Like a Pig in Spit

Nothing says summer like Stan Phillips' Kansas City 'cue.

One cannot eat barbecue every day, at every meal. No matter how much one wants to, one has to space out the pork ribs and pulled pork and smoked ham and half-chickens--and even the occasional foray into brisket and hot links--with fruits, vegetables, grains not in the form of grocery-store white bread, and protein that doesn't come out of a Southern Pride smoke box. One's doctor has told one so. Repeatedly.There are as many different kinds of barbecue in the United States as there are pit men smoking it. It is a highly personalized kind of cooking, and the influences that form the final product run deep and speak of histories older than all of us.There is Deep South barbecue, which is different from Florida barbecue. There is Carolina barbecue with its pork-heavy roots and dependence on mustard, and then there's Eastern Carolina tidewater barbecue, which is pork exclusively and heavy on the vinegar—a style developed to cover the rank flavors of pork that was less-than-fresh back in the days when the Carolina shore was awash in pigs and slaughtering yards.There is the St. Louis rib, of course. There is the country rib, which is much bigger and served, generally, as a single bone. In the Southwest there are Mexican costillas which are like country ribs, but sometimes fried hard like chicharones. Texas has beef barbecue—brisket, mostly—which speaks to Texas' history of cattle ranching and cowboys, and also drives some barbecue aficionados crazy because, really, beef barbecue ought to be its own separate category. Brisket doesn't respond to the low, slow heat of the smoker as pig does. It doesn't take to smoke like a rib or a shoulder of God's most delicious animal will when loved up and tended to by an old master.Some pit men swear by pecan wood, some by peach logs. Hickory is probably the most popular, but in the West it's all about mesquite. (I've even eaten barbecue smoked over scrap lumber, and was happy to have it.) Rubs and mops are family secrets guarded more fiercely than rumors of incest or weird Nazi uncles. I once asked a pit man to explain to me how he cut his ribs, because they were different from any other ribs I'd ever had, and he had me assume the position with my hands up against the tin walls of a cooler while he described the cuts on my back with the point of his butchering knife. Pros are strange about those kinds of things.Barbecue, in an unusual way, is a kind of fusion cuisine. It's rare to find someone running a shack, a stand, or a full-blown restaurant who doesn't have some wild hair of an influence dirtying up their otherwise pure Carolina, Panhandle, or Midwestern soul. But one place exists as the central clearinghouse of all barbecue knowledge, a wonderland of colliding influences and notions about heat, meat, smoke, and spice which also has a deep-running barbecue tradition all its own. That place is Kansas City, famous for its ribs and its sweet/hot barbecue sauce as thick as syrup and dark as polished mahogany. Kansas City is the barbecue Promised Land.And Kansas City is where Stan Phillips hails from.This is plain from the minute you step inside Stan's Bar-B-Q. The room is like a temple to three things: meat, and the men who cut it; Stan's dad, Bill, who taught Stan to smoke in a backyard setup that would be the envy of most professional pit men and passed on the family recipes; and the Kansas City Chiefs. Sure, there's a big Seahawks helmet tucked away in the corner by the hot boxes, but the bar is fairly garlanded with photos of quarterbacks and linemen, decorated with red football helmets, arrowheads, and sculptures of pigs.Just as an embassy in a foreign land acts as a tiny piece of American soil laid over more traditional geopolitical boundaries, Phillips has transplanted a small slice of KC to the middle of Issaquah, and made it up so that no one inside has any illusions about where they are. It might just as well be the Warehouse District or Gladstone, with all the air pumped straight in from Overland Park, already flavored by the smoke of a thousand barbecue pits. Kansas City is where Phillips learned the art and secrets of Kansas City barbecue. And after years of bouncing around various barbecue capitals as a sales director for a golf company (doing time in Texas, Kansas, and Greenville, S.C.), Front Street in Issaquah just happens to be where he ended up.It was the smell of Stan's that first hooked me—some freak whiff of smoke and effort and talent and history carried up and onto a swirling breeze, reaching me on a patch of grass a hundred yards away, almost lifting me off my feet like a cartoon dog smelling a ham. The menu is blessedly simple: just barbecue and things that go with barbecue. There are no salads, no burgers, no fish—nothing to distract from the low glory of meat, properly smoked.But the menu is also more complicated than it appears at a cursory glance, encompassing many of the regional influences and styles that make American barbecue so deep. Wisconsin-style brats are listed on the single-sheet laminated menu, and Southern hot links from a Washington sausage maker. Kansas-style Texas brisket is served bare of sauce (in a most un-Texas way) and cut thick, tasting faintly of smoke and heavily of beef until you start dipping it in one of the three sauces—served on request, never on the meat—available from Stan's kitchen in a bold and classical departure from the ridiculous, modern idea of offering 10,000 different kinds of sauce made from things like mango and lemongrass and the tears of unemployed bluesmen.Stan's offers a sweet sauce that is sugary and stinging—a traditional tomato-based Kansas City sauce treading a fine line between coastal bite and inland gentility. Bracketing this are a mild one the color of old bricks and a spicy one that's dark and murkily sweet, with a slight, lingering burn.All of them are good, but nothing's as good as the meat left alone.In the barbecue-eating parts of this country—those magical latitudes which give their names to the different primary styles—barbecue is not something you go out for. No one says "Hey, we should go out for barbecue," just as here no one says "Hey, we should go out for salmon."Barbecue is just a thing that exists—ubiquitous and beloved, like chicken wings in Buffalo or hot dogs on the streets of Manhattan. The assumption is that whenever you hunger for a bit of pulled pork or two pounds of baby backs, a place to acquire them will be just around whatever corner you find yourself on.That's not the case here. There is no Pacific Northwest barbecue, no long tradition of church-picnic spreads or Saturday nights at the smoker or 'cue being used like medicine to heal everything from broken hearts to bitter humors. So here, when someone gets an urge to get some pig under their nails and smoke in their hair, they have to go looking. They have to go out for barbecue because it isn't found just anywhere.Stan's, though, does what it can to recreate the effect of being able to drop in, score some smoked pig, and then roll back out again into whatever the night has in store. There's the takeaway window in the back, across which is served everything on Stan's menu, save for beers. Then there's the dining room itself, a close-packed field of tables and booths upholstered in the color of KC sauce, and the bar, which does a brisk takeout business in its own right. For those eating in, rolls of rough, brown paper towels are mounted in cowboy-themed holders on every table and spotted up and down the bar. The smell of wood smoke and dripping meat is powerful, the kind of thing that clings to your clothes and can make you hungry for hours afterward. Most days there's also Phillips himself, doing like his father taught him.On my first time through Stan's, I sat at the bar, drank cold beer, and ate a half-pound of pulled pork with a strange savory/sweet top note that I couldn't identify until I asked about it. It's something that Phillips puts in the rub—a secret ingredient passed down by his father, who taught him how to make a rub and work it into the big, wet hunks of pork shoulder. The flavor of hickory is strong, running deep and dark as sin, followed by that sweetness, then the fatty goodness of shredded pork given a long time to cook—10 hours, no less. It's then pulled apart by hand and served in huge, tumbling mounds, still hot and damp, with the perfect texture of a practiced pit man's best work—not too soft, not "melting" (as some idiots describe their barbecue, because it's been cooked so long that all the protein has turned to mush), but chewy and a little stiff, and shot clean through with the essence of that penetrating smoke.With my pork and beer I ate a side of potato salad, tart and cooling, and a second side of links that lacked snap, tasting like eating too close to a campfire made of wet wood. For an hour afterward I felt like I was still breathing smoke.Sandwiches at Stan's are done in the traditional way, just meat and white bread (buns on request)—nothing more than a way to eat your barbecue walking. Sauce comes on the side. The only variables are which meats in which proportions. As a matter of fact, the menu descriptions are really just there to tell you what's not included: no mayo on the smoked turkey sandwich, no sauce on the brisket, nothing on The Pig but smoked ham—which you can smell coming from halfway down the bar. The sides are potato salad, creamed corn (very Midwestern), baked beans that taste exactly like all three sauces mixed together with some beans thrown in for texture, and coleslaw, meant for the sandwiches but also available with dinner.Everything else is either combination plates or meat, sold by the rack or by the pound. The half-chickens are stained brown, the color of delicious. The ham is sweet and redolent of hickory (even more so than the pulled pork), but almost needs the sweet sauce to temper it. The baby back ribs are tiny things—fatty, unevenly cut, and rubbed nearly black, but delicious. And if you get a burnt end, you're one of the luckiest people in the dining room.But the biggest draw at Stan's is not just one thing but everything, all put together. It's the room and the smell of smoke that hangs over it like hunger as an odor; the photo of Bill Phillips riding alongside Warpaint, mascot of the Chiefs; the big black-and-white pictures of butchers and pit men and dirt-farming barflies that adorn the walls. It's the crowds that Stan's draws, all sitting hunched over their plates and eating with their fingers, and all the meats (even the brisket) taken together as an idealized rendition of the all-inclusive Kansas City style that Phillips has brought to Washington state.In terms of barbecue, I have lived a charmed life. Like Stan, I've been fortunate enough to have stripped bones in places where the traditions are generations deep and the skills of the pit tenders border on magic. But now, when I find myself east of Seattle and I smell that earthy, fatty, beautiful smudge of hickory smoke and rib meat on the breeze, I'll count myself fortunate that, even in this place—more than a thousand miles gone from barbecue's capital—I can still sometimes find myself in just the right place to score some excellent barbecue without really trying.jsheehan@seattleweekly.comPrice Check

  Pulled pork  $16.25

  Beef brisket   15.95

  Pork/brisket/link combo  $23.95

  Side of potato salad  $1.85

  The Pig    $9.95

 

 
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