Make Mine Brisket

Carl visits Kansas City

I’m going to begin this sandwich review with two short rants that could be posted separately, but as I’m sure I’ll never get around to doing that, and as they are on point, I’ll include them here…

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1) Grease & Fat = Flavor

Why do people cook bacon until it is so dry and brittle that it would shatter if you dropped it onto your plate? Would you do the same with a New York strip or a rib-eye? I certainly hope not. I guess it’s that fear that has endured for so many decades, passed down from one generation to the next…that fear that one bite of even slightly undercooked bacon means certain death. Truth is, trichinosis has not been a threat in domestic pork for quite some time. Even the USDA chimed in a few years ago, acknowledging that most people are overcooking their pork products.

When you cook away all of that wonderful fat and grease, you’re left with nothing but a desiccated, flavorless waste of perfectly good pig. When I cook bacon, it’s still golden brown and thoroughly cooked, but it’s also flexible, chewy and well lubricated…pure pleasure for the palate. And for the record, don’t think of putting my bacon on paper towels to drain; I want that grease. I like my bacon the way I like my barbecue…moist, tender and literally dripping with flavor.

2) Lose the Sauce

BBQ sauce is a distraction. It’s great for dipping french fries, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s all it’s good for. If you’re a skilled smoker, why would you want all of your hard work buried under a layer of sauce? Even the mildest sauce is going to overpower the subtle flavors of your ‘cue.  Now, if you’re a barbecue novice serving poorly smoked meat, poor quality meat or meat that’s dry and flavorless, by all means, pour it on…what better way to hide those flaws than to drown them in glorified ketchup. Just don’t expect me to sample your wares.

Great barbecue stands on its own. The wood you use, your smoking technique, your choice of spices for the rub, the quality of the meat you select…all of that shines through in the finished product, in every savory drop of the meat’s own delicious juices. If you insist on showing off your memaw’s secret BBQ sauce, please be kind enough to serve it on the side.

Thank you. Now, on to the sandwich…

In the waning days of my October journey, I was looking over my atlas, selecting unexplored two-lane highways for the drive back home. My best options were going to bring me close to Kansas City. Hmmm…Kansas City. Barbecue. I had never been there, other than blowing through on I-70 a couple of times when I was a kid. A proper visit was long overdue. After all, the words “Carl” and “brisket” have been inextricably linked ever since I first signed on to the internet in 1998; being this close to a BBQ mecca, I knew it would be a disservice to the community if I didn’t stop and see what all the fuss is about.

Knowing nothing at all about dining choices in the City of Fountains, I ran a Google search for the best brisket sandwich in KC. Within a long list of results was an article that spoke favorably of a place called McGonigle’s. I then found several glowing reviews of their barbecue written by satisfied customers. What sealed the deal is the fact that McGonigle’s is a market, not a restaurant. In my experience, barbecue that is cooked and served in a parking lot is superior to the indoor-dining variety…

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Sliced brisket is the standard in this country…slices that, for my taste, are almost always too thick and waaaay too dry. I’ve asked several barbecue purveyors if there is a name for the style of brisket I prefer, but there doesn’t seem to be a consensus…some called it “chopped,” some call it “shredded,” others refer to it as “loose.” I describe it as “juicy, tender and falling apart.” Whenever I visit a BBQ joint for the first time, I always ask how they serve their brisket before ordering. It’s usually sliced, and I’ll usually order it anyway, as it’s my favorite sandwich. But if their description sounds particularly unappetizing, I’ll go with my backup plan and order pulled pork or ribs (as long as they’re not pre-sauced). Every so often, though, I’ll get lucky and find someone who serves that wonderfully moist and tender brisket that I love, and those are the places I’ll go out of my way to visit again and again.

At McGonigle’s, one goes inside the market to order and pay, and then picks up the food out at the trailer. Of course, I had to stop at the trailer first to check out the brisket situation (from the reviews I read online, I had high hopes that they were serving my kind of sandwich). Two very nice guys, Robert and Malcolm, were working the lot on that Monday afternoon. I approached the window and asked Robert if the brisket was sliced. He explained that while it starts out thinly sliced, it’s quite tender and breaks up into smaller pieces of various shapes and sizes. Sensing victory, I told him of my disdain for dry, sliced brisket and my love of fat and grease. At this point Robert’s face lit up, and with a mirthful smile, he said, “Oh, I think we can hook you up there.”

Jackpot. I raced inside to place my order, which was ready and waiting by the time I got back to the trailer. It was a beautiful sight…a generous pile of succulent beef with great color, great texture and the proper amount of fat, all floating in a sea of tasty golden lubrication a good half-inch deep. Sauce was offered (thank you), and I declined. I grabbed a fork and plenty of napkins and made for the nearest picnic table.

October’s ubiquitous yellowjackets insisted on sharing my meal, but they couldn’t stop me from savoring every delicious bite. The brisket was perfectly tender and moist, the flavor an excellent balance of smoke, spices and sweetness, yet all quite subtle, allowing the meat’s natural taste to join the party. As I soaked up the last drop of grease with my last chunk of bun, I was aware of an urge to start looking for apartments in the neighborhood.

Best brisket sandwich I’ve ever had? Easily. Are there better ones out there? Could be, and I’m certainly keen on trying others, wherever I may find them. But McGonigle’s has set the bar very high, and I’ll always stop there anytime I pass near Kansas City.

Though it was pure luck and I didn’t realize it until after the fact, I couldn’t be happier that I ate this sandwich exactly 50 years to the day since the great Jack McDuff recorded his epic tune “Hot Barbeque” (currently my ringtone).

Enjoy every sandwich.

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