Right On Cue

The late, great Sutton's.

The late, great Sutton’s.


You gotta be kidding! You might get away with boldly declaring your favorite pizza parlor or Tex-Mex Margaritaville. But barbecue is religion. And when people try to crown the king of barbecue joints, the witness protection system swells. People will be coming to hunt you down if they disagree. The only safe way to talk about the world’s greatest barbecue joint is to speak about the past.

We heard that Lonnie Ray’s BBQ has closed, and more than a few CoMo connoisseurs are worried. Lonnie Ray’s cuts to the essence of good barbecue: Sure, its location is inconvenient for city slickers. The décor is daunting if you’re on a first date, and your only option at the cash register is cash. Forget the inconvenience. It’s all about flavor.

Lonnie Ray’s, we miss you.
Right in the heart of Columbia, when the wind was blowing right, I could smell the smoker at Sutton’s. From that neighborhood barbecue kitchen, the aroma would waft across my olfactory and lure me to its sweetness. Nothing fancy, just good barbecue.

Sutton’s went to that Big Barbecue Shack in the Sky. But Columbia’s roster of great BBQ remains as inviting as the goodness pouring from the smokers that dot our landscape.

Missouri is the epicenter of great barbecue, even though Missouri ’Q seems like the world’s best-kept secret.

Case in point: Visit a barbecue joint in Denver or Dallas or Chicago. Order a pork steak. The server will offer a blank stare. Funny thing, pork steaks. Missourians take for granted that the world enjoys them. But outside a hundred-mile radius of Columbia, only a half slab of barbecue lovers ever heard of a pork steak. Some people might respond if you said “sliced pork butt.” But why call them that? They’re pork steaks.

Like pork steaks, barbecue is a regional specialty. Everybody south of the Mason-Dixon line believes they have the best barbecue: Carolina, Georgia, Memphis. Texans, bless ’em, are no different, just more obnoxious about it. They think they originated barbecue.

Let ’em think what they want. Missourians settled Texas. Moses Austin left his Missouri home to lead the first Anglo settlers to San Antonio. And his son Stephen, the “Father of Texas” grew up roaming the Missouri Ozarks; Stephen even served in the Missouri Legislature. South of Moses’ Missouri homestead, deep in the Ozarks, Dean’s Barbecue in Eminence was the prototype for Missouri barbecue. The quintessential hillbilly shack, Dean’s was built of timber steeped in wood smoke and Ozark culture. Customers sat on rough-hewn benches, surrounded by log walls with few windows, no frills, just good barbecue experience, washed down with your favorite nectar from a fruit jar.

Here’s the point: When it comes to barbecue, forget the packaging. Forget the bragging. As Will Shakespeare said, “The food’s the thing.” Well, maybe he didn’t say that. But he would have said it if he’d tasted the best barbecue in London.

Finding barbecue in London is nearly as likely as finding London bobbies in Boonville. But London boasts one world-class barbecue restaurant, and its roots are in the Show-Me State. Bodean’s BBQ is a whole lot of Kansas City packed into a Soho restaurant. The owners even broadcast Kansas City Chiefs football. Granted, some Missourians get weary of Kansas City’s barbecue snobbery, but KC helps uphold Missouri’s ’Q superiority.

Consider this: A few years back, Los Angeles threw a big food party, and Missouri barbecue stole the show. Here’s the inside scoop: At the last minute, Gourmet magazine invited the Missouri Division of Tourism to shove a favorite Show-Me State dish under the noses of hundreds of food snobs at Gourmet’s international food show in Los Angeles. So we sent barbecue.

Three Kansas City rib shacks packed a hundred slabs in dry ice and overnighted them to the City of Angels. Many attendees had never tasted real barbecue before, and word spread through the crowd like a mesquite wildfire. Lines of barbecue seekers snaked out of the Staples Center and around the block.

KC tries to own the “world’s greatest BBQ” crown. But we know that with enough prep time, we could have shipped from barbecue greats right here in Boone County.

Which three would you count as “best”?

Just remember, if you reveal your favorite barbecue joint, say hello to the witness protection program.