920 E. Plaza Boulevard, National City
The two Mormon elders stand ahead of me in line.
"Have the beef sandwich," says an older guy with them. He doesn't look Mormon, somehow -- lacks that '50s-style perfect grooming. "Then you've got to choose two sides."
He reads from a list on the wall.
"'Baked beans, coleslaw, macaroni salad, green salad, potato salad, or French fries.'"
Sounds as if this is the first time here for these boys -- 'cause they are, like, elders, but also way young. They're dressed to regulation in white-shirt-over-white-T-shirt, blue Formica nametag, black pants, spongy black shoes made for lots of street-pounding, and the little black book you know is not a Bible.
It's my first time, too. And yet there's something familiar about this place, the red-tile roof, the chocolate-brown timber, the cream brick. I'm thinking '60s modern.
It's the normally dead hour of three in the afternoon -- but, surprise! The inside's abuzz with folks chomping into meaty-looking dishes.
In line behind these oh-so-clean-cut kids, I check out the scenery. It looks like a big timber barn in here. Open rafters, knotty pine, an eight-point buck's head on one wall, set of longhorns on another, and a big desert sunset painting. One side of the place is a blur of people in blue-and-white paper bellhop hats dealing out ribs, hefting chunks of steaming beef, slicing meat from slabs.
The elders and their host order beef sandwich plates ($5.79 each with two sides and a pot of BBQ sauce). Now it's my turn.
There's a line forming behind me, so I've got to move fast. I see a couple of lunch specials on a board. Ribs, beef or pork, with two sides and a bun for $5.99. On the regular menu they have all the variations, like ham sandwich plate ($5.79), plate of beef or ham (with two sides, $8.49; large portions, $9.99), half a chicken ($8.49), chicken and ribs ($8.99), and a hot-link or chicken sandwich plate for $5.79.
If you don't want the sides, the chicken sandwich costs $3.49. Ditto the beef, ham, or link sandwiches. This stocky guy who looks like Kirk Douglas slices beef under a heat lamp. He looks up expectantly.
"Guess I'll have the pork ribs lunch special," I say.
"Only on till three," says the guy, Jerry. Damn. I'm 15 minutes late. But he says, "You can still have it at the regular price."
The printed wall-menu above him lists "ribs -- beef or pork, $6.79 & $9.49."
"And the $6.79 is the same size as the lunch special?"
Heck, it's only 80 centavos more. I get the pork ribs -- with baked beans and coleslaw. Jerry returns with my (nice solid china) plate loaded with three ribs, each about six inches long, plus a short extra piece, all tucked in alongside the beans, slaw, and bowl of BBQ sauce. Jerry says if I had gone for the beef I'd have gotten two ribs for this "small" order. I ask for a coffee ($1.49) as a stand-in for the breakfast I never had.
I blunder over to a table near the Mormon elders. Oops. They're saying prayers before they get started. I wait, then dig into the coleslaw, then the rich, sweet baked beans, and then the pork ribs. The end pieces are stringy, but the rest is rich-tasting, fall-off-the-bone tender. And the sauce totally suits my sweet tooth. It's rico-suave good.
"Too sweet," says Elder Andrew, when we later get to talking. "I'm from Kansas City. The meat's softer back there, and our sauce isn't so sweet."
His fellow missionary, Tyler, is from Utah. He hasn't eaten smoked beef before. "It's good. I liked it fine," he says.
Turns out that Rich, the older guy, is treating them to lunch here after they'd helped him plant a tree in his garden -- guess they'd come to proselytize. He says nothing beats this place. "I'm here three times a week. My father first brought me in when I was five, six. I'm hooked on the smell. Besides, this is healthy food." Boy. I wish Hank were here. Wonder how he'd swallow that? "And look at the crowds they get," Rich says. "Fifty years down the line." He points at a sign at the counter that says "50." "They must be doing something right."
"It was two cousins, back in 1955," Jerry says from his station behind the nearby counter. "Joe Browning and Ed Jenson started up right here. They've been going ever since." Jerry's been around almost as long. "I've been cutting meat for ten years, but I began as a busboy in 1957."
Jacob, one of the many guys in the blue-and-white paper hats, turns out to be a Jenson grandson. He says Joe and Ed have actually been going even longer than 50 years. They started in 1947 at 1413 Market Street, downtown, then came out here 8 years later. The secret to their popularity, he reckons, is that slow overnight barbecuing in the pit out back. "And using oak," he says. "We only use oak."
Aha! Oak. That's what it is. This place is father to the Barbecue Pit up in Fletcher Hills. It also burns only oak. Turns out Jacob's daddy just pulled out of running the Fletcher Hills place this year. Sold his interests in it to the Browning family. Well, at least it's still a family affair.
Back at the tables, the young elders are getting ready to leave. But Elder Andrew stops.
"Say," he says to me. "Do you have a copy of The Book of Mormon yet?"