Jerry Toliver’s a big guy. He’s a rock drummer and tennis coach, and he looks like a young James Brown with a headband. So I’m not surprised he’s put away a plate of rib tips and potato salad and mac ’n’ cheese in no time flat. His buddy Jerome has downed half a slab of baby back ribs with two cobs of corn. He needs his Wheaties as well: the guy’s a tae kwon do karate instructor and also a tennis coach.
So I guess they can work off all these calories. Me, I feel a bit guilty coming in here — like, cholesterol central. But I’ve passed by the sign that says “Baby Back Jack’s Barbecue” in red neon above green window canopies a dozen times and longed to try it.
Thank the Lord it’s Friday. Sign on the door says they close at 10:00 p.m. most days but not till 11:00 on Fridays and Saturdays. I ask somebody the time. “Just after ten,” he says. Great. Look through the window. Busy. I swing in, up to the counter. Not quite sure what to have. Happens this guy Matt — he says he’s from Kansas City — is just picking up his to-go order. Kansas City! Barbecue Central, right?
“So what-all are you having?” I ask, like mere mortal to mountaintop guru.
“This is my first time here,” Matt says. “So I always start a new place with pork rib tips. They have more fat. Harder to screw up. I like it with fat. They’re more tender.”
Hmm. Sounds like a good plan. Truth is, though, I’ve never really understood what all these different ribs are. “Baby back”? From the back of baby porkers? “Spare” ribs? Pigs say, “Here, have these, I don’t need ’em, they’re spare”? Didn’t Eve come from one of Adam’s “spare” ribs? Matt has gone, so it’s too late to ask him. O’Neil, the guy working the counter, is too busy, and besides, I can tell he wants me to order.
Basically, the choice is simple. Baby back ribs, pork rib tips, “beefy” ribs, chicken, sandwiches, burgers, and salads. Each category starts at around $6–$7 and heads upward. A quarter-rack of baby backs with four bones — and two sides — runs $7.99. The half (6–7 bones) is $11.99, and the full (10–12 bones) is $18.99.
Pork rib tips, which have gristle “bone,” are $7.99 for the 6–7 “bone” dinner (also with two sides) or $10.99 for the 10–12 “bone” dinner. Beef ribs run from $6.99 (for one bone) to $12.99 (3 bones) to $18.99 (5 bones). ’Course, beef bones are gi-normous compared with piglets’ riblets.
I’m sure the sandwiches would be good. Like, BBQ pulled pork or chicken ($6.99) or beef ($7.99) sandwiches. Then they have burgers, from $6–$8. A Cobb salad runs $6.99, and chicken Caesar, $7.99. Hmm...
Oh, right. I notice O’Neil. “While we’re young!” he’s saying to himself.
Hokay. “Six to seven bone pork rib tips,” I say. Man of decision.
Lordy. Baked beans, coleslaw, corn on the cob, cornbread, right down to sweet potato fries and onion rings. You pay $1 extra for those last two.
I go for corn on the cob and cornbread, pay my money, then head for a table. I look around. Sea-green walls, shiny rounded Formica tables. Nice. That’s when I meet Jerry and Jerome. And at the next table, there’s this family. Boy and girl and, turns out, their aunt and uncle. They’re all chowing into baby back ribs and corn and yakking away. I swear. There’s something primitive-social about gnawing into bones together. Pretty soon the girl, Ajanae, is telling me about how she often goes to court with her dad. “He’s the top defense attorney in San Diego,” she says. “Thomas P. Matthews. I hear his speeches.” She critiques his speeches. She’s nine. Jesse, her eight-year-old brother, is a baseball talent. “He’s already known as ‘Triple-Play Matthews,’ ” says Consuelo, his aunt.
Oh, man. My ribs have been sitting here five whole minutes. Guilty as charged, your honor. Nattering too much, got caught up in things. I hate missing the hot and steamy moment they arrive. But I gouge into them, and tender? These babies melt in the mouth, just as Matt said they would. Sauce is sweet, almost winey. I don’t get through the corn. I don’t get through the cornbread. Heck, I still have a couple of ribs staring up at me when I quit, and they start closing down the store. Gent who comes and politely tells me the end is nigh, turns out, is Jack. Hey! So there is a real Jack. He offers to put my stuff in a box. “In the box, Jack?” I almost say.
Complaints? Only one. He doesn’t have one of those split oil-drum cookers searing ribs outside like they do down at Croom’s in Chula Vista, where you see the smoke, you inhale the sweet smell of the ribs from a mile away, and half the pleasure is following your nose to the source. Apart from that, hey, I’m hooked.
And cholesterol guilt? Not tonight. I get to the bus stop at Richmond and whack!? The night’s last downtown bus has, like, gawn. So, great. Now I can walk these ribs off, all the way through Hillcrest to catch the last 120 at Fourth.
- The Place: Jack’s Barbecue, 1290 University Avenue (at Richmond), Hillcrest, 619-574-1644
- Type of Food: Barbecue
- Prices: Quarter-rack baby back ribs (4 bones, choice of 2 sides, including baked beans, coleslaw, corn on the cob, cornbread), $7.99 (sweet potato fries, $1 extra); half (6–7 bones), $11.99; full (10–12 bones), $18.99; pork rib tips, $7.99 (6–7 bones, 2 sides); $10.99 (10–12 bones); beef ribs $6.99 (1 bone); $12.99 (3 bones); $18.99 (5 bones); BBQ pulled pork or chicken sandwich, $6.99; beef sandwich, $7.99; hamburger, fries, $5.99; Cobb salad, $6.99; chicken Caesar, $7.99
- Hours: 10:30 a.m.–10:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; till 11:00 on Friday and Saturday
- Buses: 1, 10, 11
- Nearest Bus Stop: University at Richmond