Kansas City is the capital of barbecue - plain and simple. If you asked someone from Kansas City to name the five best barbecue places in the city, they'd come up with seven. One would think that a place could become saturated with barbecue joints, but that's not the case in K.C. New ones seem to pop up on the landscape every year and one that opened a couple years that has been generating a lot of buzz in the barbecue community in Kansas City is Q39.
Rob Magee grew up in New Jersey and at a very young age he figured out that he wanted to be a chef, mainly because chefs can go wherever they want to and the young Magee always thought he'd end up in Hawaii. He took courses at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY and after he graduated 30 years ago he took a job in Dallas. It wasn't quite Hawaii, but Rob stayed in Dallas for seven years before moving on to become an executive chef and a food and beverage director for hotels in Houston, Charlotte, Denver and Nashville. In 2000, he ended up getting hired on as the food and beverage director at the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City. A year later, he ended up as the executive chef at the Kansas City Airport Hilton hotel and it was there where he caught the Kansas City barbecue bug.
Pictured right - Kelly and Rob Magee. (Picture courtesy Kansas City Business News.)
In 2002, Magee formed Munchin' Hogs, a competitive barbecue team that ended up competing in up to 40 different barbecue competitions annually. Twice Munchin' Hogs was named as the top team in the nation and they were consistently in the Kansas City Barbecue Society's Top Ten on an annual basis.
Magee continued to run the restaurant at the Kansas City Airport Hilton - Cafe Weatherby - but he had many of his Munchin' Hogs favorites on the menu alone with other American dishes. Of course, like many other rib joints that I've eaten at over the years, people told Magee that he needed to open his own place and focus just on barbecue. In April of 2014, Magee - with his wife, Kelly - opened Q39 in the old Oriental Feast restaurant on W. 39th Street in the Midtown/Westport neighborhood of Kansas City. (see map) About two months ago, Magee announced they would be opening a second Q39 location in Overland Park, KS in the former
It was just before noon when I made it into the parking lot for Q39 and it was already packed. I found a space behind the building situated in a small strip mall area along W. 39th St. and went in. The interior of Q39 was completely gutted by the Magee's and with the help from REALM Architecture + Design based out of Phoenix (they were the ones who also did the internal work on the BRGR Kitchen + Bar restaurant that I visited here) they transformed the space into what it is today - an open dining room with sort of a rustic/contemporary industrial look with an open kitchen area in the back. Communal tables were set up in the middle of the dining area with a bar area up toward the front.
Along a back wall of the dining room, Magee has many of the trophies he garnered in his years of competitive barbecue competitions on display. From 2006 to 2012, Munchin' Hogs won over 50 Grand Champion trophies and countless Reserve Champion trophies at competitions around the U.S.
I ended up seated at the bar for this visit to Q39 as many of the table were filled in the dining area. I squeezed in between a couple guys finishing up their early lunches and I have to say the barbecue on their plates looked scrumptious. The bartender/server - Ryan - gave me a menu and asked what I wanted to have to drink. I gave a quick glance to the beers they had on tap and immediately ordered up a Boulevard Pale Ale.
They do barbecue a little differently at Q39. For the lunch crowd, they smoke their meats over night to assure the barbecue is fresh and flavorful for the noontime crowds. For the dinner crowds, they begin smoking their meats in the morning to make sure that they'll be serving fresh barbecue that evening. They never smoke their meats and hold them to warm up later at Q39. Everything served at Q39 - from their bacon (which is brined for 3 days and then smoked), their sausage (it took Magee four months to learn how to make sausage), their burger meat (it's ground in-house with a mixture of Black Angus certified brisket and chuck), and even their sides including a potato salad made with tarragon and a spicy pickle slaw with jalapeños that they put on top of their burgers. They also make their own smoked chipotle ketchup in house at Q39.
If you read Road Tips regularly, you know that I like to try a little bit of everything when I try out a new barbecue place in my travels. Q39 has a sampler plate on their menu that allowed me to pick three meats for my lunch. I picked brisket, pulled pork and a small rack of ribs. For my side, I got baked beans. A small square of corn bread came with the meal - I don't care much for corn bread at all. (How's that for a guy who grew up in Iowa?)
The brisket and the pulled pork was moist, tender and flavorful. They were both served with a bit of a very good house-made Kansas City-style sweet and smoky sauce with a small container of sauce on the side. The portions were generous - the brisket slices were thick and about 8 to 10 inches in length. The ribs were meaty with a smoky flavor and easily pulled from the bone. This was top-notch barbecue in my book.
The highlight - for me - were the baked beans that Q39 makes in-house. The baked beans featured pinto beans, burnt beef ends and a nice sauce that I didn't have to doctor up with barbecue sauce. I loved the baked beans at Q39, they were some of the best I've ever had at a barbecue restaurant.
It was a lot of food for lunch - I don't think I had dinner that evening when I got up to Omaha later in the day. I was still stuffed from lunch. But it was all good at Q39. The brisket, the pulled pork, the rack of pork ribs - all were excellent in flavor and texture. Ask me what my favorite rib joints are in Kansas City and Q39 has now joined the mix of the ones that I really like that I can recite off the top of my head. There are some world-class barbecue places in Kansas City and Q39 is easily part of that top echelon of rib joints. Rob Magee never did end up working at a restaurant in Hawaii and it's a good thing for those in Kansas City that he didn't.