He had me at "bourbon."
Then came "java," and the distinct impression that maybe, just maybe, this guy is actually doing something different on the local barbecue scene, which lacks nothing for abundance. These days, you toss a chewed-down rib bone from one joint over your shoulder, and you're likely to hit its competitor.
To stand out, it always comes down to your customized rubs and sauces, your smoke-wood of choice, and any nuances you can spin into typical sides. It of course helps if you have 20-plus years of experience and grew up in Kansas City with friends around the barbecue competition circuit, like Rub N' Grub owner Angelo Zarlengo.
"The way I see it," he says, "KC-style is an infusion of Eastern and Southern styles, including Texas."
And with culinary melting pots come blends and creative tweaks that can make masterpieces, or at least modest successes. Zarlengo scores in pretty much all aspects of the art form, with only a couple chinks in the armor. One unrelated to the grub is a sadly common food-truck foible: not regularly updating his social-media messaging. The last thing you want is to show up somewhere based on an old posting and find the truck isn't waiting for you.
Once you do connect with his silver trailer — bearing a tiny ordering window, but no logos or branding bling — you'll find a charming personality and quick, accommodating service. While I wait for several sandwiches in a to-go order, Zarlengo slides me my three ribs ($6) first so I can sticky-up my steering wheel. He advises me to eat them as they are, sans sauce, to appreciate the dry-rub and hickory smoke. That's easy to do as they surrender effortlessly, chewy with softened bark and boasting ample flavor.
From there the small menu offers brisket or pulled pork sandwiches. You can mix the meats on The Slave (all $6); choose one meat with an addition of coleslaw on the Southwest Style ($6.50); or get one meat with KC Brisket Taters on the Colorado Style ($7).
The brisket's well-handled, moist and small-chopped with smoky backbite. And though a touch dry, the pork's pleasant, particularly on the charred edges. Zarlengo's slaw manages uniqueness with radish, corn and celery-salt additions. The taters I didn't take to on account of an underdone, mushy hash-brown feel with a cheap mac 'n cheese aftertaste.
But on the sauces, he shines.
The thin original and spicy sauces lead with tart acidity and an interesting celery seed addition, and the spicy option doesn't go too far even with its ghost-chili infusion. The heavier bourbon and java launch from a deep molasses base, the latter leading with elements of dark chocolate bitterness more than coffee and ending not far from a sip of stout beer. The bourbon finds residual woodiness, as if it were barrel-aged, with a hint of Jim Beam breath up front and a sweet, smoky spiral that harmonizes beautifully with the brisket in particular.
Whatever KC-style is or isn't, and however barbecue's best handled with accouterments, etc., I really don't care when I'm this content and enjoying something new-to-me inside of a well-trodden, if not trampled, food genre.
Bourbon, beans, barbecue ... badass.