At Gates Bar-B-Q, The Ultimate Flavor Lies in Burnt Ends

The brisket and ribs are on the fire at Gates Bar-B-Q for ... as long as it takes. i i

The brisket and ribs are on the fire at Gates Bar-B-Q for ... as long as it takes. Tom Bullock/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Tom Bullock/NPR
The brisket and ribs are on the fire at Gates Bar-B-Q for ... as long as it takes.

The brisket and ribs are on the fire at Gates Bar-B-Q for ... as long as it takes.

Tom Bullock/NPR

How do you know you're in Kansas City, Missouri? Follow the smoke, and listen for this:

"Hi, may I help you?"

At the famed Gates Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, "May I help you?" is a kind of mantra.

It's how people standing in front of the barbecue pits greet all who walk in the door, while ribs, brisket, turkey, and for all I know, pillow stuffing sizzle, pop, and get saturated with smoke and the signature sauce of Ollie Gates, the barbecue master.

"We've been around a long time," Gates says. "We first started in Kansas City there was probably six shacks by the tracks, BBQ joints, as we'd call them."

But times have changed. His restaurants are no joints, and his style of cooking has made Kansas City barbecue a regional cuisine that's known worldwide.

He didn't set out to make barbecue legit.

Ollie Gates just thought that a man shouldn't have to worry about bugs to eat good barbecue, so he stresses keeping his places clean. His employees wear white shirts, which stay remarkably unsplotched, and even ties. The show is in the smoke and sauce.

Gates uses closed pits, which trap the smoke and keeps it wafting through the brisket, or turkey or ribs instead of through your shirt, eyes and hair.

But what brought us to Gates is their specialty: burnt ends. To some people, burnt ends would be — forgive this phrase — butt ugly. The meat is placed directly over fire, and stays there to get black and blistered.

Now some people might look at the black, blistered stuff and say, "Whoa! That goes in the dog's dish!" But Gates says that's where the flavor is deepest and smokiest.

"That's the one that's next to the wood, that's the one where you really get the flavor."

Another feature, in these days of molecular gastronomy in which foods are immersed in baths and evaporators and timed to the second, like a spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere, is that the brisket and ribs are on the fire at Gates for ... as long as it takes.

There are no timers or buzzers; just look, feel, and experience. The cooks here know a rack of ribs is ready when it's cooked so tender you can fold it over like a beautifully worked baseball glove.

These days Gates Bar-B-Cue is even more modern. Ollie Gates oversees his operation from a wood paneled room in one of his six restaurants, instead of the pits. Gates has been in business for six decadecs, but makes occasional minor menu adjustments to fit the times.

"Well, we have vegetables that we barbecue, we put them in the pit," he says. "In fact, our barbecue sauce sauce tastes great on greens. Tastes great on broccoli."

But would even Paul McCartney go to Gates just for the broccoli?

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