Editor’s note: Welcome back to our series Let’s Dish, Kansas City, showcasing some of our favorite restaurant meals. Click here to sign up for our new newsletter. And scroll down to learn how you can participate.
I spend an unusual amount of time thinking about Sen. Josh Hawley.
To be fair, as The Star’s Washington correspondent I am paid to think about him, as well as the other members of Congress elected from Missouri and Kansas.
But Hawley is particularly prominent. The Missouri Republican is the type of senator who draws strong reactions. Some people adore him, some people despise him. The oddest, and most frequent, thing I hear is how many people find him handsome. It comes from people of all political persuasions — even a Canadian I met while visiting Montreal.
Food is both a unifying and polarizing force in politics. When politicians want to do some good old-fashioned, wrist-grabbing politicking, they’ll get caught on camera eating a cheesesteak, or an ice cream cone, or a pork chop.
So when I was in Kansas City last month, I did what anyone who spends too much time thinking about politicians would do: I tried Hawley’s favorite dish in the city.
Favorite might not be the right word.
When I asked him to name his favorite meal in Kansas City, Hawley, who grew up in Lexington, about 45 miles northeast of downtown and went to Rockhurst High School, hemmed and hawed. His immediate reaction was an exasperated “oh my gosh!” before he finally spilled the beans, as it were.
“I really love the ribs from Jack Stack,” he said.
So on a recent Monday, I sat alone in a booth in the Freight House location of Jack Stack Barbecue, devoured a plate of $24 honey-glazed baby back ribs with a side of fries and washed it down with a $4.50 lemonade.
It was fantastic.
The sauce was sweet and tangy, the meat was moist and full of flavor, with the right combination of chewy and fall off the bone.
I asked Carlos Perez, a chef at Jack Stack who specializes in private dining, what makes the ribs there special.
“I like it to be a little bit firm,” Perez said. “People think it’s supposed to fall apart on you, like pulled pork, but no, it needs to have a little bite to it.”
To get that texture, the pitmaster comes into the restaurant around 4 a.m., depending on the day of the week. His first move is checking all the meat that was loaded into the smoker the night before. He takes the meat out.
The chef then lightly seasons the baby back ribs, just a sprinkling, and puts the meat in the smoker for about 3 and a half hours, sometimes more.
They don’t use thermometers to check if the meat is ready. Instead they touch every one to make sure it has the right bounce.
Then they slather on the barbecue sauce.
I did not ask Hawley which ribs he liked from Jack Stack, because I naively assumed there would only be one type on the menu. When I go out and get barbecue I generally get brisket, pulled pork or — when in Kansas City — burnt ends.
I’m not much of a judge. I generally like any barbecue I can get my hands on. My experience with ribs is largely limited to whatever my father grilled growing up.
So far I’ve tried Gates Bar-B-Q, at the recommendation of Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat. I’ve tried Slap’s BBQ in Kansas City, Kansas, at the recommendation of my editor, and Q39 in midtown.
Next time I’m back, I’ll try Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque, a favorite of Missouri Sen. Eric Schmitt. Hawley was dismissive of Schmitt’s choice, pointing out that the junior senator was from the other side of the state.
My weakly held position on barbecue may be sacrilege in Kansas City, where it feels like opinions on the city’s best barbecue could break up families.
When I asked Perez whether those same rivalries exist for the people who work at the barbecue spots, he immediately agreed.
“Oh, yes,” he said. The thing he thinks sets Jack Stack apart from its rivals? The beans.
“Nobody in town beats us on our beans,” he said.
Jack Stack’s Freight House restaurant, 101 W. 22nd St., #300, is one of six locations in the Kansas City metro.