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RESTAURANTS : Temptations of Hickory-Cooked BBQ

November 15, 1990|MAX JACOBSON

Franchises are often named for fictitious people dreamed up in a boardroom. Not so in the case of Richard Jones Pit BBQ. There really is a Richard Jones.

He lives in Austin, Tex., where he has two restaurants. Four years ago he opened his first restaurant around here, in Anaheim Hills, to modest success. His newer, larger location opened five months ago in a nondescript Fullerton shopping mall, and a lot of folks are noticing that mall now.

In Texas, barbecue is synonymous with beef brisket, which Richard Jones serves up in force. The secret of this particular brisket--delicious, smoky slices that come blackened around the edges--is slow smoking in a wood-fired pit. But Jones has an ace in the hole; I'll stretch a bit and call it high-tech, though to people who take things literally it's probably just an oven.

The problem with traditional barbecue pits is that they require a lot of space, not to mention liberal fire codes. So some genius has invented the stainless steel pit, where a succession of meat-filled racks rotate cannily, conveyor-belt fashion, over a wooden fire. It's an invention I rank right up there with the microchip.

It's really quite a contraption. The main component is a giant stainless steel compartment that looks like a meat locker with one of those pressure handles on the door. When you open the thing up, you smell the embers, but you do not see them.

That's because the wood--pure hickory--is burning in a clay oven attached to the rear. Wood is shoveled in through a furnace-like door about 5 feet behind the meats, so smoke is circulating continually, perfuming them gloriously. The results speak for themselves. To get a more intense burst of hickory flavor than this, you'd have to be Woody Woodpecker.

Hickory is a controversial substance. Most of our local pits barbecue with oak or hardwoods such as apple or pecan because hickory is so expensive. It also has a strong taste that you cannot get away from, so bear that in mind when you visit this restaurant. Everything here from smoked turkey to barbecued sausage is dominated by the sweet, almost medicinal aroma of hickory smoke, and you really have to like it to enjoy this food. Me, I'd eat hickory logs all by themselves if I had sharper teeth.

Just to get in a hickory mood, try an appetizer called pit-smoked longhorn wings, the Texas version of Buffalo wings. These chicken wings come positively dripping a red oil that is largely Tabasco, but when you bite into one, what you really taste is wood. Name me something else that can humble the mighty Tabasco.

Next I would order the Texas sampler, which is a combo of baby back pork ribs, barbecued chicken, beef ribs, Texas sausage and pork spare ribs . . . if I had one of my largest friends along to help me. The dish contains a good three pounds of meat and bone, brought out on a platter that looks exaggerated even by Lone Star standards, and no one ever finishes it. These are fine meats, by the way: tender, lean and crumbly. Purists might call them dry. Fine with me.

The whole schmear comes with an outsize salad of mixed greens, tomato, cucumber and fresh mushrooms, which no three people would be favored to finish. Make sure to have the house dressing, a garlicky ranch vinaigrette.

They won't let you just split the sampler between two people, incidentally. If you want to split it, you have to order something called the partner's plate alongside ($4.95 additional), an extra plate adorned with an ear of corn and a bowl of baked beans.

Unless you are really hungry, though, it makes more sense to order one of the many sandwiches. The classic Texan sandwich is smoked beef brisket, hand-sliced and served on a French roll with pickle, onion and the house barbecue sauce. You can't say you've eaten real Texas 'cue until you've had one.

This beef tastes great, but I see room for improvement. I had the sandwich twice, and found the meat a shade too fatty both times and not particularly tender.

I would advise trying the chopped beef sandwich instead. It's just great stuff: soft, fragrant beef in a complex sauce loaded with vinegar and cumin.

The menu here is as big as all Texas (bigger than the one at the Anaheim Hills location, at least) and full of extras such as blazin' catfish, pit shrimp and some trendy salads tossed at your table.

If you have the appetite of a real trencherman, you may wish to attempt dessert after gorging on barbecue. Expect versions of Southern classics: a rich, obscenely large slice of chocolate cake, a tired peach cobbler (canned peaches, canned whipped cream) and a surprisingly good banana pudding made with Nabisco Nilla Wafers.

As to details like atmosphere and service, well, there's not much to be said. The restaurant looks like most any family restaurant: bright, adequately comfortable and utterly impersonal. And the service of the team of young, cheerful and inexperienced servers is predictably slapdash. The food could come out hotter, and the kitchen runs out of things a lot.

So be it. As long as they don't run out of wood.

Richard Jones Pit BBQ is inexpensive to moderate. Sandwiches are $4.95 to $6.95. Appetizers run $1.95 to $10.95 and plates and platters $6.95 to $14.95.

RICHARD JONES PIT BBQ

279 E. Orangethorpe Ave., Fullerton. (714) 992-4801.

Open for lunch and dinner Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. through 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, through 10 p.m. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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