Saturday, February 13, 2010

Gates Bar-B-Q: 1325 East Emanuel Cleaver Blvd.

Saturday, February 13, 2010
I'll tread lightly here; God knows I don't want to stir up the legions of opinionated white guys who staunchly argue about barbecue in various public forums around town. Regardless, Gates seems to have a lot of lovers and haters. I think people genuinely appreciate how long it has been around and how much Ollie Gates does in the community, but like so much else in Kansas City the place doesn't hold up under harsh scrutiny.

Gates

Like most barbecue joints, Gates does some things better than others. People swear by the burnt ends and they are widely considered a close second to LC's in terms of taste. I found the burnt ends to be incredibly disappointing. I don't think they were cooked properly because the taste of raw fat globules permeated the sandwich, rather than the delightful rendered fat flavor of LC's burnt ends. With the recent news that LC's has been shut down by the health department, we can only hope it comes back even better than before, sans rodents.

Burnt ends

Burnt ends

Compare the admittedly crappy photos above to these uploaded on flickr two years ago. It's not even close. A lack of consistency plagues both Gates and Bryant's in recent years, which may account for the meteoric rise in esteem for Oklahoma Joe's and Jack Stack, which are extremely reliable.

I am a huge fan of the beef at Gates. Again, I think that LC's has the slight edge here but it's still tender, smoky and full of rich beefy goodness. It is well-accompanied by that glorious Gates original barbecue sauce. Like many of the world's best food, Gates beef brisket tastes even better cold the next day. That's why I often get the large sandwich, which is pretty tough for most folks to put away in one sitting.

Beef sandwich

At lunch, Gates offers a pretty good deal: a small-ish sandwich on a bun with fries for something like $6.50. You just order the meat of your choice "on bun" and the fries are assumed. You can also get it on loaf bread if you want, you will just have to utter the preposterous order "beef on bun on bread." The sandwich is an appropriate size for lunch though I found the sliced pork too dry. I heartily recommend Arthur Bryant's for all of your sliced pork needs.

Pork on bun

People love Gates' fries. They actually have pleasing crunch and a decent potato flavor but are a little too processed tasting for my palate. A big plate of fries will also cost you something like $3.75 which seems a little steep.

I think Gates' sauce is the best in town, an assertion I'm relatively confident in, despite the fact that I have not been to every single BBQ joint in the metro. They have something like 4 different kinds but I like the original the best. Most of them taste very similar in my humble opinion. An employee working the dining rooms recommended the sweet and mild sauce for french fries.

I also like the ribs a great deal, though I haven't had them in a couple years. They don't overcook their ribs like many places in town do. The meat does not fall of the bone in stringy clumps which I, for one, appreciate. Like bacon, ribs should not be cooked to death.

This particular Gates location is the newest I believe, and is kind of a flagship location due to its proximity to the business headquarters across the intersection. I'll never fully understand the aesthetic of the Gates brand. The man with the cane depicted on Gates' signs calls to mind some sort of turn of the century dandy, or Louis Armstrong's "Struttin' with some Barbecue."

This location is laid out like an old-timey train station which sounds cool in theory but is kind of offputting. Rather than one large dining area, it is split into two small-ish, dark rooms with little fancy entrance doors and old photos on the wall.

Dining area

Dining area

While attractive enough a space, it sort of looks like someone's well-heeled grandmother decorated it. The center of the train station is a little island fashioned after a ticket window. It is perpetually un-staffed but it is theoretically where one obtains cocktails. But I have never seen anyone having mixed drinks at Gates.

The ordering process is a disaster. Shrieks of "Hi may I help you?" are ostensibly an invitation for you to place your order verbally but there is no guarantee that anyone is actually listening. Indeed they holler it out whether they are facing you or not, often in the middle of a conversation with another diner. It doesn't really matter, because by the time you get to the end of the line to pay, they won't remember what you ordered anyway.

Counter

I have been here a lot, and never once has my food been waiting for me at the register. Not once. The ladies behind the line who all are trained to adopt the creepy affectation of referring to each other as "Miss Jones" or " Miss Fredericks" or whatever, are constantly chattering among themselves and the worn down looking guys in back who actually assemble the food. If I was a betting man, I'd wager most of Gates service problems relate to the cooks not paying any goddamn attention, but that's just a theory. As you wait to pay, another woman asks you if you want "drinks, sides, fries or pies." I think this is the lowest person on the employee totem pole but they are usually the most efficient.

At lunch it is not unusual to spend 10 or 15 minutes in line. You will spend that time experiencing a rich mixture of mild annoyance, uneasiness and excitement, but you won't be bored. Just make sure you get what you ordered. If they screw something up, they will get it right and run it out to your table.

A lot of people mistake the service shenanigans as unfriendliness or rudeness.Nothing could be farther from the truth. When interacting with individual employees at Gates I have found them uniformly helpful, open and even funny. If they seem exasperated, just remember that you don't have to work in that crazy house of a kitchen. Chill out and wait for your barbecue.

Now it's time for you all to disagree with me.

14 comments:

Bull E. Vard said...

A simple Gates ham on bun might be the finest lunch in town. Like you, I don't think much of the sliced pork and I don't typically go for beef. I really enjoy the fries dipped in either the spicy or sweet and mild sauces. The ham sandwich with any of the sauces is always spot on.

The "May I help you" thing is played out and annoying. I really hate people talking at me and not to me and god forbid you don't order when they are actually speaking to you. I just find it off putting. If that's how they want to serve people, I'd just as soon not speak to anyone while I'm there. But, once you get seated in one of the dining rooms the employees are, just like you wrote, uniformly helpful, kind and friendly.

I would say Gates has been surpassed by the newer better Jack Stack or Oklahoma Joes. I would compare it to the last couple of years of the Johnny Carson Tonight Show. You still watched it, but the Zsa Zsa Gabor jokes were too much and you just tried to think of the good times of the show. You start experimenting with the Conan's and Letterman's (LC's and Oklahoma Joe's) but it's good to go back to Carson every once in a while.

m.v. said...

After I got yelled at the first time I never went back. You can only yell at me if I am allowed to yell "go fuck yourself" in return. Plus I don't like vinegar-based sauce ,nothing wrong with it just not my taste.

Thomas said...

With Gates, the highs are pretty high, but the lows are just flat disgusting. I've had more than my share of fatwiches, and it really makes it hard for me to muster enthusiasm for a return. (As far as I can tell, they really don't care if I like it.)

I do wonder who has been designing the Gates restaurants. The Linwood/Main location and the flagship are both just odd. It's as if they Gates didn't realize that there were people out there who design restaurants for a living. Did Ollie design these himself, or did someone take him?

Alex J. said...

I go back every once in a while for the "mutton". It's tough and fatty, but smoked lamb. Mmmm...

PV Pathfinder said...

The meat is pretty inconsistent, but both the Sweet and Mild and the Hot sauces are pretty damn good!

The King said...

And here I thought I was alone - being the only person not liking fat sandwiches. Guess I'm not..

kate said...

I have to say, I think that Oklahoma Joe's is winning me over big time...Gates never really did it for me, but the last time I went there, it was pretty disappointing. Like you said, frustrating service up front, fatty food...nothing that bowled me over, that's for sure.

I'm a big fan of Johnny's BBQ in Mission, too - little family-owned joint, great meats, good sauce.

asriel said...

Last year, the burnt ends were fantastic every time. They were crispy and well-rendered - no chunks of fat. This year, my sandwich was half meat and half fat. I guess I'll be going to Oklahoma Joe's now that LC's is closed...

JJSKCK said...

I have had every Gates experience listed in the comments above. At its best, it is delicious. My last visit was toward the end of the summer before a Royals game, and it was wonderful--enough so that it momentarily made me kick myself for not going there more often. Then I remembered the sandwich o' fat from 6 months before, and the overcooked, nearly unchewable burnt ends the time before that.

The service thing has become a parody of itself; they think it's such a trademark that it needs to keep happening. (It doesn't.)

Look, I know how people get about barbecue in KC. I've seen it when you've posted about LC's or OkJoe's.

But I just can't fathom how someone can call Gates the best in town--and you nailed the reason why.

The DLC said...

Incidentally the last time I was there they were out of burnt ends at 11:45am. That tells me someone didn't make them that day or that they weren't done yet. Is anyone in charge at this place?

Ed said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one that has had horrible consistency problems at Bryant's (the one time I went there, I didn't even finish my meal it was so full of fat). I've never really liked Gates, and you nailed some of the reasons why.
LC's closed for health problems? That's not cool. One place we enjoy.

Mary Bloch said...

Nothing to disagree with! I much prefer Oklahoma Joe's--Danny Edwards is also a favorite. I just wish they were open for dinner.

jan.preston said...

I find it odd there are such widely varing opinions on this topic. Nothing about Gates sauce appeals to me(nothing about Gates((fat)) appeals to me), it is so loaded with celery seed/salt that is all I taste maybe because the vinegar in it brings it to the forefront. I enjoy ribs from either RJ's or BB's. Bryant's and LC's are both hard to top for beef though Oklahoma Joes is good also. I'm not a fan of pulled pork-I think the flavor just gets cooked out of it but I'm with those that think that Oklahoma Joe's has that market cornered. I'm a burnt end/sausage gal myself-I like it chewy and spicy. Give me some LC's burnt ends or some Wabash or Oklahoma Joe's sausage with some Night of the Living sauce and that would be hog heaven for me. And, honorable mention to Smokehouse. (oh, and Jack Stack has good Q but why pay that much when there is gooder-cheeper)

Sarah said...

Gates and Arthur Bryants are the highest profile to be sure, but there are so many better BBQ joints all over this town. I know I'm going to sound like a girl here, but the smoked turkey sandwich at LC's is my favorite sandwich of all time. I could eat them every day - the turkey is sliced thin, the flavor is great and the sauce is just the right mixture of sweet and vinegar with the turkey. And I'm surprising myself here, but somehow I like LC's enough that I don't care about the rodent related closing - I'm still going to stop there on the way to Royals games all summer and get their fries (which are far better than Gates), and the turkey sandwich.

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