600 W. Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego
Where’s a better place to start a San Diego barbecue excursion than Kansas City Barbeque (600 W. Harbor Drive), the place most famous for appearing in the movie Top Gun? There’s no escaping the anecdote about how the film’s producers popped in for a beer, and ending up liking the place so much they worked it into the movie. Of course, that also means that KC has been around since the Eighties, when SD’s downtown restau scene thrived much less than it does now. The place burned down in 2008, but a restoration brought it straight back to the mid-80’s. Didn’t skip a beat. The patio is good for sitting, and the neon lights and picnic table charm keep things suitably casual.
The history and etymology of barbecue being both divisive and uncertain, here’s an admittedly imperfect, but otherwise accurate idea of what it means for ‘cue to be “Kansas City”-style, and what one would expect from a restaurant with that name. Kansas City, Missouri is a land of barbecue syncretism. It borrows the tomato and molasses sauce of Memphis, which is the sauce most people identify as “barbecue sauce,” but slathers it over just about everything: ribs, chicken, sausage, beef, whatever. Ironically, KC-style BBQ (and the related St. Louis-style) is the most widely propagated and recognizable barbecue style in much of the country...except for maybe Memphis-style ribs. Kansas City can only claim one true specialty, and that’s burnt ends.
Burnt ends, the crispy nubbins from the end of a smoked brisket, are to Kansas City what beef ribs are to Texas. Iconic and delicious. Good burnt ends are unmistakably crunchy, flavorful, and usually served as plates or sandwiches with a sweet, tangy sauce. So, how are Kansas City Barbeque’s burnt ends?
Listed as “when available” on the menu, KCBBQ’s burnt ends tend more towards “OK brisket” than “legit, name-worthy morsels.” That’s an obvious bummer, but it makes sense considering that the restau is more of an iconic tourist stop than a haven of soul food cookery. Indistinct sauce, lackluster sides, and what seems like a rush-job on the smoking make for barbecue that’s merely adequate. Even the ribs, which make use of the rectangular St. Louis-style cut, could be more tender and smokier.
There’s no ignoring that fact that most people are gonna be there for Top Gun memorabilia, and that’s not strictly bad. It’s a neutral reality. But there’s definitely more worthy ‘cue all over town.