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Central Standard

Leaving Kansas City: Taking Kansas City BBQ To San Diego

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Courtesy photo
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Martin and Cindy Blair have owned the restaurant Kansas City Barbeque in San Diego, California, for almost 32 years.

“Leaving Kansas City” is a series that shares the personal stories of why people decided to live somewhere else. It follows our series “Going to Kansas City.”

Martin and Cindy Blair are both from Kansas City. They went to the University of Kansas, met in Topeka at a dive bar, and were married in Kansas City. But 35 years ago, a job offer sent them to San Diego.

After a year or two they really missed Kansas City BBQ.

The Blairs decided to open Kansas City Barbeque in downtown San Diego, giving the place a Midwestern, down-to-earth feel. Only two years into the business, they were approached by a location director who wanted to film a few movie scenes in their restaurant. Cindy Blair says it was one of the best marketing decisions they ever made.

Two iconic scenes from the movie Top Gun were shot at the restaurant: the one where Goose plays "Great Balls of Fire" on the piano, and the closing scene with Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis. You can see poster of the Plaza and, if you look closely, a Kansas state flag in the background.

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Today, the restaurant has become a gathering place for Top Gun and Kansas City fans on the West Coast. The bar is filled with Kansas City memorabilia — they show Chiefs games, Royals games, and KU and Missouri games on a regular basis. Even some of the staff are from Kansas City.

Name: Martin and Cindy Blair

Where you live now: San Diego, California

When did you leave Kansas City: 35 years ago

What are some of the challenges of serving Kansas City-style BBQ on the West Coast? Martin: We steer away from ‘California-izing’ our barbecue too much. We don’t do any smoked fish or barbecued fish, and we don’t do any of the edamame or trendy type stuff. We have the same basic type recipe that we had 32 years ago. We always served our barbecue on Wonder Bread as they did in some of the finer restaurants in KC, and when they went out of business it was harder for us. But now we do have at least a source where we can get spongy white bread.

There was a fire in 2008 (nobody was hurt) that closed the restaurant for a few months and burned a lot of the original memorabilia. How did you guys deal with that loss? Cindy:  You know, 25 years in the business it’s probably about time to redo your kitchen. And frankly I had wanted for years to put in a different kind of barbecue pit, a true smoker like they have in a lot of Kansas City restaurants. We tried to keep our staff together during that time. We put the cooks together helping with the construction crew doing the interior. And for the waitresses, we had a happy hour on our patio for regulars to come by, and all the contributions went to the waitresses. We were able to open again after five months, and kudos to the Kansas City area and other customers who started sending in a lot of décor items.

Martin: Within that inter period I took a lot of our key employees and cooks back to Kansas City for three or four days. We went to a Royals game, and we sampled about 15 barbecue joints in the area. And it really helped them get a feel for Kansas City.

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What do you miss about Kansas City?  Cindy: San Diego is great, and great weather, but it’s always a little cool at night, and I kind of miss those nights when you can go around in a halter top and shorts.

Martin: I miss thunderstorms almost more than anything. If we knew there was a good thunderstorm in Kansas City some weekend, we’d probably go back (laughs). Not literally, but it’s a big plus if we are ever back there and there is a good thunderstorm.

How do you compare Kansas City to San Diego? Martin: It’s hard to compare. We certainly evangelize Kansas City to a lot of people out here. But the weather here is pretty nice, and we’ve always lived downtown within 100 yards of the restaurant, and San Diego has grown up around us and we can walk to about 100 bars and restaurants within about 10 minutes. And it’s really fun to have a ball park downtown. It’s a unique experience out here, and we’re just glad we are where we are from that respect.

Do you still show your Kansas City pride? Martin: Well we are home to the Chiefs here in San Diego. We see a lot of Kansas and Kansas City people return to us before the game and after the game for victory celebrations.

Cindy: The walls are covered inch by inch with KC stuff.

What’s on the horizon? Cindy: We have our 32nd anniversary coming up May 15, and this summer is the 30 year anniversary of the filming of Top Gun. Also, we are getting excited about the opening of baseball season — I wish the Padres would play the Royals.

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Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a community storyteller taking a new look at local history, I aim to provide that context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today. I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.