Kansas City is a town where folks dream about barbecue. Some dream big — of winning the American Royal World Series of Barbecue grand championship, or opening a restaurant. Sometimes those dreams even come true. They certainly did for Jeff and Joy Stehney, owners of Oklahoma Joe’s Bar-B-Que. The couple bought their first smoker 21 years ago and went on to rack up barbecue competition titles, including that coveted American Royal one.
They began catering and then in 1996 opened a restaurant in a gas station at 47th Street and Mission Road in Kansas City, Kan. They weren’t trying to be hip; the station simply had the space they needed.
We lived nearby at the time and were thrilled to have a neighborhood ’cue joint, especially one that served addictively spiced, just-crunchy-enough fries. Word spread, and before long lines stretched to the door. Then, in 2002, Kansas City Star food editor Jill Silva took Anthony Bourdain to lunch at Oklahoma Joe’s.
Bourdain was in Kansas City to promote A Cook’s Tour (Bloomsbury, 2001), and he later returned to film an episode of his “A Cook’s Tour” show on the Cooking Channel. In 2009, Bourdain included Oklahoma Joe’s on his list of “13 Places to Eat Before You Die” for Men’s Health Magazine.
“Bourdain’s article did for us what Calvin Trillin did for Arthur Bryant’s (Barbecue),” Stehney says.
Of course, it wasn’t just Bourdain. Top Zagat ratings, mentions in other national media, the advent of social media and a loyal local following also helped.
It’s made for a wild ride, but the Stehneys haven’t lost sight of their biggest dream: making people happy in a comfortable atmosphere and cooking the best barbecue they can.
They always knew they’d expand, says Jeff Stehney, and in 2005 they opened a second Oklahoma Joe’s at 119th Street and Strang Line Road in Olathe. In July, they added a third and final restaurant at 117th Street and Roe Avenue in Leawood.
“Johnson County is our ideal marketplace,” he says. “Our customer is the average Johnson County family.”
The Leawood location is larger than the original, with ample parking and a patio, but it captures the same feel with its corrugated metal and weathered barn wood decor, paper towel rolls on tables in lieu of napkins and photo-covered walls.
“I can tell you a story about every single picture,” Stehney says. “I either took them, or I was the one who cooked the food, or I was eating at the restaurant. Those photos mean a lot to me.”
The menus also familiar. Sandwiches ($5.09 to $7.59) showcase Oklahoma Joe’s pulled pork, turkey, ham, beef brisket and sausage, but you don’t have to stop at just meat. There’s the Carolina pork sandwich, where spicy cole slaw and Bubba sauce top a mound of pulled pork, and the Z-Man, made with brisket, smoked provolone cheese and onion rings on a Kaiser roll.
Dinners ($8.79 to $22.59) run from chicken, ribs and single meats to almost any combination you’d like, along with one side dish and Texas toast. The side dishes ($2.39 for a side serving, but also available by the cup, pint, quart and half-gallon) aren’t an afterthought, though. The barbecue beans, potato salad, creamy cole slaw, spicy slaw, dirty rice and red beans and rice are as well-executed as the meats.
There’s also smoked chicken gumbo ($3.29 as a side, also available by the cup, pint and quart), onion rings ($4.79) and those fries ($2.79). A kids’ menu offers a sandwich or hot dog, fries and a drink for $4.49.
Stehney’s expanded the menu to include salads ($7.79) that top greens with pulled pork, smoked chicken and other meats. Seafood might be next: Stehney says he’s experimenting with dishes like the soft shell po’ boy the restaurants have in past years offered during Lent.
He spends most days at the 47th Street restaurant, while Joy Stehney regularly works on the line at all three locations. They enjoy tinkering with recipes, connecting with customers and figuring out how to make it all better. Dreaming, you even might call it.
Anne Brockhoff is a regular contributor to FYI/Food. She blogs at fooddrinklife.wordpress.