Less than a week ago, I was tearing up and down I-35 with my father and brother, gorging on brisket and ribs around Austin. This week, I’ve been doing the same thing, only minus my family and 700 miles north, in and around Kansas City.
The minute I was handed the keys to my rental car, I drove directly to Woodyard Bar-B-Que, just across the Kansas border. The day was sunny and crisp, perfect barbecue weather.
Woodyard started as a wood yard in 1912, under the Southside Patio & Wood Company banner, with Frank Schloegel selling cords of hickory, cherry, apple, pecan and pinon to barbecue places around town. They still do, led by Frank Schloegel III. Several years back, Frank III decided to keep some wood and cook ‘cue himself. For awhile, it was a rogue operation, but he made it official in 2001. He’s since partnered with Robin Sirna.
For a long time, Woodyard had the same pitmaster, until he got in a bad car wreck last fall. Mark O’Bryan, the Saturday pitman, took over full time in November 2006. Thankfully, O’Bryan’s predecessor survived, and O’Bryan is producing noteworthy ‘cue. O’Bryan grew up on barbecue in Kansas City. His father and brothers all tended to smokers. As O’Bryan said, “It wasn’t exactly a big stab” that he became a pitmaster.
On Mondays, it’s “Pitmaster’s Pick.” Thursdays, expect the Woodyard Club: smoked ham, turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo. On Fridays, O’Bryan smokes salmon with pecan wood, which gets served on a bun with dill and cream cheese. Every Thursday until last week, Woodyard was selling a locally famous chili, which they loaded with burnt ends of brisket. This week, the owners decided it was getting too warm, so they discontinued their chili until the end of the year. The man in front of me at the counter was crestfallen when he learned he had to wait until fall to get the chili again.
O’Bryan said people visit, asking him how to cook barbecue and for a specific temperature to cook the meat. He just tells them “Three hundred to three hundred fifty degrees,” though he’s not really sure. He begins cooking his meats at 8 a.m. every day but Sunday, sometimes earlier. He’s become taken with pecan wood, since it has a “mellow” flavor, thinks hickory can overpower the meat. He still incorporates hickory, apple and cherry, depending on how he’s feeling.
I asked O’Bryan what he likes to eat. He said he nibbles some throughout the day, but “Some days I can’t even look at it.” I have a gelato maker friend who feels the same way. I guess even a superior product can become routine if you have it every day.
O’Bryan was generous with his barbecue knowledge, so I kept asking questions. I told O’Bryan that I live in Los Angeles, where there’s zero authentic barbecue. He knew the reason right away. “They don’t have the wood.” He says Kansas City has such good barbecue because it’s close to the “Eastern forest.” He said when there’s no wood, “barbecue” restaurants attempt to recreate the flavor using things like hickory extract, cooking the meat in ovens. It’s not barbecue. Makes sense.
I spent a long time speaking with co-owner Robin Sirna, who was very friendly, and even joined me at my table. Robin said they’re not happy with beans yet.
I couldn’t tell much difference between the regular and hot sauces (marked with an H).
Woodyard might not have the history of some other Kansas City barbecue establishments, but it’s obvious Schloegel, Sirna and O’Bryan are serious about smoked meat. I was also happy to find such a friendly and genuine trio. With continued commitment to barbecue, I can imagine a day where Woodyard is known more for its smoked meat than for its wood supply.
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