Sep 14, 2013

A commoner reviews Gates Bar-B-Q, Kansas City

This is the first in a series of blog entries recording my adventures with Christine (the fake wife) and my good friend Ken on our soon-to-be-infamous road trip to Colorado to visit the fake wife’s daughter.  The small town she’s staying in is quite a hoot.  But I’m getting ahead of myself, for on the first day of the road trip we eased into the trip with a five-hour drive to the Kansas City metro area.  We actually stayed on the Kansas side, so the Gates Bar-B-Q location we chose to try is actually in Kansas City, Kan. 

If you’re familiar at all with the Kansas City barbecue style, a few names come to mind – Arthur Brant’s, KC Masterpiece, maybe Oklahoma Joe’s or Jack Stack, and, of course, Gates.  In fact, most followers of the Kansas City style apparently trace its origins to one man, Henry Perry, who moved to Kansas City from Memphis. Arthur Bryant himself worked for Perry, as did a cook for Perry who formed Gates Bar-B-Q with George Gates in the 1940s. 

That said, I personally only see so many similarities between the Memphis and Kansas City styles.  The Kansas City style of sauce has certainly evolved over time, which I believe to be more “vinegary” and peppery.  I’d almost put it in between Memphis and the Carolinas when it comes to consistency.  I've also heard one signature ingredient that sets the Kansas City style apart is celery seed.  I can taste it in Gates’ sauce, for what it’s worth.  But what do I know?  My personal observations will only get you so far, and every barbecue joint is different and runs with its own “secret recipe.”

Back to Gates and its six locations in the Kansas City area, the franchise has done a pretty good job at building brand recognition.  Their logo is easily recognizable – a man wearing a top hat and a tuxedo (does this mean Gates is the “highbrow” version of Kansas City barbecue?).  Every location has a red roof, cafeteria-style service and a traditional “Hi, may I help you?” greeting from the second you walk through the swinging doors.  The greeting doesn't necessarily mean they’re thrilled to see you, but I took the mild surliness of the staff at our location as part of the charm.   

Here’s what you’ll see when you walk into the 1026 State Ave., Kansas City, Kan., location:

And if the smoky goodness permeating the building (or the greasy residue on the floor) doesn't already give it away, you can get a glimpse of the kitchen where the magic happens. 

As first-time visitors to Gates, it seemed obvious to both me and Ken to get the mixed plate for a sample of several meats.  Let me make this perfectly clear:  there is nothing sampler sized about this meal.

The French fries piled on top of the platter alone was a serving fitting for all three of us.  But they were outstanding – it sure tasted like they were fresh cut and dashed with their homemade seasonings.  Underneath the fries were generous portions of ham, ribs (at least four bones) and beef brisket. 

All meats were drizzled with their classic original sauce.  And if you wanted to try other varieties, you could fill our own serving cups at the cafeteria counter.  I thought the original was probably Gates’ best – a little thin and vinegary, but spicy enough to truly complement the smokiness of the fall-off-the-bone ribs. 

The sweet flavor reminded me of a thinner version of a Memphis style sauce, and I thought it paired well with the ham, which, honestly, was the most unexceptional part of the meal.  The leftover ham did go down quite well warmed over for breakfast the next morning.     

The beef brisket was also very smoky, soft and tender.  I swayed between the original and hot sauces and found both complemented the brisket very well. 

Not knowing beforehand the mammoth size of the platter I was about to receive, I ordered a side of their coleslaw, which was quite delicious.  I got the impression Gates won’t be embarrassing themselves with their sides any time soon.  The platter also came with generous servings of bread and dill pickles – I suppose for making sandwiches for the masses if you desired.  I washed it all down with a strawberry soda because – after all – how often do you get to order that? 

As you can see, I wasn't very successful at finishing my plate. 

Oh, the carnage!  Leftovers, anyone?
Christine, the fake wife, took a much more common sense approach to ordering and got the three-wing platter with fries and an extra side of coleslaw.

The wings are apparently only available at the Gates location we went to.  And that’s too bad, because they were reportedly smoked to perfection.  I fact, with the huge pile of fires and slaw to accompany them, Christine didn't finish her plate either. 

To put Gates in proper perspective, I’m not changing my list of all-time favorite barbecue joints, but I did like Gates much more than I did Arthur Bryant’s when I ate there several years ago.  The Kansas City style of sauce hasn't completely won me over yet, but Gates’ sauce did for me what you want it to do – complement the meat without overpowering it.  Again, the ribs and brisket (or wings in Kansas City) definitely get my recommendation. 

I also noticed Gates has mutton on the menu, which I have not seen at a barbecue restaurant outside of Kentucky, so guess what I’m getting on my next visit? 

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