The Real Competition Between Kansas City and Houston? Barbecue

On Sunday we get a playoff matchup between two teams led by young, healthy, ascending quarterbacks. But the two cities are in competition about something else—barbecue.
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — These are strange times here in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs to be a fan of the Texans or Chiefs. Without the nefarious specter of the New England Patriots, there is no overarching force for both teams to complain about or look ahead to. With both teams being piloted by healthy, ascending superstar quarterbacks, there is not much to tease the opponent about. With each club coming here on the heels of a division title, there isn’t some missed opportunity over which to stew.

On fan Reddit—which one should always wear protective gear before wading into—it makes sense that both groups have reverted to something beautiful and provincial; the kind of innocent things we used to fight about before the rise of partisan politics and Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA).

Fans of the Chiefs and Texans are (playfully) fighting about barbecue. And it’s wonderful. I checked with an actual barbecue historian, and he said that both cities are legitimate in believing they are the center of the meat-grilled-over-open-flame world. It shows.

One Texans fan on Reddit said that at least where they’re from, the meat isn’t “suffocated in brown sugar.” Another, taking a jab at the Kansas City style for its use of sweeter seasonings, said “we tryin’ to eat BBQ down here… not candy.” One Chiefs fan suggested sending all the visiting Texans fans to a barbecue joint in the area that wasn’t the best, because they shouldn’t have access to the good stuff, and another seemed to suggest that everyone from Texas cooks their meat through a hole in the ground.

Patrick Mahomes

Interestingly enough, both teams have direct ties to the barbecue world. Chiefs coach Andy Reid told reporters that he’s been to more than 50 barbecue joints in Kansas City since taking over as head coach in 2013 (he also appeared on a recent episode of barbecue Hall of Famer Guy Fieri’s Diners Drive-Ins and Dives). Bill O’Brien, while perhaps more measured in his love of barbecue, is, according to a team spokesman, also an avid fan. He prefers Killen's in Perland, a short, 30-minute drive from Reliant Stadium in Houston.

On this sleepy Friday in the Chiefs’ locker room, two days before the teams face off in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, the divulgence of schematic information which could help us ascertain the winner of Sunday’s game is thin. However, at the home of the barbecue Hall of Fame, it’s not difficult to be connected with a famous expert on the subject of eating good brisket, and, in particular, which fan base might be enjoying the best, most traditional, most flavorful brisket in the parking lot before the game on Sunday.

Is it Texans fans enjoying traditional Texas-style barbecue? Is it Chiefs fans enjoying their meat Kansas City style? Below are conversations with three of the most important names in modern barbecue to help us reach the answer…

Steven Raichlen, American Barbecue Hall of Fame Inductee (2015), owner and founder of Barbecue University, author most recently of The Brisket Chronicles and host of Project Smoke on PBS

Conor Orr: What is the difference between Texas and Kansas City barbecue?

Steven Raichlen: First of all, in Texas, beef is king and brisket is sort of the sum of Texas barbecue. The wood that is favored is oak, and I would say barbecue sauce is optional. Certainly most places have it but in Texas, most people would say you should judge the brisket by itself first.

“[In Kansas City] three meats vie for your attention. There’s brisket, but it’s really rib country and barbecue chicken country. It’s much more—there isn’t one single meat that rises above all about the others. And in Kansas City it’s very much about the sauce. The sauce is sweet and smoky, sort of best characterized by K.C. Masterpiece barbecue sauce which originated in Kansas City.

In Texas it is all about the simplicity. Kansas City is all about rotund, complex flavors.

Orr: Brisket, though, is kind of the big dividing line between the two areas though right, in how they cook it?

Raichlen: In Texas they start with a packer brisket, a 12- to 18-pound slab of beef chest. There are two muscles involved; there’s the lean muscle, which is called the flat, and the fatty muscle, which is called the point. They’re always cooked together, and they’re always served together.

In Kansas City, it’s very interesting. They divide and conquer. They cook the flat to a lower temperature than the Texans. Texans cook their brisket to 205 degrees and Kansas City-ians cook their brisket to about 185 and they only cook the brisket flat that way, then put it on a meat slicer and serve it on a sandwich with sweet barbecue sauce.

Then, in Kansas City, they take the point muscle and make something called burnt ends. Burnt ends are basically the fatty part that is barbecued, cooked in sweet sauce, diced and served as an appetizer. So they’re getting two revenue streams from one cut of meat. Whereas the Texans only get one stream of revenue from one cut of meat.

Orr: Do you have a favorite between the two?

Raichlen: If I had a preference I wouldn’t tell you. I would make a lot of enemies.

Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe, American Barbecue Hall of Fame Inductee (2014), Bears fan and believer in Mitch Trubisky (“What are you going to do, you know?”), Chopped judge and champion, Owner Dr. BBQ, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Orr: Where are some of the best places to get barbecue in Texas (around the drivable Houston vicinity), and where would you go in Kansas City?

Lampe: I love both places and I love both styles of barbecue.

If you go to Kansas City there’s Gates and Arthur Bryant’s, the old, old school original places. There’s another called Rosedale’s which doesn’t get a lot of attention. They’re all completely different, all three completely different from each other and different from the KC Masterpiece sauce that we’re all familiar with. There’s a variety of sauces. That’s what I think of when I think of Kansas City.

Rosedale’s, it’s old. It burned down, and they rebuilt it. It doesn’t get a lot of attention, but their sauce is completely different. It’s a pretty cool old story.

Texas, to me, is just a whole different thing. They live it there. If I was going to tell you to do one thing while you’re there, it’s to go to Lockhart, Texas, which is not far from Houston, and it’s worth the trip. There are three restaurants there that are the epitome of old Texas barbecue. There’s Kreuz’s Market, and there’s Smitty’s, then on the other side of the square from Smitty’s is Black’s Barbecue. And Black’s says they’re the longest-running same family-owned barbecue in Texas.

When you go to this little town, you can’t help but go to all three. It’s a rough day of eating to hit all three but it’s hard to skip one. I always tell people—everyone goes to Austin to eat at these cool new hipster barbecue restaurants, which are outstanding and have done great things for the industry, but you’re a half-hour from three 100-year-old restaurants that basically created the world we’re living in.

Orr: Given that you’re from Chicago and drove to Kansas City often to learn the barbecue trade and Andy Reid seems to be very much out there in his love of barbecue, are you leaning toward rooting for the Chiefs this weekend?

Lampe: Well, I have deep roots in Kansas City. I’ve been everywhere, but I cut my teeth in Kansas City, so I’m always partial to them. And heck yeah, if Andy Reid is more of a barbecue fan, then I’m definitely going that way. Kansas City, I’m always leaning that way. I’ve got a lot of friends there. I got a lot of allegiance to Kansas City.

Myron Mixon, American Barbecue Hall of Fame Inductee (2013), Judge American Pitmasters, Owner Jack’s Old South, Myron Mixon’s Pitmaster BBQ

Orr: It seems the vibe I get is that Texas is more of the barbecue purist spot because of the traditional simplicity of the spice mix. Is that right?

Mixon: I can tell you this, it’s a very simple recipe, and the reason they’re so simple is because it goes back 200 years. They used what they had. They didn’t have all this brown sugar and stuff when they did barbecue. They didn’t want to be pitmasters on Food Network, they wanted to feed people with the resources they had, [which is] the livestock, the animals in the woods. They used the wood they had in the forest, and the spices they had were salt, maybe pepper and distilled vinegar. It was a preservative more than a flavor profile.

Orr: Which barbecue traditionally does better at competitions?

Mixon: Me personally, and I love Kansas City barbecue, but as far as my preference it would be something not as sweet. If I was going to sit down and eat a plate of barbecue I’d rather have a sauce that isn’t that sweet. But if you get into competition and for those that care about competition barbecue, Kansas City is going to win nine times out of 10.

I’ll tell you this. You and I and 50 other folks are going to get into a room and have our preferences. Someone’s going to like spicy barbecue and someone is going to like vinegar-based, some of us will like mustard-based which, if you’re from part of the Carolinas some barbecue is mustard-based, honey based, whatever.

You may not like any of those things, but just about everyone in barbecue likes something sweet. See what I’m saying? It may not be your favorite. Everyone can get by eating sweet.

Orr: So would you say there is a frustration with sweeter barbecue, do you sometimes want to just shake people and say the meat is good on its own?

Mixon: There is a little bit. I teach barbecue classes once a month, been doing it since 2005. I have people worldwide coming to my classes—Asia, South America—a lot of people from Australia because they get re-runs of Barbecue Pitmasters and they love it. But the thing is, they want Americanized barbecue.

I encourage people to come to my classes because everyone done gotten into the sweetness. There’s nothing wrong with that—don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking it. But I just challenge them to try the old school stuff… the grease kissing the coals, steaming back up on the meat and giving it a unique flavor, a crispy exterior. The only way you get that is doing it the old-school way. I want them to get their head wrapped around that instead of just mopping something in a honey-based barbecue sauce. It’s good that way.

You’ve heard that old adage before right? If you have to put steak sauce on a steak then the steak ain’t worth a damn. And, to me, great barbecue is the same way. If you have to lather it up with barbecue sauce to make it all happen, there’s something wrong with the meat itself.

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Deshaun Watson, Frank Clark

So, which fan will be eating the best barbecue on Sunday? Who is right?

Here’s sort of a loose conclusion reached after conversations with a handful of barbecue legends: It doesn’t matter, and it’s good we’re still fighting about barbecue at all. The cooking world has forced all chefs to essentially become an amalgam of everything that is popular all at once to keep up with our rapidly expanding palates.

The fact that two cuisine outposts have decided to dig their heels in on traditional preparation harkens back to something beyond mass market barbecue. It’s how we remember doing things growing up.

So, if you’re a Chiefs fan this weekend, take a Texans fan to Joe’s Kansas City—don't hide the good stuff. If you’re a Texans fan, challenge a Chiefs fan to remove the barbecue sauce every now and then. Maybe we’ll all learn a little something; turn Sunday into a win-win. 

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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