start planning your Missouri barbecue getaway at VisitMo.com.