WORDS: KIMBERLY WINTER STERN
Visually, Woodyard Bar-b-que on Merriam Lane in Kansas City, Kan., is everything the uninitiated expect when it comes to Kansas City’s popular cuisine.
Homey and quaint — you might even say homely, as no interior decorator has gussied up the breadbox-sized dining room or any other area of the two-building complex for that matter. And hopefully never will. Friendly — there’s aproned Shirley behind the register, taking orders with a gracious charm, ready to serve up a mess of food to satisfy your hunger.
Woodyard is smelly, too, but in a good way. The air is thick with the pungent aroma of white oak and hickory wood — perhaps a hint of pecan? — that pit master Mark O’Bryan has been stoking the outdoor brick smoker with for seven years. The metal doors clang constantly as the barbecue maestro glides back and forth in front of the behemoth contraption, sticking a thermometer into slabs of baby backs on this rack, rotating chicken, grabbing sausages with heat-scarred tongs from that rack, monitoring the fire from below like a mama bear watches her cubs.
Sunday is a day of rest for Woodyard. The pit is cleaned and readied for another six days of low and slow cooking, but that divine, nose-assaulting savory essence never disappears.
Of course, regular imbibers of KC’s Holy Grail of cuisine know you can chow down in any number of barbecue stands across the metro and encounter décor ranging from hipped up and corporate to sleek and modern to roadside humble … and everything in between.
Woodyard just happens to feel like home. The ‘cue is good, the surroundings are a bonus. Rustic, unglossed, sit-down-and-stay-awhile. Like a party might break out any second.
It’s 9:30 a.m. Saturday morning and Woodyard’s business is brisk. One of the proprietors, Frank Schloegel, is holding court in the barbecue joint’s modest front room and he’s clearly in his element. At 71, the jolly redhead sporting a logoed Woodyard ball cap exchanges rapid-fire quips with customers lining up to purchase wood for home barbecue adventures.
“What’re you buying today? Oh, hickory. Yeah, that’s good.” “You come in for barbecue or wood? Yep, we sell both.”
At one point Schloegel jokes with a quartet of men fresh off Interstate 35, crumbs still clinging to their lips from donuts consumed on a road trip from Des Moines. Grown-up fraternity brothers, the group is in KC for a day of ‘cue tasting, beer sampling and baseball watching.
“You came here first, at 10:30 a.m.?” Schloegel crows, plainly pleased that Woodyard is the first stop on their 24-hour odyssey. Feeling generous, he offers his hat (the sales tag still dangles from the back) if they can guess the number he’s thinking of between one and 10. One of the Iowans, a cold Boulevard already in his clutches, shouts out “Three!”
Bingo. Schloegel tosses the cap over, extending his meaty hand. “Enjoy your day, boys.”
Woodyard Bar-b-que has arrived — Guy Fieri, the bleached-blonde, soul-patched, sunglass-sporting enthusiastic explorer of Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” rolled into the gravel parking lot in his convertible last year. He bounced around the place, chatting with Schloegel and saucy-faced customers, even getting O’Bryan to make a batch of Woodyard’s proprietary rub.
“Heck, I’m not worried we shared our recipe on national television,” says Schloegel. “We didn’t give proportions. Just ingredients.”
And then the bourbon-swilling, sharp-tongued food god Anthony Bourdain of the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” wanted to film breaking bread and chewing the fat with Frank and company. Problem was, Schloegel didn’t have a clue about Bourdain.
“I talked to friends,” he laughs. “Found out Anthony is a very big deal.”
But Schloegel isn’t all big-headed over the attention and props. In fact, he’s amused.
“We’re on the map?” he asks, a sly grin lighting up his face.
Woodyard has turned into a mecca of the city’s signature siren smoke, just like Arthur Bryant’s, Gates, Jack Stack, LC’s, Oklahoma Joe’s and the scads of other large and small Kansas City-area barbecue operations. Fitting for a place that for 99 years has provided wood to KC builders, “barbecuepreneurs” and consumers and now makes food so good the likes of Fieri and Bourdain are curious and ‘cue masters are spied eating ribs coming hot off the brick smoker. Travelers with other destinations in mind jump off I-35 to see what the hubbub is about … like the father-son duo wandering in this Saturday morning, bound for North Carolina. They saw Woodyard on Fieri’s show and are giddy to soak in the surroundings, snap an iPhone pic of O’Bryan pulling slabs from the pit and settling in with baskets of potato wedges and pulled pork sandwiches, which they eventually do, leaving them temporarily under the influence.
Expanding on Woodyard’s eclectic history: it started out as a bona fide wood yard eons ago, selling cords and bags to barbecue business owners and home cooks to people with wood-burning fireplaces.
When gas logs snuffed the profitability of peddling wood, Schloegel turned to something he loved like his wife and kids —barbecue and feeding people. He hired family and friends — O’Bryan is a cousin and most everyone working there is somehow related, except Ciaran Molloy, another proprietor whom Schloegel handpicked. Molloy is Woodyard’s gregarious operations, PR and all-around dispenser-of-restaurant-knowledge man. Friend Joe Daly, a landscape architect, rounds out the trio of owners, partnering up with Schloegel years ago.
Woodyard carries five varieties of wood — apple, cherry, hickory, oak and pecan. Today there are folks like Peyton Leslie from Piper, Kan., picking up hickory and a few sticks of pecan, and Homer Brocker from Shawnee is planning to barbecue ribs for dinner using the bag of hickory slung over his shoulder. His pre-teen sons will put away a slab each.
“They destroy them,” Brocker grins.
It’s nearly noon and customers pack Woodyard’s outside picnic tables and dining room chairs, preparing for a non-denominational Saturday communion. Once the food arrives and is plunked down there’s not a lot of conversation. Holy, smoky silence.
That’s the real reason anyone visits a barbecue joint — the ribs, pulled pork chicken, turkey, caramelized burnt ends, the United Nations of meats slapped between buns. The pump bottles with hot, mild and sweet sauces. The drips of juice wiped from chins with thin paper napkins. The savoring of a tradition, a cultural icon, a chance to be one with the ‘cue.
Pulled Pork Sandwich
Kansas City, Kan.
The juju is darned good at this wood yard-turned-cue stand — and so is the meat and salmon that fastidious pit master Mark O’Bryan coaxes to smoked perfection. The Pulled Pork Sandwich is exalted by Woodyard groupies as one of the best around and its moist, flavorful pedigree is memorable. Order up some of the restaurant’s red-skinned potato salad to accompany your sandwich for a true ‘cue epiphany.