When most people think of Kansas City — the neighboring cities in Kansas and Missouri collectively known as one — barbecue comes to mind. And there’s good reason: Kansas City has more barbecue restaurants per capita than anywhere in the world. Its signature food is served at more than 100 barbecue establishments, each boasting a house specialty.
Still, the culinary landscape in Kansas City has evolved well beyond its fire pit heritage. Its roster of chef-driven restaurants and unique-yet-sustainable concepts are diverse and growing. Meat is still on the menu, but prepared and served in imaginative ways. In addition, new players to the barbecue scene are introducing innovative methods and new techniques, giving barbecue a welcome twist.
One of those pacesetters is Michael Corvino, chef and owner, Corvino Supper Club & Tasting Room, which is in the Crossroads area of Kansas City, Missouri. His approach to modern American cuisine starts with using the best ingredients and techniques culled from around the world to create delicious, interesting food.
“Kansas City is hungry for more than barbecue,” he says. “I like to create proteins geared towards Midwestern tastes by using bold flavors and serving big portions.”
This is exemplified in his take on pork ribs.
“The ribs are pork spare ribs, a very special program of Heritage Berkshire Pork naturally raised in Missouri and processed at Paradise Locker Meats in Trimble, Missouri,” he says. “I brine the ribs in a ginger and lemongrass marinade and serve them with caramel made with fish sauce, fried garlic and crushed peanuts.”
Then there’s his spin on wagyu ribeye. This shareable entrée is served with charred spring onions, wasabi and huitlacoche sauce. The latter is corn fungus, also known as corn mushroom or Mexican truffle. It’s a rare ingredient that Corvino goes to great effort to source.
“We source our huitlacoche from a group of mushroom purveyors in Washington State,” says Corvino. “It’s a seasonal product.”
Slideshow: Corvino's Creations
His approach to pork pozole also impresses. For this, Corvino looked to his chef de cuisine, Dina Butterfield, who is from Mexico and knows pozole very well. Corvino deconstructs this pork and hominy stew in a way to make it a shareable dish. The plate includes thick slices of roasted pork, fresh cilantro and a tortilla loaded with cotija cheese.
“The brightness of the dish comes from chopping fresh tomatillos with fresh Serrano peppers and hanging them so that their juices seep out,” he says. “The juice is then added to a rich broth of pork necks and trotters while the remaining vegetables are sprinkled as a relish on top.”
Corvino’s whips up a unique chicken liver appetizer. He smears the chicken liver mousse on a homemade baked Parmesan cracker, which gets topped with crispy honey bits, anchovies and thinly sliced radishes. The radishes tone down the richness with a peppery bite.
The late-night menu includes a $10 burger made of freshly ground chuck topped with Muenster cheese, charred onions and sour pickles. The patty is cooked on an iron plancha, which reaches a higher heat than a standard griddle. This gives the burger patty a unique crispy edge.
Rob Magee, chef and owner of Q39 in midtown Kansas City, Missouri, cooks up his barbecue specialties in an open kitchen, which is very different from the dark pits of traditional joints. It features a pair of state-of-the-art 500-pound stainless hickory-fired smokers, plus an oak-fired grill for open-flame preparation of meats and vegetables.
The meats he serves include certified black Angus beef briskets, aged 35 days to the time they are served. The rib slabs are three-and-a-half pound St. Louis cut.
“The brisket for lunch goes in the smokers at 2 a.m. for six hours. Then it is wrapped and finished in the smokers for an additional 2 hours for maximum moisture retention,” Magee says. “The meat for dinner goes in at 8 a.m. so it can be ready by 4 p.m. It’s a precision process, honed from years in competition. And it makes all the difference in the intensity of flavor, texture and moistness.”
One of Magee’s specialties is the Mr. Burns sandwich, which is cubed burnt ends, chipotle barbecue sauce, pepper jack cheese and onion straws on a toasted bun. Another is his homemade chipotle sausage featuring fresh ground pork and secret Q39 spice blend.
In Kansas City, Kansas, Chef Marco Albaran and Corporate Chef George Atsangbe serve up barbecue as Mexican street food at Taco Republic. At this taqueria-style restaurant, the chefs use traditional Mexican meats such as Barbacoa and Cochinita Pibil.
“We create ethnic street food by slow cooking, smoking and braising meats to get the simplicity of freshness and exquisite flavor,” says Albaran.
One of Atsangbe’s specialties is wood-fired chicken, which is made daily in limited quantities. There’s also spicy tequila lime wings served with a jicama slaw.
Their menu twists to traditional Kansas City barbecue include Cochinita Pibil, which is Yucatan-style roasted and marinated pork with pickled red onions; The Salazar, which is pork belly, salsa verde, cilantro, onions and chicharrones; and Jorge, which is blackened shrimp, crispy pork belly, chipotle, aioli, cojita cheese, avocado and cilantro. All are served in tortilla shells.