When we set out on our current grand excursion, two and a half months ago, one thing I was looking forward to was doing a thorough survey of American styles of barbecue. I’d had a lot of Q from Texas and Colorado, and some from Kansas City and other places. But There were whole genres that I hadn’t properly sampled. So, armed with Yelp, Google, and the help of people I met along the way, I’ve been trying to teach myself to appreciate the diversity of barbecue in this great land.
Oklahoma Joe’s – Good Food, Mass Produced
So, let me take you back in time a little. My first BBQ after leaving Denver was in Kansas City. The KC style, if you don’t already know, is to use a lot of a sweet sauce on the meat. On previous trips to Kansas City, I’ve been to about a half dozen barbecue joints – enough to find that my favorite is Arthur Bryant’s. On this trip, I tried a new place that has gotten great reviews. It’s called Oklahoma Joe’s. It’s a mini-chain of three restaurants. I don’t know where the name comes; as far as I know, there is no distinct Oklahoma style of BBQ. Here’s my Yelp review of Oklahoma Joe’s in Leawood, Kansas (a suburb of Kansas City):
My wife and I went for dinner tonight at the Leawood Oklahoma Joe’s about 7:00pm. Having read the reviews warning us about long lines, I expected the worst. But we walked right in and ordered, with absolutely zero wait. Are the crowds dying down now that the restaurant has been open a while? Or is it just dead on a Monday night? I’d say only about 1/3 to 1/2 of the tables were full.
I ordered the ribs and brisket plate, with a side of dirty rice, plus a cup of gumbo. The Mrs. had the Open Face Lean ‘n’ Mean Sandwich (turkey). I had water, she had red creme soda. I’d give the ribs an A, the brisket an A, the dirty rice an A-, and the gumbo a B+. I also liked the turkey sandwich. I’m a Texan, and so I think good smoked meat needs to speak for itself, without a lot of sauce. I appreciated that they put just a little sauce on the meat in the kitchen, so I could savor the flavor of the dead animals properly. (I also tried two of the sauces on my brisket and liked them both)
The ribs were some of the best I had. I got the sensation that the meat was salty all the way through, so I wonder if they brine the ribs before smoking them. The brisket was some of the best outside of Texas, and was very respectable. It very well may be better than Arthur Bryant’s, which is my personal favorite in KC. The dirty rice was really good, way better than my own. And the gumbo was tasty, though I prefer it to be made with a darker, richer roux. This gumbo is very creamy, as if it’s been thickened up with a little too much corn starch. I’d love a bowl of it on a cold winter day.
But as I was enjoying my meal, something seemed out of place. It took me a while to put my finger on it, but then I realized that I didn’t smell any smoke either inside or outside the restaurant. And none of the cooks seemed even the slightest bit dirty. And there was no smoke coming out of the top of building. As we left, I even drove around it, and that’s when I realized there’s no wood pile here. How do they make real BBQ with no wood, no smoke, and apparently no fire? It’s very mysterious, and the only explanation I came up with is almost too horrible to imagine – that they actually smoke the meat somewhere else, and then truck it in, and then just warm it up in the kitchen. Could it be?
By the way, for the meal I mentioned above, we spent $26 for 2 people, including tax. There was no service, so I didn’t leave a tip.
UPDATE: I got a message from someone at Oklahoma Joe’s. He said the smokers are in the back of the building, but the city of Leawood made them build a high brick wall around them. And that’s where the wood is, too, which explains why I didn’t see any wood. He said the reason I didn’t smell any smoke inside is due to their great ventilation system, and the reason I didn’t smell any smoke outside was just an unfortunate breeze. I learned they use Missouri white oak.
But something just didn’t sit right with me. So I went back a second time. This time I did some sleuthing. I peeked back through the gate to where the smokers supposedly are, and saw a tiny pile of about 6 logs, maybe 1/100 of what you’d need for a place this size. Strange.
And when I was waiting in line to order, I got a good look at how they prepare things back in the kitchen. I saw one guy pull out a tub of meat, take off some wrapping, pour some sauce on it, and put it in a microwave. After it came out, he mixed it all up. Microwaving BBQ???!!! Then I saw the big industrial-size one gallon cans from Sysco.
And that’s when it all came together for me. Given the number of people that pass through the doors to Oklahoma Joe’s in just a 90 minute lunch rush, there’s no way to feed them all without using a real large scale food service assembly line. Mass producing the product is the only way to make it work, which explains why they’ve gotta use Sysco instead of more home-style ingredients, and why they’ve gotta have the meat pre-prepared by the 10 pound tub. The food here is good – don’t get me wrong – but it’s not the BBQ experience that I like, where you can see the meat come out of the smoker, get cut up, and served right onto your plate. Oklahoma Joe’s has perfected the science of mass producing tasty barbecue, and the results are impressive.