Albert H. Fulcher | Editor
San Diego’s Kansas City BBQ celebrates 35 years of business
Walking into Kansas City Barbeque, there is a history of San Diego that cannot be seen anywhere else. Walls are filled with military memorabilia, the ceiling is full of hats from different military commands from all over the world, and the bar is decoupaged with hundreds of photographs from the restaurant’s 35-year history. There are special sections dedicated to the movie “Top Gun,” for the scenes filmed there in 1985. The piano, jukebox, and some remarkable displays from the movie still stand, and the sweet smell of Kansas City style barbeque fills the air. With all of this, Kansas City Barbeque is more than a mom and pop restaurant that has survived the up rise of Downtown San Diego — it is a destination.
It was a week of celebration as Kansas City Barbeque celebrated 35 years of business, opening on May 15, 1985, and also the release of “Top Gun,” which was released on May 15,1986, on the restaurant’s third-year anniversary. Owners Martin and Cindy Blair said Kansas City has stood the test of time and that they have loved watching Downtown San Diego grow up around their small business.
“This has been important for us,” said Martin Blair. “There is more Downtown, the Gaslamp has grown. So much has grown since we’ve lived and worked here, it’s been fun to see. That [“Top Gun”] has really changed and helped the complexion and enabled us to stay here while the city built around us. Nothing over two-stories was here when we opened up, there was a single train that went to Tijuana.”
The Blairs both grew up in Kansas City, went to the University of Kansas and met at their first college job in Topeka. Cindy works in architecture and Martin in property management. They moved to San Diego professionally in 1981, when they saw the building was up for sale.
Martin and Cindy met at a “dive” in Topeka. Martin Blair said that they were looking for a hobby investment and that when they looked at this building, they knew it was the right place for them.
“We’re a proud dive, we like those hole in the wall places that have good food,” Cindy Blair said. “We were looking for something for an investment. We were not looking for something that we would be full time at it. I thought we could do it. I was working next door and I could pop in and look around, and Martin worked Downtown as well.”
They both started as the nighttime staff, coming in after work and closing the restaurant at 8:30 p.m., and were closed on Sundays. Today, 35 years later, staff starts coming in at 8 a.m., the restaurant opens at 11 a.m. and closes at 2 a.m. It is one of the few places in Downtown where people can come in and get a full menu at 1 a.m.
Martin Blair said it has always been and still is a mid-western barbeque joint. They make their own Kansas City style sauces, smoke the meats throughout the night, and with the exception of a few side dishes, the menu is the same as the day they opened shop.
“All of our dishes are homemade,” Martin Blair said. “Being from Kansa City, we missed barbeque when we came out here and there were no really good barbeque restaurants around. We were fortunate in hiring a barbeque chef [Bob White] from Mississippi who knew barbeque very well and helped us get the restaurant up and running.”
Cindy Blair said Bob White had been cooking barbecue longer than they had been alive. “He was the right person, a little crusty on the outside, but he knew his barbeque,” she said.
“True Kansas City style, it’s not about the sauce, it’s about smoking the meat,” Cindy Blair continued. “The meat should have flavor, even without the sauce. Even though our sauces are different, we still believe the secret is cooking low and slow. We only have five major side dishes, so we try and make them great, so each is different, and it complements the meat.”
Beyond “Top Gun,” Cindy Blair said the restaurant is a collage of history from what people have brought in.
“That’s why we did this. We missed hometown barbeque, we missed a hometown place to go to,” she said. “It looks like a good ole’ joint, the places we love to go to ourselves. That’s what we were shooting for, that’s what we are trying to thrive with. We are what we are.”
Martin Blair said they refer to their bartenders as our curators most of the time, “taking care of all the items that are here in this joint.”
“We have become a destination with reasonable priced food and probably one of the last non-corporate restaurants in Downtown San Diego,” he said. “We are still a mom and pop place. The trolley is right at our back door, so as far as convenience, that’s as good as it gets.”
For more information about Kansas City Barbeque visit kcbbq.net.
— Albert Fulcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org