Kansas City has some world-class barbecue. It's always a treat to get barbecue in K.C. and it's a double treat when I find a new place to try some barbecue. On a recent trip to town, I was doing a little reading up on a place that I wasn't familiar with - Oklahoma Joe's. The article I read on line said that it was in an old gas station in a neighborhood on the Kansas side of Kansas City. I thought I'd give it a shot that evening.
Like a number of barbecue joints, Oklahoma Joe's got its start from a backyard grilling enthusiast - much like myself - who began to enter barbecue competitions around the Midwest in the 1990's. Jeff Stehney was inspired by a couple of large Kansas City area barbecue contests to buy a heavy duty Oklahoma Joe's smoker to enter into competition against some of the best amateur barbecue aficionados in the U.S. Within two years, Stehney and his team, "Slaughterhouse Five" (named after his favorite Kurt Vonnegut novel), won the prestigious Grand Champion awards at both the American Royal Open and the Kansas City Barbecue Society contests.
Stehney and his team, the core of which featured his wife, Joy, and good friend, Jim Howell, captured numerous awards in various competitions throughout Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas. It was through these competitions he met up with Roger Davidson, the owner of Oklahoma Joe's smokers. Davidson and Stehney struck up a quick friendship that quickly turned into a business venture together. The first Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue opened in 1995 in Stillwater, OK - the home of Davidson's smoker company. The Kansas City location opened in 1996 with Jim Stehney overseeing the operation. Through all of this, Stehney continued to enter barbecue contests - and would usually win awards in multiple categories.
In 1997, Davidson sold his smoker company to Char-Broil, the maker of New Braunfels smokers. Char-Broil was eventually bought out by Brinkmann. Davidson moved to Texas and with no one to oversee the Stillwater operation, the Oklahoma Joe's BBQ closed. Jeff and Joy Stehney bought out Davidson's interest in the Kansas City location and continue to run it today. Davidson, in the meantime, started a new smoker company - Horizon Barbecue Smokers - based out of Perry, OK.
I got the address to Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City and punched it into the GPS. As I got closer, I found myself in a residential neighborhood wondering what the place would be like. I came up to the corner of 47th and Mission (see map) and there it was on the NE corner of the intersection. The parking lot was packed (it was just after 8 p.m. and they close at 8:30) and I drove around the building to find a parking spot. I found one in front of the gas station. Yes, Oklahoma Joe's is not in an old gas station - it really is a gas station with a convenience store, gas pumps on two sides and the whole nine yards! I just shook my head in amazement and chuckled as I walked in.
Oklahoma Joe's menu is on a chalk board along the east wall of the establishment. That's where you order from one of the line cooks and he starts your order. I had a lot of trouble understanding the one line cook from a combination of his southern dialect, the loudness of the dining area and the bustle behind him in the kitchen area. Oklahoma Joe's menu isn't extensive like I've found at other Kansas City area barbecue places, but it focused on the core foods of real barbecue.
I ended up ordering the Rib and Brisket combo - three meaty pork ribs with a stack of thin sliced brisket. I got a choice of a side with that and I didn't hesitate when I told him I wanted baked beans. I then went to the cash register and the girl there asked me what I wanted to drink. Thankfully, Oklahoma Joe's has beer - lots of it to choose from, by the way. I ended up getting a couple bottles of Bud Light to help wash the barbecue down.
As I waited for my order to come up, I noticed a number of people coming up and getting orders to go. One couple had called in their order and took their "to-go" sack to a table to eat. The dining area - consisting of a number of two and four chair tables, a few booths and a number of seats along a high bar on the south side of the dining room - was nearly full. After I got my tray with my barbecue and beer, I found a small table near the cash register and sat down to eat. In true barbecue joint style, they had a roll of paper towels on the table along with two different types of sauce - regular and hot.
I had one of the ribs first. They had a nice dry rub on them and they were tender to the bite. Meaty and moist, the pork slid effortlessly off the bone. I put a little of Oklahoma Joe's regular barbecue sauce on a bite of the rib and I have to say it was very good. It had a sweet, smoky taste to the sauce and it was a perfect match with the ribs. I even poured some into my baked beans which were thick and meaty and had a little spicy bite to them. They were very, very good on their own without the barbecue sauce in them.
The brisket was next. It was tender and very thin sliced and came with a dollop of their barbecue sauce on top. The brisket sat on a piece of white bread - very Southern as far as barbecue is concerned. From the first bite, I was in heaven. It was so flavorful and tender. Some of the best brisket I'd ever had.
They gave me two rib bones and an end piece. While I believe they thought they were doing me a favor with giving me the end piece. While it was tender and flavorful, the end pieces of pork ribs have a lot of little bones in them. I was pausing repeatedly to stop and pull the little bones out of my mouth and put 'em on the plate. I didn't care if anyone was watching. This is barbecue, for God's sake!
I decided to kick it up a notch with Oklahoma Joe's "Night of the Living Sauce" hot sauce. Well, I didn't think it was all that hot, but it added more zip to what the regular Oklahoma Joe's sauce had. I put some of that in my baked beans and stirred it around. It made the beans a little more spicy and helped with the sweet taste, as well.
By this time, I'm in barbecue heaven. The ambiance of the place was unique, the barbecue was just outstanding, it was getting close to 8:30 and there were still people coming in to either pick up orders or to eat in the dining area. I was savoring every bite of Oklahoma Joe's barbecue. I was slopping up the remnants of the sauce with the piece of Texas Toast that was on my plate. When the sauce was gone from the plate, I'd just pour more on the bread and eat it like that. As I finished my meal, I thought this might be the best barbecue dinner I've ever had.
As I was leaving Oklahoma Joe's, I noticed they had a large section of sauces, spices and rubs on the shelf in the convenience store area of the building. Geez, a gas station/convenience store/rib joint. This was just something else. The gas station/convenience store - Joe's Corner - had a number of people coming in for stuff other than barbecue. And there were people gassing up outside. As I got in my car and checked my fuel gauge, I decided I needed some gas, too. As I was pumping gas, I thought, "Only at Oklahoma Joe's can you get gas inside and outside the building."
Oklahoma Joe's was one of those overly surprising and ultra-pleasant dining experiences that I just love to find when I'm on the road. The barbecue was just outstanding, the beans were delicious, the sauces were wonderful. It's no wonder that Anthony Bourdain named Oklahoma Joe's as one of his 13 places to eat before you die. If heaven has barbecue, Oklahoma Joe's is serving it.
Now my stomach is rumbling just thinking of Oklahoma Joe's. Quite seriously, it may have been the best barbecue that I've ever had. If it wasn't the best, it has to be in the top 3. I can't wait to get back to K.C. later this spring to have some more.