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Smokin' Good

September 10, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA

MY FRIEND THE BARBECUE CONNOISSEUR IS AS excited as I've ever heard him. He's just discovered a new BBQ joint in Culver City. "The stuff is great! So are the sides!" he chortles happily. "And you can sit down and eat there, too." Turns out he's already been there three days straight for lunch.

Before long I, too, am pulling into the handful of spots in front of a small building near where La Cienega Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue part ways. The building's awning reads "J.R.'s Bar-B-Que." The outside is painted with black and white diamonds, and a row of pink rosebushes lines the front.

I can smell that 'cue the minute I walk in. We sit at the sparkling horseshoe-shaped Formica counter and order tall glasses of lemonade. It tastes fresh-squeezed, not too sweet. From the half-concealed kitchen in back comes the sound of a cleaver. Lulled by the heat and my hunger, it takes me a minute before I notice the fresh orchid sprays in vases along the counter.

"There's Jeanie," whispers Mr. Barbecue as a handsome woman with an apron tied matter-of-factly around her middle approaches. "You want some rib tips?" she asks him in a honeyed Memphis drawl. "I just took some out of the pit." Well, that settles it. We'll have some and a half slab of baby back ribs, too. Some sides? We each get to choose two that come with our dinners: baked beans, slaw or potato salad.

The phone rings. Our lemonades are refilled from an icy pitcher. The door opens. Gloria Jeanie Jackson, the owner (with her son, Robert Johnson), seems to know just about everyone by name, asking after family and, most important, asking what they feel like eating today. "I've got some peach cobbler I just took out of the oven. I'll let you taste it," she says casually. Pity the person who doesn't take her up on the offer.

I have to confess that I protest when Mr. Barbecue orders medium sauce for our ribs. When our dinner arrives, I taste the thick reddish-mahogany sauce slathered over the ribs and I'm convinced that we should have ordered the hot sauce. But in the closely woven tapestry of flavors, I detect a lash of vinegar, the sweetness of brown sugar and heat that comes on sneakily gentle, but slowly builds in intensity. This stuff packs a punch. I notice my dining companion breaking out in a sweat. The ribs themselves are about as meaty as any I've had and tender enough to justify J.R.'s slogan on the menu: "Tender as Mother's Love." I like that.

I'm particularly taken with the rib tips, bits of meat and bone an inch or two long, caramelized and crunchy at the edges and permeated with smoke. The hot wings--chicken wings smoked to a mahogany and covered in the "hot" sauce (one of three choices)--are also delicious. Careful, there. This is lethal stuff, certainly enough to blast out your sinuses.

I marvel over the sumptuous baked beans larded with bits of smoky pork. "Oh, it's an eight-hour process," Jackson explains, smiling fondly. The cabbage slaw is crunchy and fresh, brightened with shreds of red cabbage and lightly tossed in a creamy dressing. The potato salad is world class, moist and delicately seasoned. The hard-boiled egg in the dressing is a terrific touch.

As we finish off an astonishing amount of ribs, Mr. Barbecue fills me in on what he's learned so far. J.R. stands for Jeanie and son Robert--he's the tall, slender man who does whatever needs to be done. The massive barbecue pit out back is fired with three kinds of wood: white oak, hickory and pecan.

As for the atmosphere, after 10 minutes at J.R.'s, you feel as if you're a regular. So these days, whenever I crave barbecue, I stop for lunch or dinner. You can order just about everything as either a sandwich or a dinner. For sandwiches, your meat of choice is piled up between a soft potato bun. The spicy chicken or beef links are especially good sliced on the diagonal and stacked about 3 inches high. The beef brisket is remarkably tasty. Thinly sliced and lavished with sauce, it makes a particularly good sandwich. Pork shoulder, or pulled pork, works well, too.

With your dinner, you can order dinner rolls or home-baked corn muffins, which, like everything here, are not too sweet. They have a deep corn flavor, though they're a bit dry on occasion. The cooked greens are worth trying. Jackson likes to combine three kinds--collards, curly mustard and Texas mustard--and stew them 'til they're a soft khaki color.

Before opening J.R.'s nearly two years ago, Jackson used to make desserts for restaurants. She bakes everything from scratch. That peach cobbler, exuberantly spiced with cardamom and mace, is a lot of work. She makes it double-crusted, because the crust is what everybody loves most, and this way everybody gets enough.

I was dubious about the 7UP cake, which includes the soda as an ingredient. But the butter-yellow cake is so light that I'm won over. It's made with cream cheese, Jackson tells me.

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