This week's review of Stan's Bar-B-Q is pretty comprehensive. It hits all the important notes about barbecue styles, what you'll find on the menu, what's good, what's great, how the crew smokes and the history of Stan Phillips himself.
"Just as an embassy in a foreign land acts as a tiny piece of American soil laid over more traditional geopolitical boundaries," I wrote, "Phillips has transplanted a small slice of Kansas City 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."
And that's all true. That's the basics. But what's missing is the story of how Stan really learned how to make barbecue. And like most tales of that sort, his involves a steel mill, his father Bill, and Jack Daniel's. Lots and lots of Jack Daniel's.
"My backyard," Stan told me when I asked him about his roots in the KC tradition. "That's where everything happened, partying every weekend. Everyone just seemed to come to our house."
What they were coming for (other than the company, of course), was Stan's father Bill's barbecue. To hear Stan tell it, the man was always smoking--working his small, store-bought smoker like he'd been born to it and feeding the neighbors, his friends, Stan's friends and plenty of guys from the steel mill which, for four generations, had employed Phillipses.
One summer, a bunch of the guys from the mill got together and told Stan's dad that what he really needed was a proper smoker--a custom job, built just for him. Their thinking was, with a proper pit set up at the house, Bill could make more barbecue. And if Bill was making more barbecue, there'd be more barbecue to eat while everyone was hanging out in the backyard.
"So one day," Stan explained, a bunch of the guys got together and offered his dad a deal. "They said, 'You supply the Jack, we'll build the smoker.'" In the first blush of excitement, this seemed like a perfect arrangement. I mean, how much Jack Daniel's could a bunch of steel workers possibly drink?
As it turns out, steel workers can drink a lot of fucking Jack Daniel's. Especially when they're just hanging around the backyard in the sun not doing much else but drinking Jack Daniel's.
"My mom, she would look out in the backyard and see the guys, and she'd ask, 'Are they going to build anything today?'" Most days, they didn't. Most days, they stared a bunch at the spot where the as-yet-purely-hypothetical smoker would someday be. They sat around thinking about building it, planning on building it, meaning to build it, but not actually...you know. Building it.
Until, of course, the day came when they finally did. It took most of a summer, but when the steel mill guys finally put their minds to it, what they built was a smoker that rivaled anything in any restaurant. It was huge. It was solid. The bricks inside it were the ones they'd use at the mill for building furnaces and melting steel. It was a wonder to behold.
Bill Phillips put that smoker to good use. Right behind the bar at Stan's there's a huge, blown-up black-and-white photo of him carving in front of his backyard smoker, and Stan told me that it could've been taken pretty much any day because his dad was always out there working on something. And on a lot of those days, Stan was right out there with him--learning the art of KC barbecue at his father's hip.
"He would always tell me, 'Boy, I got screwed on that deal,'" Stan told me. The guys doing the building put away so much Jack Daniel's over the course of that summer they built the smoker that Stan believes it probably cost him more in liquor than it would've in materials and labor had he done it himself.
But still, that smoker stood for years. It was where Bill practiced his art, where Stan learned what would later (after years spent working as a traveling sales director for Cutter & Buck) become his trade. It was where Stan grew up--standing in front of that massive brick monument, watching his father work.
And to me, that's the kind of thing that seems worth any amount of Mr. Daniel's finest.