Just when you thought everything that could be said about barbecue in Kansas City has been said, someone comes along with something else to say. In the case of Q39, it’s actually something worth listening to. Although this is barbecue firmly rooted in the Kansas City tradition, and it follows most of the rules (and there are rules), this Q joint isn’t afraid to take the barbecue dining experience to a new level.
At the west end of a shopping strip on 39th Street between Southwest Trafficway and Roanoke Road, chef Rob Magee has created a new destination for those sensitive to the subtleties of barbecue and appreciative of the comforts of dining. The space has been entirely renovated, with no remaining vestige of the previous tenant (a Chinese buffet). A spacious dining room, lengthy bar and open kitchen are refreshingly devoid of kitsch, with austere modern surfaces, such as concrete, metal and wood, that are warmed and balanced by an attentive and hospitable staff.
Chef Magee came to Kansas City in 2000 as the food and beverage director for the Westin Crown Center and was later hired as the executive chef for The Hilton Kansas City Airport. Since he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America almost 20 years ago and spent time cooking and traveling around the country, he is an experienced chef. But it wasn’t until 2002 that he found his passion and became heavily involved in competition barbecue. As leader of the Munchin’ Hogs, he has been twice awarded top-team status in the nation. Evidence of their success covers at least one wall of Q39, with numerous awards from the likes of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the Jack Daniel’s World Champion Barbeque Invitational, and the American Royal Barbeque Contest. Magee obviously appreciates process as well as results. Everything is made from scratch. They brine and smoke their own bacon, grind and stuff their own sausages, grind their burgers (brisket and Black Angus beef), and freshly prepare their own side dishes, something woefully absent in many lesser barbecue establishments. In addition to barbecue, chef Magee has set out to skillfully execute the second most popular food group in Kansas City—wood-grilled food—especially steaks.
The menu begins with a “share-ables” section, which has a few standout selections that I am glad to share with you. The first is the smoked and grilled pork belly. In a recent conversation with a chef friend, the subject of pork belly arose, and we reached the agreement that we were both “over pork belly.” Just as in any other aspect of pop culture, there are fashions in food that become overused. And in the last few years pork belly, one of the richest cuts of the entire pig, has become one of them. In spite of my prejudice, I ordered it. We were served two thick, but not overwhelming, slices of lightly smoked, unctuous pork belly, grilled crispy on the edges, served atop velvety, braised white beans (almost a purée), topped with crunchy little bits of fried onion. I decided that I’m not over pork belly. In fact, I want more of it. The balance between smoke, richness and interesting texture proved to be a signature of many of the dishes we sampled on multiple visits.
Another favorite is the Q39 spareribs, appropriately available as either appetizer, entrée, or as part of the competition barbecue plates. But I wouldn’t eat them as a “share-able” for exactly that reason—you have to share. Save it for your entrée. They were exceptional. In many restaurants, ribs are often served undercooked (a maxillary workout), or overcooked (dry and falling apart). The spareribs here were at that perfect point of tender but not to the point of falling off the bone. You had to give a little tug with your teeth to remind you to pay attention to your food. On one occasion, I took some of the ribs home, and alone in quiet retrospect experienced the true complexity of the balance between texture, smoke, sweetness and salt. It was then that I began to appreciate the subtle beauty of this aspect of Midwestern cuisine. Of the other starters, the Q39 spiced onion straws were crisp and flavorful (the same garnish that came with the pork belly which made them seem a bit redundant), but we especially liked the accompanying barbecue aioli. I assume it is simply one of their delicious sauces (they feature four) mixed into some mayonnaise. Regardless, it was a perfect medium in which to dip just about anything one could fry.
With a name like “Best Wings on the Planet,” how could this generous serving of jumbo chicken wings with the Q39 chipotle barbecue sauce be anything but a set-up for disappointment? Just to be certain, I ordered them on three separate occasions. They were simply and attractively presented with no extra blue cheese, ranch dips or celery sticks, glazed in the house-made chipotle cilantro sauce, garnished with leaves of cilantro. I found them a bit sweet, but the wings were moist and flavorful, with a nice balance between smoke and spice, but my “Best of Planet” expectations weren’t realized. How could anyone’s be? It’s a big planet. Of the other appetizers, I understand the dip-appeal of the Tall Grass white cheddar cheese fondue served with warm, soft pretzels and apple slices, but it’s not necessarily where I would spend my calories on a lovely menu like this one. Also, macaroni and cheese is about the last thing I would consider as an appetizer—a side dish maybe—but to each his own.
If you’re looking for more than beef on bun or some burnt ends (nothing wrong with either of those), Q39 has a few offerings to fill the void, especially for those with something lighter in mind. While I find the main attraction here is the quality of the smoked, grilled and barbecued meats, they offer a respectable assemblage of soup and salads (mixed greens, Caesar, or Cobb). These could serve as a lunch entrée, a stand-alone course, or be shared like a side dish. People generally know what they want when they go out for barbecue, and it’s not generally because they want multiple courses, but the options are nice. It will be interesting to see how the menu evolves here.
A substantial portion of the menu is devoted to Munchin’ Hogs barbecue sandwiches, specialty sandwiches, and brisket burgers. The eight-ounce burgers, ground in-house from Black Angus beef and brisket are not cheap by fast-food standards, but they are a great value considering the quality of the finished product. The burnt-end burger, a flavorful patty topped with smoky, sliced burnt ends, a bright and spicy pickle slaw that nicely cuts through the richness of the meats, served with their classic sauce (not really necessary thanks to the juiciness of the burger and the flavors from the burnt ends), is a meal in itself, no side dish necessary. One of the burgers I was unable to try was the white-cheddar bacon burger with crisp greens and tomato. Unfortunately for us, it was placed in front of a hungry 15-year-old who scarfed the eight-ounce, oak-wood grilled, Black Angus ground-brisket burger down in moments. We’ll have to take his word that it was delicious. I did manage to taste the No Jackin’ Around specialty sandwich, a combination of moist and tender apple-brined pulled pork dressed with their classic barbecue sauce and jalapeño jack cheese, all on crisply toasted bread (good bread—something rarely seen in barbecue joints—courtesy of Farm to Market).
For the barbecurious, the Competition BBQ Plates are an excellent introduction to textbook technique. I must confess to a slight ignorance of the finer points of barbecue, especially in regards to competition. If you order takeout, served in Styrofoam boxes just like at barbecue competitions, you can pretend you’re judging the American Royal, except you can drink a beer while you’re doing it (they don’t allow the official judges to do that). The competition plates include a fresh-baked roll and one or more sides (varies from lunch to dinner). I heartily recommend the Q spareribs (discussed previously), but definitely try the Judges Plate (choice of three meats) and add an extra serving of the fourth meat just to be able to try all of them. The housemade chipotle sausage was good (I would like it to have a little more fat), but it was not a revelation. The brisket, however, was a revelation. What I found especially refreshing about it was that you could still taste beef, and it was exceptionally moist, not dry and “grainy,” with a nice amount of marbling (that comes from the outer cut of brisket). And while the sauces are there and available to use, they’re not at all necessary. The smoked and char-grilled chicken was practically plump and juicy (not a quality often seen in smoked chicken which is frequently quite dry). Once again, no sauce needed. I would be remiss not to tell you that the sauces (a tomato-based classic, as well as a zesty version, plus Magee’s Southwest-inspired chipotle cilantro and a honey glaze that I found delightful on the ribs) are available for sale if you need a little to take to your next cookout.
For a quick and cost-effective lunch, take advantage of the “Fast and Fresh” sandwiches. It’s a great deal at $10, featuring a choice of pulled pork, brisket, pulled chicken or chipotle sausage, with your choice of sauce and a side (although most were good, I would always go with the apple coleslaw, a refreshing, crunchy slaw that, thank god, isn’t swimming in mayonnaise and sugar).
As if all of this isn’t enough, Q39 also offers catering, a banquet space and convenient carryout—Q2GO—with its own entrance. Did I mention craft cocktails? The “smoky bee’s knees” with gin, house-smoked honey and lemon is the perfect segue from summer to autumn with its bright gin and citrus notes and the lingering hints of burning leaves. And don’t forget happy hour Monday through Friday. In addition, this could be one of the most gluten-free menus in Kansas City. Gluten-free items are approximately 50 percent of the menu, and I’m sure a large percentage of the remaining items are gluten friendly (if you take them out from between slices of bread).
The next time you feel a craving for some real Kansas City barbecue with flawlessly executed meats but want more of a “dining” experience, complete with servers, craft cocktails, actual cloth napkins and a few added choices like salads and vegetables (and don’t necessarily want someone to scream at you when you walk through the front entrance), visit Q39.