Tuesday, November 18, 2008

J N J Barbecue

Much as I love barbecue in the south, I have to say that we've got good barbecue here in L.A., too. One of my favorite places is on West Adams, just east of Culver City; the J N J Burger & Barbecue stand.

For a place in the middle of one of the country's biggest cities, this place has a rustic feel to it. It's in a neighborhood of small businesses, with modest single family homes on the adjoining side streets. There is a high-voltage electrical line running a few blocks away - in L.A., it always seems that the pathway of these lines remains somewhat rural, or even agricultural, with plant nurseries clustered beneath.

What really dominates this corner visually is a wood-lot, where firewood is piled up and advertised for sale, surrounded by a chain link fence covered in blooming bougainvillea. At the corner is a funky little shack, put together with prefab panels, corrugated metal, wrought iron grilles, and wooden fences.

This is the best Louisiana barbecue joint in L.A. - and I think among the best barbecue, overall. Pulitzer Prize winning food writer Jonathan Gold has written about J N J.

You go in to order barbecue from the side entry. Beyond the high wooden counter you can see the smoker - it's huge, and is crafted to look like a steam locomotive. The whole place smells like smoked meat. You place your order, then you walk back out and go round the corner to the Adams side, and claim a white resin plastic table while you wait. The tables are covered with clean vinyl table cloths.

If you want, you can buy a newspaper from the machine on the sidewalk while you wait for your order.

Another order window faces the dining area - this is the window to order at if you want a burger. J N J is also famous for its signature burger, the fantastically named "four finger burger" - two patties, cheese, a couple of hot links, bacon and a fried egg on a bun. Less frightening, but still famous is the great homemade sweet potato pie made by the owner's mom.

After a little while, our meals came. I had rib tips and beans, while [The Man I Love] had pork ribs and potato salad.

The meat came with sauce already on it - you should ask for it on the side if you don't like this. The sauce is deep brown and richly flavored with molasses and spices. You can get it hot or mild.

My rib tips were hot to the touch, so I worked away with my plastic knife and fork until it cooled enough to pick it up. While I was licking the luscious sauce of my fingers, the owner Jay Nelson, Jr. came back out with another stack of napkins.

"Don't be afraid to get your hands messy," He said, "A knife and fork? One time a lady came here and asked me to wrap the ends of the ribs up in napkins to keep her hands clean. She said she didn't want to get the sauce under her nails! I said, what you coming to eat ribs for after getting your nails done?"

This is real smoked barbecue, not steamed or baked. This is the real deal. The smoked meat is tinged pink from the chemical reaction of the smoke with the moisture in the muscle fibers. At J N J, the meat comes clean away from the bone, slightly chewy, and delicious.

We also ordered a side order of greens, because they are so good, hearty with bits of pork and strong flavored pot likker. I enjoy the macaroni and cheese here, too, but it's very filling so I didn't get it this time. The potato salad was the kind where the potatoes are so crumbled they're almost mashed. A bit of pickle and onion mixed in, a touch of tangyness in the dressing, but cool and bland enough to be a good contrast with the assertiveness of the barbecue sauce.

Quirky ironwork sculptures are mounted on walls and on the fence. I asked Jay's wife about the one above the entrance to the dining space. She said they were done by a neighboring man who worked in a ironwork shop nearby. She said he's since passed, but they enjoy looking at his pieces to remember him by.

As you get settled in, and look around, you realize this place is a truly unique and personal reflection of the neighborhood and the owners. The menu at the burger window is hand-written. There are potted plants around the space. You hear laughter in the kitchen, and in the smoke house behind the gate. You get the feeling, sitting down at J N J's for some barbecue, that Jay is making barbecue for the love of doing it, not to run a business. Like he's making barbecue for his family, and you just happen to be lucky enough to be a long-lost second cousin.

On the curb outside the barbecue counter, a gleaming purple '47 classic Plymouth is parked whenever the stand is open. It belongs to Jay.

1 comment:

Queenly Things said...

Lawdy, Lawdy that is some awesome lookin' 'cue. I haven't tried that place but still dream about a place on the Pasadena-Altadena border that served some mighty good vittles. Up here in the North we have to rely on homecooks from southern spots who share ther barbecue skills with us.