Years ago while working for a previous company, we had a series of trainings over a period of time at a hotel near the Kansas City International Airport. For a lunch break during the trainings, my old boss and a couple three colleagues would venture over to a barbecue restaurant that wasn't far away - Smoke Box BBQ Cafe. I remembered the food to be pretty good. On a trip down Interstate 29 from Omaha to Kansas City last year, I happened to glance over to my left just past the airport and saw the sign for Smoke Box BBQ on the side of a building in a strip mall. I made a mental note to make some time to stop in for lunch when I had a chance. Well, that chance just came available recently when I stopped in for a quick lunch.
Frank Occhipinto opened the doors to the Smoke Box back in 1994. He had a second location over in north suburban Liberty, MO for a number of years, but they closed it down a number of years ago. The original Smoke Box, located in the Executive Hills North office complex in suburban Tiffany Springs, is still going strong.
Taking the Tiffany Springs Road exit off of I-29, going under the Interstate and then taking a left on Ambassador Dr. then another left into the parking lot of the strip mall, I found myself in front of Smoke Box BBQ once more. (see map) It was a beautiful day in Kansas City with clear skies and temperatures in the upper 60's. A number of motorcyclists were out and a handful of them had stopped in for lunch at Smoke Box. The door to the restaurant was open, allowing for the fresh spring air to come inside.
I have to admit, I don't remember much about the Smoke Box since it had been, quite possibly, 12 years since I'd been into the place. But the place was still in nice shape for being open about 19 years. The front counter is where you order your food, then they give you a number and you take a seat in the dining room. There are a number of tables and booths to choose from in the dining area that seats around 50.
Taking a look at the menu, Smoke Box BBQ has just about every kind of barbecued meat covered. In additions to ribs, they have smoked brisket, pulled pork, chicken, turkey, sausage, and burnt ends - a Kansas City delicacy that I have yet to warm up to. Interestingly, Smoke Box also has some Italian entrees including fettuccine alfredo and chicken parmesan, as well as a meatball sandwich and an Italian steak sandwich topped with a homemade marinara sauce and provolone cheese. I suppose with the name Occhipinto, they probably do some pretty good Italian at Smoke Box.
As always, I was looking for a sampler to try two or three meats. The guy behind the counter pointed out their lunch special - your choice of two meats with a couple sides for $7.25. Ribs were not one of the meats and before I could figure out that I could have ordered a dinner platter for $13.99 that came with ribs and a choice of meat, I found myself order up the lunch special with pulled pork and brisket. For my two sides, I had a choice between baked beans, cole slaw, cheesy corn, potato salad or French fries. About the only thing that sounded appealing to me were the baked beans. I got a double order of those. I also got a beer and sat myself down at one of the booths along the wall.
Being back in the Smoke Box, it reminded me of a funny story during my last visit to the place. We were having lunch and one of my colleagues at the time, a bright young guy by the name of Andy, was hitting on the rather cute waitress who was taking care of us that day. Andy was putting the hammer down trying to impress the girl with his charm. When she walked back into the kitchen, Andy made some sexist remark of what he'd like to do with the girl if he got his chance. An older guy seated at the table next to us turned around and said, "Uh, son. You may want to watch what you wish for. I'm her daddy."
Sure enough, the parents of the girl Andy was putting the make on were seated next to us. We all got a big laugh out of it - including her parents. Andy was pretty contrite after that. "I apologize, sir," he meekly said. Then he said, "Sir, I hope you don't have a shot gun out in your car. And if you do, I sincerely apologize for my behavior." Maybe you had to be there, but it was a pretty hilarious situation where even the parents took it in stride. They'd probably heard it before because their daughter was pretty damn good lookin'.
Not long after I sat down, my barbecue was brought out to me. The presentation wasn't fancy in the least - the brisket and pulled pork were sort of put together on a banquet-style paper plate with two pockets of baked beans on the side. Traditional white bread and pickles came with the meal. It wasn't a lot of meat for $7.25, I thought. But that was fine - I was going to take a dealer out for dinner that evening and I didn't need a lot of food at lunch.
The pulled pork was fine - it featured thin strings of tender pork that had a nice smoky flavor to the meat. The brisket was also fine - thin slices of smoked beef that was topped with some of Smoke Box's Kansas City-style barbecue sauce.
The beans were, well... I don't know. There was something sort of weird about the beans. They had somewhat of a petroleum taste to them, at least that's what my taster was telling me. I didn't know if I cared much for the beans. Even when I hit them up with some of Smoke Box's barbecue sauce that they had on the table, I couldn't get that lingering taste out of my mouth or my mind.
Baked beans aside, the barbecue at Smoke Box BBQ Cafe was fine. Since my last visit to Smoke Box, the Zona Rosa shopping and entertainment district has opened nearby and it features a number of restaurants - including the Smokehouse BBQ - to choose from. (Click here to see my entry on Smokehouse BBQ.) The barbecue at Smoke Box has to be good enough to keep them in business all these years, especially with growing competition in the area. I thought my barbecue was good, not my favorite in Kansas City, but not bad, either. Smoke Box is one of those small family operations that I like to find and patronize from time to time. I suspect they'll be able to hold their own against the competition.