So J has these Holy Grails when it comes to food. The first one I encountered was pretzels from Philadelphia. We went to Philadelphia. We went to Lancaster County among the Amish. We have never found a pretzel that lives up to the magic pretzel.
The other Holy Grail is barbecue. This is a bit different because I have tasted said magical barbecue and it is THAT good. But it’s his uncle’s barbecue that his uncle smokes for 24 hours and turns every hour on the hour. The closest we’ve found is Ridgewood Barbecue in Tennessee. The smoke really penetrates every inch of the meat. That’s some flavorful barbecue! Sadly, we won’t be driving in Tennessee anytime soon (and even if we were, Ridgewood is a half an hour away from the highway).
While the Bay Area is brimming with good food, barbecue is not on the list. The barbecue we’ve had ranged from acceptable to deplorable. That is until we did a little Chowhound research and found Smokey J’s on the corner of Ashby and Shattuck in Berkeley. It’s the real deal. It maybe seats 15 if you squish and has a ton of meat. The only sides to speak of are potato salad and coleslaw. We had a helping of coleslaw (that comes automatically on their combo plate) and I’d recommend it as a refreshing change from the mayonnaisey stuff you normally get. It’s just dressing with a mixture of vinegar and a little sugar.
But go for the meat. We decided to split the three-way sampler with the ribs, brisket and hotlinks and a frito pie (because I have a deep affection for frito pie). The meat has a hint of smoke (it’s no Ridgewood) but still has tons of flavor. The ribs in particular were falling off the bone good (a cliche I know). The hotlinks weren’t as moist as I am used to but the flavor was certainly there. And the brisket is more like a fatty pulled pork, great for me but if you are a purist you may think that it should have been cooked long enough so the fat would have melted off. To top off them eat, they have two amazing barbecue sauces. Both were a good balance of sweet and tart and the chipotle one was spicy without being overwhelming.
The frito pie is an interesting beast. It’s huge considering you are getting a paper bowl of fritos, cheese and chili. We could have filled up on that. I would say that even when you get the chili, don’t expect chili. It’s not as runny or saucy as normal chili. It’s more like a wet pulled pork (although I think it’s shredded beef). Chili fixations aside, the flavor is right on and it’s a great dish.
This isn’t fancy in the least. It’s counter service. But the guys at the counter are super nice and happy to talk. As a final grace note, they have honey sweetened ice tea for free with the meal.