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Restaurants & Bars 11

J.R.'s Barbeque

paddy | Sep 30, 2002 10:33 AM

J.R.’s is a family-owned place, and it shows – it’s the only restaurant I’ve ever been to that has the Desiderata on the wall. Jeanie, a Tennessee native, opened the place about four years ago, and while her son Robert is the main barbecue chef these days, the décor shows she still has a firm grip on the way things are run. For a start, the place is squeaky clean. It used to be a diner, and while Jeanie and Robert haven’t renovated much, it’s spotless, complete with glass tops for the tables and, yes, fresh flowers. Signed photos of African-American stars adorn the walls, jostling for position with historical prints, local artists’ work, and several framed reproductions of an LA Times review. There's a couple of TV's and my companion Tom was delighted see see them both tuned to the Ryder Cup.

Tom and I ordered pork ribs, pulled pork shoulder, rib tips, beef links, beef brisket and beef ribs. We didn’t order the chicken links, although I should say they come highly recommended by the Times and other reviewers.

J.R.’s is Memphis style, and all the food came wet, sluiced in the mild and medium variants of Robert’s special sauce. Our very friendly waitress (she called everyone in the restaurant "Baby") decided early on that Tom and I were way too white to handle the hot sauce, and she was probably right. We enjoyed the medium and decided the mild didn’t do much for the food. The hot, we reckoned, would have killed our taste-buds stone dead.

The biggest surprise was the beef ribs. I’d all but given up on these things, having tolerated way too many greasy, bony, meat-deficient burnt offerings in other L.A. restaurants. “It’s a tough meat to cook,” Robert acknowledged as he passed us on his tour of the restaurant. But he had it just right. There was plenty of meat on each rib, and while they were a tad greasy, they were tender and smoky, complemented nicely by the special sauce.

The pork ribs still beat them however. Six-inch curves of sweet meat, which pulled easily off the bone. Not so loose that they fell apart as soon as they were lifted off the plate, and not so firm that we had to tear the meat loose. Just perfect. The smoky flavor tasted like mesquite, but not just mesquite, and Robert confirmed he uses whatever he can get for his “state-of-the-art” smoker out back. The ribs and rib tips were generously meaty and the five-hour smoke had sweated most of the grease out of them, so there wasn’t too much fat to contend with in the eating – just enough!

The pulled pork shoulder was a disappointing. It tasted watery, and a little stringy with the mild sauce, but the medium sauce brought out the taste well. I asked Robert about this, and he said he’d cooked the meat for at least as long as the ribs. Sometimes, he said, the meat isn’t up to scratch, and you can’t tell until you cut into it.

The brisket more than made up for the disappointing pork shoulder - perhaps the biggest tribute to its quality was the ease with which it distracted Tom from the golf on TV. I’ve been trying to wean Tom off cliches recently, but he couldn’t do any better than: “It melts in your mouth!” He was right on the money, however. Lightly smoky, juicy and very tender, the brisket was very easy to eat, without a hint of chewiness. We snapped it up.

The beef links seemed more like a side than a main, initially, but after the first taste we gobbled them up as well. I’m always a bit suspicious of links – they seem so easy to mess – either overloaded with spices or dried-up and overly chewy. These links had a very subtle taste that went very well with the sauce. They were much thinner that most of the links we’ve tasted, but goodness apparently comes in a small package. These were brimming with spice and flavor and they weren’t run through with the fat and gristle you often find.

Sides? Oh yes. Nearly forgot about them. Beans, potato salad and slaw come with the platters, and the restaurant also offers corn, mac and cheese, salads, fries and corn muffins. I’m not much of a sides guy, but Tom’s something of a bean connoisseur. He noticed there was an enormous pot of beans slow-cooking in the kitchen and he said they were excellent, sweet, but not sickly and with a very nice texture, so they didn’t mush up in the eating. There’s lumps of pork in there too, adding to the smoky taste, which doesn’t overwhelm anything else on your plate. The potato salad provided a fresh cleanser for the palate. The potatoes weren’t so well cooked that they lost too much of their integrity, just enough that the mayonnaise wasn’t overly liquid.

My brief stab at dessert was disappointing. The peach cobbler was a mush of soft pastry and goopy, canned peaches, but the restaurants individual sweet potato pies are very popular. As for the Sock-it-to-me cake and the 7-up cake (a pond cake made of 7-Up instead of milk) – next time, perhaps.

J.R.’s is refreshingly unpretentious. There may be flowers on the tables, but the food comes on Styrofoam dishes and you eat with plastic silverware (a delightful contradiction in terms, if ever I heard one!). Our waitress reeled off a comprehensive and bewildering list of drinks, including a Arnold Palmer and the intriguing Tiger Woods, which is a mix of lemonade and raspberry iced tea. These come in tall glasses filled with criushed ice and are very refreshing, although even a six-year-old said the lemonade was a little sweet.

Brimming with that warm sense of goodwill that comes from being stuffed with a good meal and lavished with friendly service, we decanted ourselves onto La Cienega. Studying the Visa bill, Tom remarked that perhaps the best thing about J.R.’s was the cost. Yes indeed - we got a sit-down meal in a clean, comfortable restaurant for the price of take-out. We’ll be back

J.R.’s Barbeque
3055 S. La Cienega Blvd. (at Blackwelder St.),
Culver City,
Los Angeles
CA 90232
(310) 837-6838.
Mon~Thurs: 11 am-9 pm, Fri & Sat: 11 am-10 pm

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