When we were in the beginning stages of setting up our Kansas City BBQ Tour, there was one place that I hadn’t been to previously that I knew we had to add to our tour list. That place was Smokin’ Guns BBQ in North Kansas City.
Smokin’ Guns BBQ is competition quality BBQ, I’m not just saying that – it really is competition BBQ. What do I mean when I say “competition BBQ”? Well for starters, Smokin’ Guns won the Grand Champion title at the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue contest in 1999. For anyone who knows BBQ, they know that this is the BBQ contest of all BBQ contests. The owners, Phil (who goes by “Gunner”) and Linda Hopkins are also certified BBQ judges, so we are dealing with some serious BBQ here. Oh, and they’ve competed in over 400 BBQ competitions – don’t want to forget about that.
Before we get into talking about the food at Smokin’ Guns, let’s revisit Hint #3 from our Kansas City BBQ Tour Preview. Hint #3 mentioned the range of dining options when it comes to KC BBQ, so far we have talked about BBQ in a gas station, and also BBQ that comes with white linen tablecloths – well Smokin’ Guns is something entirely different. Smokin’ Guns is in an industrial district in North Kansas City. What’s the big deal with “North” Kansas City you ask? Well, I learned a little something about Kansas City vs North Kansas City while on our BBQ tour.
As we would have conversations with locals in KC, and share with them that we were on a BBQ tour, they would naturally ask us what restaurants we were visiting. Most times that I would mention Smokin’ Guns, I would get a blank stare as if they had never heard of it. When I would say “it’s in North Kansas City”, the blank stare would go away, but the look was replaced with what appeared to be a concerted effort at not rolling their eyes. Apparently there is a fairly strong divide between people who live south of the Missouri River and those that live north of it – I didn’t realize this until a local shared the news with me – all of a sudden everything made a lot of sense.
Getting back to the location of Smokin’ Guns BBQ (that a lot of people in “Kansas City” seem to be missing out on), I asked Gunner why they chose the industrial area to open shop. Gunner said that when they opened their doors, they wanted a place that would be a “lunch only place”, but that things have really taken off and it has become a much bigger operation now.
Well I’m here to tell you that they don’t just have a popular “lunch place”, but they have a very popular place in general. I’m sure having Guy Fieri making a couple of stops there for Diners, Drive-ins and Dives hasn’t hurt. In fact, Smokin’ Guns BBQ has expanded and built a brand new building because it has been so popular, needless to say, they are doing way more than just lunch here now.
As we were sitting in our booth reviewing the menu, I have to admit that I was slightly disinterested in really looking very hard. The reason for that is that I knew what I was going to order when I got to Smokin’ Guns before I had even left home – I was going to order the burnt ends. I had heard rumors about the burnt ends at Smokin’ Guns, and I wasn’t about to come home from our BBQ tour without trying them. After all, it’s burnt ends that Kansas City BBQ is known for.
We obviously couldn’t come to such an award winning BBQ joint and not try some of the other items on the menu, so we asked the waitress for an appetizer recommendation. She pretty quickly suggested that we start things off with the Fried Pickles.
Without getting sidetracked too far here, I have to say that it was years ago that I tried my first fried pickle at B.B. King’s restaurant on Beale Street in Memphis while in town for the Memphis In May BBQ festival. Ever since dunking that first fried pickle chip into a spicy mayo based sauce I have been hooked on fried pickles.
Did you notice how I said pickle “chip”? That’s because there are really two variations of the fried pickle, one is a disk that is made by slicking the pickle crosswise (“hamburger” as April would call it), and while the other variation is a spear created by cutting the pickle lengthwise (April would call this “hotdog”).
The problem with the spear version is that the juice from the pickle spear tends to interfere with the crispiness of the batter – generally making the batter soft, moist, and anything but crispy, resulting in the batter falling off, turning them into pickles with a side of mush – which is why I prefer the chip, which usually does not carry these negative attributes.
Getting back to the suggested fried pickle appetizer, my first question was: “Chips or Spears?” She promptly replied: “Spears”. To which I rolled my eyes like someone south of the river who has just heard someone say “North Kansas City”. She went on to say how great the pickles are, I even warned her of my distain for fried pickle spears. She stood by her recommendation.
When the fried pickle spears arrived at our table I could see an immediate difference in these pickle spears vs all the others. These appeared to be perfectly fried, and the breading seemed surprisingly crisp – but only a taste test would be able to reveal the truth.
It only took one bite to know that my mind has forever been changed on the topic of pickle spears. These were crisp, the batter was light, the pickles weren’t overly juicy, and within no time at all, they were gone. Its official, the fried pickle chip is under siege from Smokin’ Guns BBQ fried pickle spears.
If you’ve been reading the posts about our KC BBQ tour, you are probably noticing a theme about the appetizers that we had in KC. If you haven’t noticed, the appetizers are as good as the main course – I think this is one of the biggest surprises about our trip. You would think that the focus would be entirely on the BBQ meat, but we learned that these restaurants don’t just do the BBQ well – they do everything on the menu well.
With the pickle spears quickly finding their way into our stomachs, we were ready for the main course, which meant finally getting to taste some of that competition BBQ that Smokin’ Guns is known for. In addition to the burnt ends, we also tried the pulled pork, baby back ribs, and brisket.
There is something noticeably different about the BBQ at Smokin’ Guns. The smoke flavor is just a little bit different, it’s not that it’s necessarily more intense, but the flavor profile is a little more complex – perhaps this is what is helping Gunner take home all those trophies. When I asked Gunner about the wood that he uses for his BBQ, he said they use a combination of oak, cherry, and hickory, which is probably where some other different flavors are coming from. Gunner also said that the rubs they use are a big part of what separates Smokin’ Guns BBQ from the others.
All of the meat that we tried was moist and flavorful. Like the other restaurants that we visited, you could tell this is real BBQ. The BBQ at Smokin’ Guns obviously is a result of many years of competing against other very talented people in the BBQ world.
In addition to the pickles and the BBQ, we also tried several side dishes; two of them require a special mention. First were the sweet potato French fries, these were amazing, and to top it off, they were waffle fries – which I don’t know about you, but cutting potatoes into waffles to me seems to do something to them which makes them better than regular French fries. Maybe it’s the fact that there is more surface area on a waffle fry than on a regular fry? Maybe this is what makes them a little more evenly cooked? Either way, we thought we won the French fry lottery when these fries showed up with our piles of BBQ.
The other side that I highly recommend when you make your way to Smokin’ Guns BBQ is the Mac & Cheese Bites. I’m not sure how they are able to get these bites of mac & cheese to be so perfect, but if you like mac & cheese on a regular day, they you’ll love it after it receives special treatment from Smokin’ Guns.
We’d love to tell you more about how things work behind the scenes at Smokin’ Guns BBQ, but unfortunately Gunner had to make some catering deliveries while we were there which limited our time with him. While we would have liked to spend more time with Gunner and learn more about the operation, I’m confident in suggesting that you add Smokin’ Guns BBQ in “North” Kansas City onto your list of places to stop on your KC BBQ tour. Make sure to start with the pickles, and then I would suggest that you get yourself a nice big plate of burnt ends to properly memorialize your trip to this competition winning BBQ restaurant.