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|Road-Trip Food: Gates Bar-B-Q, Kansas City, Missouri|
|Written by Carmen Madrid|
|Tuesday, 08 December 2009 04:06|
This KCMO institution is the ideal culinary gateway to a drive across the Plains.
I used to think, as so many people do, that crossing Texas is the longest drive, ever. Flat, flat, flat and with nothing to see. As often happens with stereotypes, that one turned out to be inaccurate. Setting aside that dreaded stretch of I-10 between Fort Stockton and El Paso, I've discovered some beautiful drives in the Lone Star State, especially in the Hill Country, and especially in wildflower season. On the other hand, there's Kansas in December--flat, flat, flat and as stark a view as imaginable. Couple the straight-as-an-arrow blade of highway with distant snow clouds blocking any sights on the horizon, and the effect is mesmerizing in the worst way. I think even the GPS fell asleep.
To fortify myself for this bland drive, a visit to Gates Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, Missouri for some of their tangy spice-filled classic sauce was essential last night. Though it's been years since I was last there, the unusually friendly greeting and singed-ham barbecue sandwich are something you don't forget.
At this beloved KCMO institution, the brick walls have been echoing with servers' cries of "Hi, may I help you?" for more than half a century. I'd heard from my friend Bob, a KC native son, about the restaurant's requirement that every customer be greeted in this fashion immediately upon entering, but I was still taken aback the first time I walked through those doors and was met by a chorus. And, it's not just a rhetorical question: They expect you to order immediately, as the locals and regulars do--something that can be a little intimidating to a first-time visitor. But all feelings of awkwardness fade with your first whiff of the baked beans, burnt-end sandwiches, and other delectable fare.
Not wanting to induce a food coma, we resisted one of the enormous combo platters, ordering instead "ham on bun," "pork on bun," a "beef single," "B beans," potato salad, a very large root beer, and, of course, a few goodies to go ($26.74 for the meal, plus $16 in gifts). Now, I am not a "B beans" fan by any stretch, but these were scrumptious. A thick smoky sauce, chunks of real barbecued pork... spoon-lickin' good. The potato salad reminded me of good, old-fashioned picnic-style salad--with just enough of a sweet undertone to counteract the extra-hot sauce, if necessary.
Both "bunned" items came with fries and pickles and Gates' classic sauce. Customers are welcome to step up to a sauce bar, to fill small plastic cups from vats of the restaurant's sweet-and-mild and extra-hot sauces, as well as the classic. I certainly took advantage of the additional classic sauce, not to further lather my sandwich, but simply to dip my fries. Nothing but delicious, as Mom would say!
I thought seriously about going back to the counter for an order of yammer pie, the one dessert item on the menu. But after finishing my singed-ham sandwich (and yes, it was as good as I remembered) and emptying my plate of every last sauce-dipped fry, there was no room for pie.
Not having had a chance to try it, I did a little research today to find out just what a "yammer" is--presumably a yam, but who knows? (Remember, I'm a California girl.) Finally found a reference in a Denver Post review of Kansas City BBQ joints to Gates Yammer Pie as a sweet-potato tartlet devourable in three bites. Good excuse to go back--along with the fact that they were out to their famous onion rings last night!
In lieu of my own words on these onion delicacies, here's what friend Bob had to say when he heard where we ate: "I went back to KC a few months ago. It was the last time I would be back there for a while, as I was in town to move Mom and Dad to Florida. I found myself over by the 'home restaurant' near 47th and The Paseo. I went in to have some comfort food. I got a combo platter, but that is not what I remember most. I spotted the onion rings on the sides menu, and the reaction I had was physical and powerful.
"You see, these aren't your normal onion rings. (Especially what passes for rings here in California.) These rings were sweet onions, and breaded with bread crumbs or Panko crumbs, not the flour that others use. These were crisp, hot, sweet, and wonderful. Comfort food, indeed. I savored those all evening. Had a wonderful conversation with the other people in the restaurant, which made it all the more fun."
It's been at least three decades since Gates automated the production of its sauces when its restaurant kitchen could no longer keep up with customer demand. Otherwise, the food and atmosphere at this Kansas City original are much the same as when the first restaurant was established in 1946 at 19th & Vine.
Gates now has six locations in the metro Kansas City area. We ate at the restaurant on Route 40 in Independence, less than a mile from I-70--perfect for road-trippers ready for a tasty break.
A California native, Carmen Madrid now writes from the woods of New Hampshire.