Grub on the I-35: Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que and The Salt Lick

Ribs+and+more+at+Joe%E2%80%99s+Kansas+City+Bar-B-Que.+Photo+by+Will+Matsuda+%E2%80%9915.

Ribs and more at Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que. Photo by Will Matsuda ’15.

Ribs and more at Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que. Photo by Will Matsuda ’15.
Ribs and more at Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que. Photo by Will Matsuda ’15.

Dearest readers,

Over the course of the semester, you have come to trust me to inform you of delicious food along the Green Line. However, the reality of life cannot always accommodate this task. Not every meal you eat can be located along one light rail line. Sometimes life hands you the wheel to a car, a place to stay in Texas, and a long drive down I-35.

And while I undoubtedly will continue to inform you about the culinary exploits occurring on University Avenue, today’s tale of food takes us a little bit further. First, we go to the Paris of the Plains, Kansas City, and then to the backwoods of Texas to a little town called Driftwood. It was in these two cities that my culinary-life views changed forever. Because in these towns, I found two beacons shining, luring me to their dangers like sirens singing on rocky shores. These two places were Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que and The Salt Lick.

I won’t lie to you, for someone coming from the Northeast and going to school in the Midwest, I’ve always felt I lived a blessed barbecue life. I’ve sampled and delighted in pork ribs and beef ribs, pulled pork, whole hog, beef brisket and smoked sausage. Yet recently, I learned that everything I thought I knew was a sham.

Everything changed when I first bit into the pork ribs at Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que. Joe’s used to be a gas station, and technically speaking, it still is. There are two pumps outside for all your refueling needs, but the interior space has been taken over by something much sweeter smelling than gasoline. When you get there, you’re going to wait in a line, stretching out the door. You might be tempted to leave after your long drive on I-35, but stay strong, weary traveler, the line moves quickly.

When you bite into those ribs, you won’t know which way is up and which is down. They were incredibly tender, with a little bit of fight. The meat didn’t sag off the bone, but it fell right off. They were somehow sweet, savory, smoky and a little bit spicy. The complexity of the flavors was unparalleled. Our entire group stopped speaking for minutes while we devoured this porky deliciousness. And though the ribs were the best part, the pulled pork was incredibly tender, and the baked beans were smoky, meaty and piping hot. This was one of the best meals I have ever eaten. If I had turned around and headed back north to Minnesota, I would have been happy with the journey. Instead, we got back on I-35, headed south to Driftwood, Texas.

It was in this small little town, some 12 hours south of Kansas City, in the great sovereign state of Texas, that I had another barbecue epiphany. It occurred at the enormous resort and restaurant mega-retreat called The Salt Lick. With multiple rooms, each with the ability to host a couple hundred people, The Salt Lick will go through 12,000 pounds of meat on a busy summer weekend. This is truly a massive undertaking, yet the quantity does not diminish the quality, especially when it comes to their brisket.

This brisket was hefty, with two large slabs of beef. It was tender, falling apart with just the lightest kiss from the side of a fork. And most importantly, it was delicious. The beefiness was prominent throughout. The smokiness of the wood imparted a delicious flavor into the meat that added depth and complexity to the straightforwardness that is two large slabs of beef. Though the other meats and sides at the Salt Lick were absolutely fantastic, the brisket was the real star of the show.

My journey down I-35 focused on eating: I had my first In-n-Out burger, some more succulent barbecue, Lonestar Beer (the national beer of Texas) and many more wonderful meals. That said, these two locations were unparalleled throughout my week in the South. Barbecue has always had a special place in my heart. On this journey to the great sovereign state of Texas, I learned just how important it is to me. And more importantly, I learned just how delicious it can be.