Published March 26th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Rick Somers wanders up to Harp Barbecue’s makeshift counter at the end of a pop-up and sheepishly inquires if there is any barbecue left.
Somers, who is on assignment at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, searched the internet for “best barbecue in Kansas City” and then followed his GPS to the inauspicious dirt parking lot of Crane Brewing Co.’s Raytown, Missouri, taproom.
Although most of the day’s cook coming off a 1,000-gallon offset smoker has been pre-ordered and already walked out the door in to-go containers, the 50-something military contractor from Aberdeen, North Carolina, gets lucky.
“Do you prefer fatty or lean?” pitmaster Tyler Harp asks as he unwraps a perfectly barked brisket and slices into the buttery interior, releasing rivulets of rosy-colored juice onto the cutting board.
Fatty or lean, of course, is more commonly a Texas question, just like ordering by-the-pound instead of by-the-plate. Traditionally, Kansas Citians expect lean and brisket run through a deli slicer. While the practice definitely makes meat easier for piling on a sandwich, it can rob the meat of its juiciness. Since Harp opened his Saturday-only craft barbecue pop-up in March 2019, he’s received a thumbs up from heavyweight Texas Monthly editor Daniel Vaughn.
Harp has traveled extensively to soak up nuances of regional barbecue from Texas salt-and-pepper brisket to Carolina whole hog. He doesn’t much care which region his smoked meats draw inspiration from, as long as the end result leads to a transcendent barbecue experience.
Somers is duly impressed by the buttery brisket, smoky tufts of pulled pork, glistening pork belly burnt ends and the extra creamy version of cheesy corn that has landed on his tray.
“It’s frickin’ amazin’! I’m blown away!” Somers says as he cleanses his palate with puckery house-made pickles. “It’s crazy, I came to a warehouse and thought I was lost. That’s the beauty of it. You’ve really got to go searching for it.”
Since March 2020, three craft barbecue restaurants – Chef J BBQ, Fox & Fire Barbecue and Night Goat – have opened as pop-ups. Like Harp, the new generation of young pitmasters all use offset smokers and cook with wood. Meats are hand-trimmed and hand-sliced. Menus are limited and ever-changing. Open only on weekends, hours are “until sellout,” prompting online pre-orders and masked and socially distanced lines.
“It’s the new blood of barbecue. Craft barbecue is kind of like small batch,” says Justin Easterwood, the pitmaster and owner of Chef J BBQ located in the belly of The Beast, a seasonal haunted house in the West Bottoms. “It’s just someone taking the time to take care of each protein.”
The heart and soul of the craft barbecue movement is located in central Texas, and craft barbecue’s most referenced pitmaster is Aaron Franklin of Franklin’s Barbecue in Austin, Texas.
But Kansas City’s next generation of pitmasters also are keeping their eye on Moo’s Craft Barbecue in East Los Angeles, Heritage Barbecue in San Juan Capistrano and Zef BBQ in Simi Valley, California, Botto’s BBQ in Portland, Oregon, and LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue, la Barbecue and Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, all in Austin.
Easterwood went to high school with Harp. He spent two decades as manager at Original Pizza before he opened last March. He had sold his house and started to move on the purchase of a concession trailer but eventually lucked into The Beast. On a recent Friday, the line forms early for his brisket, creative sides and killer banana pudding.
Before opening Fox & Fire Barbecue last summer, Andy Fox worked as a pharmaceutical representative who made frequent trips to Texas. On one of his visits to Dallas, he ate at Pecan Lodge.
“I was a backyard barbecue guy eating Kansas City barbecue. Texas changed my perception and my life in a way,” says Fox, who parks a trailer outside Callsign Brewing in North Kansas City. “All you need is salt, pepper, wood, fire and smoke — and watching a fire for 12-14 hours. Running a pit is probably the easiest thing I do. It’s just that it takes so much time.”
Fox started out offering his barbecue on Friday and Saturday, recently adding Thursday and Friday lunch to meet the demand.
“Putting myself out there for barbecue is the scariest thing I have done,” says Fox, who still gets the jitters before he opens the window on the trailer for service. “The proof that what I’m doing is working is people keep coming back.”
Before Scott Umscheid opened Scott’s Kitchen in 2017 in a former rental car space near Kansas City International Airport, he worked in food service management with Applebee’s, The Cheesecake Factory and U.S. Foods.
The restaurant is open Monday through Friday for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The menu includes brisket tacos, burritos and bowls – all items rarely seen at traditional barbecue joints when he opened.
Those additional menu items have given him leeway to “cook a little bit more aggressively, so I don’t have to sell out,” he says.
Over on the West Side, chef Vaughn Good tends the smoker in the woodyard behind his acclaimed restaurant Fox and Pearl, a meat-heavy restaurant that revolves around cold-smoked sausages and pasture-raised cuts cooked over a live fire on display in an open-hearth kitchen.
Instead of knobs on an oven to regulate heat, Good cooks with coals. In late December, he opened a pop-up he’s called Night Goat, named after a song by a doom metal band.
As Good stokes the firebox with seasoned oak, his kindergarten-age daughter presents him with a drawing. It depicts Good sitting in a chair staring at the fire in his upright cabinet-style smoker.
Making the leap to cooking brisket and beef ribs was a natural progression. Good has space to keep several cords of stacked oak, and he uses a motorized log splitter. He enjoys his Saturday night respites by the fire — unless the wind picks up.
“I can deal with the cold and precipitation,” he says, “but the wind is horrible” because it makes the fire hard to control.
Indoor smokers offer the latest in pit technology, including gas starters, temperature regulation controls and automatic shut-off switches that can hold meat until service. The technological advances make the cook shorter and more predictable, but they also use less wood.
“This is where it will get a little contentious,” Umscheid says. “I started with one Southern Pride (gas/wood smoker), and I’m proud of it, and don’t have any apologies for it.”
In 2019, John Atwell opened Jousting Pigs BBQ inside 3Halves Brewing in Liberty after spending some time on the competitive barbecue circuit, hence the motto “competition meets craft.” But for Atwell, the romance of a pitmaster holding an all-night vigil no longer makes business sense.
Atwell started out cooking on a 1,000-gallon offset smoker but couldn’t keep up with the brewery patrons’ appetites. Due to space limitations, additional offset smokers were not an option, so he purchased smokers from Ole Hickory Pits made in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. He has saved money on wood while his pit crew continues to cook each piece of meat separately for optimal doneness.
“I think the quality has gone up, allowing us to focus on other aspects of the business,” Atwell says. “There are so many variables to running a business. This is the one variable that we can change to offer consistency.”
You can pretty much tell craft barbecue before you ever taste it. It usually comes on half sheet trays covered in butcher paper. Platters are typically served family style and artfully arranged, the browns of the meat offset by a flash of pink pickled onions, sprinkles of paprika and flecks of fresh herbs.
“I see craft barbecue not only as woodfired and offset, but also taking the time for presentation and attention to detail,” says Ryan Cooper of The Smoke Sheet, a national newsletter he writes with Sean Ludwig, who also grew up in Kansas City and now lives in New York City. “I always think of Kansas City barbecue as somewhat sloppy and thrown on the plate and mixed together a little bit, not on a tray, arranged perfectly, and Instagram-worthy, looking delicious.”
Good recently featured a photo of some majestic-looking pastrami beef rib against a rich green velvet backdrop, a move that helped kick Night Goat’s Instagram account into overdrive. It doesn’t hurt that his barbecue is served with duck-fat tortillas from Caramelo Tortillas, a Sonoran-style artisanal company based in Lawrence, Kansas.
“When food is put on the tray it is a representation of me. It has to be the bomb,” Easterwood says.
Clearly the new school of pitmasters is using old school pitmasters as their muse. Afterall, Jones Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, Kansas, still cooks meat fresh every day on an offset smoker with wood — and frequently sells out, as does LC’s Bar-B-Q, especially in the wake of LC Richardson’s recent passing.
“We are standing on the shoulders of people who came before us and pushing forward,” says Harp, who cheers on his craft competitors. Now it’s time for the next generation of pitmasters to “put the culture of the barbecue scene on our backs. This is our responsibility, to go forward.”
Correction: San Juan Capistrano was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. Her barbecue-related clients include Fox and Pearl/Night Goat. You can follow her at @jillsilvafood.