First rule of Kansas City-style barbecue: Do NOT ask for cornbread. In the world of regional American barbecue, specifically Kansas City, Missouri, it’s as sacred as the first rule of Fight Club: You don’t have cornbread with barbecue. There’s a subculture around barbecue styles, and the preferred way to enjoy it, and when it comes to the Midwest, Stan Phillips knows best.
So, why no cornbread? Phillips, a Kansas City native and owner/pit master of the eponymous Stan’s Bar-B-Q in Issaquah, explains barbecue the way a sommelier would describe the savoring of a fine wine. It’s about the appreciation of the meat, the ability to recognize hardwood smoke, and the dry rub seasonings that enhance but not overpower the flavor. Cornbread’s sweetness can be distracting, so a slice of plain white sandwich bread is a staple alongside plates of barbecue in Kansas City. “The white bread takes away the flavor of the sauce so you can still taste the meat,” Phillips explained. “You’re supposed to take a bite of the white bread; it’s like a palate cleanser.”
He goes on to describe the importance of dipping the smoked meats into the side of sauce. Pouring it over everything is a barbecue faux pas. “My dad always said, ‘If you have to put sauce on it, you’re hiding something.’” Phillips emphasizes the importance of the meat’s quality and the necessity of having a thick enough cut with a high fat content to baste as it slowly cooks. And don’t you dare open the smoker door! That affects the constant temperature and allows in air, which dries everything out. So continue the lessons of Kansas City Barbecue 101.
Walking into the restaurant, before Stan or one of his staff can holler a friendly “Hello!” your senses are struck with the heady, savory perfume of smoking hickory wood, which Phillips ships in from Missouri. Not as burly as Texas-style mesquite, the hickory adds that just-right amount of smoke, which Phillips notes is key to great Kansas City barbecue. The baby back ribs, which he considers “the filet mignon of ribs,” cook for nearly four hours in the restaurant’s smokers. That hardwood flavor infuses itself into a 14-hour brisket, a pork shoulder that falls apart into buttery shreds, and specialty items exclusive to weekends — chicken wings and meatballs — that sell out within hours
“My dad always said, ‘If you have to put sauce on it, you’re hiding something.’”
During the holidays, Stan’s smokes turkey and ham, which are sliced for sandwiches, and for longtime patrons and those in-the-know, their names are already on this year’s list to order a whole smoked bird for Thanksgiving.
A corporate career in sales took Phillips all over the country for years. He developed his palate to appreciate the barbecue styles of Texas, the Carolinas, and the South, but when he found himself in the Northwest, ready to graduate his culinary hobby to professional pit master, instinct told him it needed to be what he knew and loved best. His restaurant not only honors his Midwestern roots, but also the beloved legacy of his father, Bill “Pops” Phillips, whose photo hangs with prominence at the restaurant, capturing a moment of him tending to the backyard family smoker like so many weekends from Phillips’ childhood.
“Barbecuing was an event at our house,” Phillips said. “It brings family together. We were constantly having people at the house.” This family atmosphere lives on through the menu: The dry rub is a variation of his father’s original recipe, the baked beans are an aunt’s recipe, and the creamed corn is one of his own creations.
It’s fitting that a restaurant rooted in family and community is housed in Issaquah’s historic Independent Order of Odd Fellows Hall, built in 1888. A social center for plays, dances, and the first “moving picture shows” of the Eastside, it continues to be a gathering spot for daily lunch crowds and weekends packed with football fans eager to cheer with fellow Kansas City Chiefs followers. Don’t worry — Seahawks fans are equally welcome — and coach Pete Carroll is a regular. Stan’s often caters team events
“I’m a lucky person; I get to do my passion,” Phillips said about the restaurant, now in its 14th year. “What feels nice is when people walk in and the first thing they say is, ‘It smells so great!’ I love hearing that; I never get tired of it. People from Kansas City are like, ‘It’s just like home.’”
And perhaps that’s the secret recipe that’s kept people walking through the door since day one: a rich family tradition, Midwestern charm, and true Kansas City loyalty. “There’s no place like home — click your heels together, and you’re right back in Missouri!”
Bar-B-Q & A
Q. What’s “Arrowhead West”?
Nickname of Stan’s Bar-B-Q, named after Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium after being featured in a Kansas City Chiefs documentary, available on chiefs.com.
Q. Is barbecue a summer food?
Despite the tendency to enjoy barbecue in summer, Phillips insists it’s a way of life. “We went for barbecue in November, January, February — it didn’t matter. We used to drive through snowstorms to go to our favorite places.”
Q. There’s a sandwich called “The Commander in Chief?”
Named after owner Stan Phillips, it’s his favorite sandwich — a combination of brisket and ham — with a side of hot sauce for dipping. Don’t forget the creamed corn.