Smokin' Goodby S. Irene Virbila
My friend the barbecue connoisseur is as excited as I've ever heard him. He's just discovered a new BBQ joint in Culver City. "The stuff is great! So are the sides!" he chortles happily. "And you can sit down and eat there, too." Turns out he's already been there three days straight for lunch.
Before long I, too, am pulling into the handful of sports in front of a small building near where La Cienega Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue part ways. The building's awning reads "JR's Bar-B-Que." The outside is painted with black and white diamonds, and a row of pink rosebushes lines the front. I can smell that 'cue the minute I walk in. We sit at the sparkling horseshoe-shaped Formica counter and order tall glasses of lemonade. It tastes fresh-squeezed, not too sweet. From the half-concealed kitchen in back comes the sound of a cleaver. Lulled by the heat and my hunger, it takes me a minute before I notice the fresh orchid sprays in vases along the counter.
"There's Jeanie," whispers Mr. Barbecue as a handsome woman with an apron tied matter-of-factly around her middle approaches. "You want some rib tips?" she asks him in a honeyed Memphis drawl. "I just took some out of the pit." Well, that settles it. We'll have some and a half slab of baby back ribs, too. Some sides? We each get to choose two that come with our dinners: baked beans, slaw or potato salad.
The phone rings. Our lemonades are refilled from an icy pitcher. The door opens. Gloria Jeanie Jackson, the owner (with her son, Robert Johnson), seems to know just about everyone by name, asking after family and, most important, asking what they feel like eating today. "I've got some peach cobbler I just took out of the oven. I'll let you taste it," she says casually. Pity the person who doesn't take her up on the offer.
I have to confess that I protest when Mr. Barbecue orders medium sauce for our ribs. When our dinner arrives, I taste the thick reddish-mahogany sauce slathered over the ribs and I'm convinced that we should have ordered the hot sauce. But in the closely woven tapestry of flavors, I detect a lash of vinegar, the sweetness of brown sugar and heat that comes on sneakily gentle, but slowly builds in intensity. This stuff packs a punch. I notice my dining companion breaking out in a sweat. The ribs themselves are about as meaty as any I've had and tender enough to justify JR's slogan on the menu: "Tender as Mother's Love." I like that.
I'm particularly taken with the rib tips, bits of meat and bone an inch or two long, caramelized and crunchy at the edges and permeated with smoke. The hot wings-chicken wings smoked to a mahogany and covered in the "hot" sauce (one of three choices)-are also delicious. Careful, there. This is lethal stuff, certainly enough to blast out your sinuses.
I marvel over the sumptuous baked beans larded with bits of smoky pork. "Oh, it's an eight hour process", Jackson explains, smiling fondly. The cabbage slaw is crunchy and fresh, brightened with shreds of red cabbage and lightly tossed in a creamy dressing. The potato salad is world class, moist and delicately seasoned. The hard-boiled egg in the dressing is a terrific touch.
As we finish off an astonishing amount of ribs, Mr. Barbecue fills me in on what he's learned so far. JR stands for Jeanie and son Robert - he's the tall slender man who does whatever needs to be done. The massive barbecue pit out back is fired with three kinds of wood; white oak, hickory and pecan.
As for the atmosphere, after 10 minutes at JR's, you feel as if you're a regular. So these days, whenever I crave barbecue, I stop for lunch or dinner. You can order just about everything as either a sandwich or a dinner. For sandwiches, your meat of choice is piled up between a soft potato bun. The spicy chicken or beef links are especially good sliced on the diagonal and stacked about 3 inches high. The beef brisket is remarkably tasty. Thinly sliced and lavished with sauce, it makes a particularly good sandwich. Pork shoulder, or pulled pork, works well, too.
With your dinner, you can order dinner rolls or home-baked corn muffins, which, like everything here, are not too sweet. They have a deep corn flavor, though they're a bit dry on occasion. The cooked greens are worth trying. Jackson likes to combine three kinds - collards, curly mustard and Texas mustard - and stew them 'til they're a soft khaki color.
Before opening JR's nearly two years ago, Jackson used to make desserts for restaurants. She bakes everything from scratch. That peach cobbler, exuberantly spiced with cardamom and mace, is a lot of work. She makes it double-crusted, because the crust is what everybody loves most, and this way everybody gets enough.
I was dubious about the 7UP™ cake, which includes the soda as an ingredient. But the butter-yellow cake is so light that I'm won over. It's made with cream cheese, Jackson tells me.
She also makes a mean sweet potato pie. And her sock-it-to-me cake, which is an entire pound loaf, could go head to head with a lot of highfalutin $9 desserts out there. It's a sour-cream-based cake with a streusel of cinnamon, brown sugar and pecans in the middle. The secret to its fine crumb? "I beat it until it's fluffy", Jackson told me with her best schoolmarm look. As if it was that easy.
Writing this, I've got that craving again, and if I don't watch out, my car may just head on down to that intersection of La Cienega and Fairfax. The beauty is that JR's has it all: great barbecue, sit-down tables, delicious sides and homey desserts. And, oh, yes, did I mention they take phone orders and cater, too?
The Edible Alphabet - "B"by S. Irene Virbila
At JR's Barbecue, Jeannie Jackson and son Robert keep the Memphis-style 'que - massive slabs of traditional ribs, the prized rib tips, baby back ribs and beef brisket, all slathered in sauce - coming from her barbecue pit out back. The sides are terrific, too, and you can sit at the counter or the tables in the next room. Save room for the 7-UP cake. JR's Barbecue, 3055 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City; (310) 837-6838. Sandwiches, $6. Dinners, $8 to $9. Slabs, $10 to $24. - S.I.V.
Steve Wallace is a connoisseur of barbecue, so it didn't take long, once he wheeled into JR's in Culver City, to declare the place worthy of First-Growth status in the Year 2000 Classification of this lip-smackin' cuisine. Jeanie Jackson and her son Bobby Johnson began JR's in January of 1999. Their phenomenally lean and tender pork ribs and brisket of beef are steeped with a rich, smoky flavor that sets them apart from the ordinary. The whole chicken is great, but whatever you do, don't miss trying the homemade chicken sausages - they're off-the-chart good.
For a fun time, consider JR's for catering your party. Jeanie says the average food cost per person is only $18, which includes two meats, one vegetable and side dishes.