For the past couple of weekends, I've stopped by Bryant's to pick a beef and pork combo sandwich. Partially because I was hungry, and partially because I wanted to do some comparisons and reviews. Inconsistency has been one of the biggest recent complaints I've heard from friends and family who are fans of Bryant's, but I've loved their BBQ off and on for the past 15 years, and didn't want to write the place off based on what others had to say. I haven't been there with any regularity in quite a while, with the exception of an occasional sausage plate over at the casino location. Mainly because I started doing my own BBQ, with some moderate to great success, and eating at places like LC's and Jack Stack when I'd have to eat out with family or out of town guests. I'd go to Gates more often for the convenience factor, but there is something just fundamentally flawed with a BBQ place that doesn't serve pulled or sliced pork. And the yelling thing really gets on my nerves, campy tradition or not.
Basically, I went in really, really, really wanting to love what I ordered. Maybe to the point (okay, definitely to the point) of being overly biased. And because of that bias, I won't write Bryant's off as a future Saturday afternoon stop, but after the past two experiences I have to agree that inconsistency is a big issue. A big enough issue to never recommend it as a destination for anyone who doesn't live in KC, and just needs to try it to cross it off their checklist.
To state the positives up front, I don't know where else you'll find a BIGGER combo sandwich than Bryant's. It's a giant, gut busting monster. And for those who enjoy the location and atmosphere, it is still fully intact. I love their sauce too. LOVE it. Which isn't the norm I guess. Maybe I'm just a sucker for an overdose of vinegar and paprika.
As far as the food itself, I got the same thing both times so that I could give the best comparison. As a disclaimer; I judge restaurant BBQ as harshly as I judge my own....so I'm pretty strict. There really isn't any joint in KC that consistently makes me go "OH MY GOD THAT'S INCREDIBLE!" anymore, but there are still things I really like to eat. On my Bryant's visit last week, the beef seemed to be of a lower quality overall, or at the very least, undercooked. Not inedible by any means, but a bit chewy and stringy at times. It was sliced thin enough, and should have come apart without having to tug on it, but had an undeniable elastic quality. Decent flavor, bad texture. The pork on the other hand, was sliced a little too thickly, but was very tender. There wasn't very much smoke flavor in either of the meats, but the beef may have had the slight edge in that respect. Not a horrible sandwich, but definitely quantity over quality. I was still willing to give it one more try yesterday.
On yesterday's visit, the beef was an improvement. Sliced thinly, and more tender than last time. Not bad in comparison to someplace like Wyandotte BBQ, and I only use them as an example because I don't think they ever have ANY discernible smoke flavor in their beef (good and cheap though, and amazing fries), but nothing I couldn't make at home. And the person who put my sandwich together included a BIG section of meat that was connected to a piece of the fat cap and membrane that should have been trimmed and discarded. Pretty big, and totally inedible. No way they could have missed throwing that in the sandwich. The pork on the other hand, was bad. Inconsistently sliced, with some very thick slices and others that were so thin they didn't stay together. No big deal there, but it was severely undercooked to the point of some of it being pinkish. Not smoke ring pink, and not "don't be paranoid about pork tenderloin being pink in the middle" pink......very undercooked and watery/juicy pink, with a pretty noticeable raw, metallic flavor. Don't know if someone just got in a hurry pulling that butt out of the pit or what, but I didn't finish it. I'm not a fan of trying to saw my teeth through undercooked sliced pork.
So there you have it. Long-winded and honestly as unbiased as I know how to be. I really want to love Bryant's, so even though I'm admittedly biased in their favor in that respect, I have to say that from these two visits I find them falling very short of reasonable expectations. Once you have taken the time to get your technique down, there isn't any reason you should not be able to reproduce the exact same plate of food every single time. And I think they have been in business long enough to be able to do that.
An interesting side-note worth mentioning is who initially took my order yesterday (just took the order, didn't make the sandwich). I'm 90% sure that it was the guy who hosts All American Festivals on FoodTV. As you can imagine, I didn't have to play "which of these guys is not like the other" when looking behind the counter. He kind of stuck out. It looks like they were wrapping up filming as I was walking in, and if it was him, my assumption is that the segment will be part of a BBQ show that will air in May. At the Royal this year, a buddy of mine who had his spot right across from ours, had a FoodTV crew spending a lot of time with him, and they said it was for a program around that time. Didn't think to ask him. I was too busy trying to figure out what in the hell some well groomed white guy was doing wearing a Bryant's apron, and then he was gone.
Anyway, maybe this ramble can at least serve as a point of reference for future visiting hounds asking about Bryant's. I'm not out to slam the place at all, or add fuel to that fire. My hope was to remain an undying fan.