You may have visited barbecue stands built around tall chimneys, barbecue stands surrounded by dozens of barrel smokers, and barbecue stands so rickety that they seemed to be held up by the inch-thick patina of petrified smoke on the walls. The old Kreuz barbecue in Lockhart, Texas, was housed in what was basically a giant enclosed pit, and after a while in line, your hair and clothing smelled as much like smoldering post oak as the famous brisket and clod. In suburban Chicago, there is a restaurant where everything is cooked on an army of standard-issue Weber grills.
In Los Angeles, of course, we consider ourselves lucky if we see a Pete’s Louisiana Sausage truck parked outside. At least the hot links are bound to be good. But there may be no more evocative location for a barbecue pit than the one currently occupied by J?N?J Burger & Bar-B-Q. A bit east of the Culver City Media District, the ramshackle structure — built in stages by the owner himself — is bordered on two sides by the local firewood outlet, in the shadow of fruitwood mountains and hillocks of oak, drifts of split and stacked logs that reach two or three stories in height. In an era when even some of the best-known barbecue joints make do with a measly gas flame and a handful or two of wood chips, it is nice to know that somebody is still passionate about marrying the flavors of wood smoke ?and meat.
“I use oak logs, I use hickory logs, I use pecan,” says Jay Nelson Jr., the namesake “J.N.J.” of the restaurant. “I used to work in the lumber business back in Louisiana, and there’s nothing I like better than wood. It was probably fated that I go into the barbecue business.”
It is a family business: Nelson barbecues, his wife works the burger-stand side of things, which is popular with local kids on their way home from school, and his mother bakes the splendid sweet-potato pies. J?N?J may be the closest thing you are going to find to a country-road shack within the confines of Los Angeles.
“I just baked him 16 pies and they’re already gone,” laments the mother toward the end of a weekend afternoon. “I’ll keep going like this until Thanksgiving, and then I swear the boy is going to be on his own.” Her daughter-in-law, lingering in the patio, rolls her eyes toward heaven.
Like Gaul, J?N?J is divided into three parts: a shaded, gravel-floored dining area equipped with plastic patio furniture and a view of the woodpiles; an area dedicated to hamburgers and breakfasts, with an order counter set apart from the area devoted to barbecue; and the inner sanctum — a worn counter, a kitchen that resembles a temporary structure built for hungry firemen in a national forest, and the smoker itself, a mammoth, puffing construction that has been built to resemble a splendid steam engine. Mr. Nelson has been obsessed with trains since he was a child, and the smoker is reportedly his attempt to play with a train that his own children won’t be able to grab away from him.
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The beans at J?N?J are pretty wonderful, a sticky, complex glop dense enough to hold a spoon upright. The thick hot sauce, lashed with a couple different kinds of chile, reminds me of a far milder version at the long-deceased Carl’s up on Pico. The potato salad is at least unique, like a plop of cool mashed potatoes vaguely flavored with chopped pickles. You will pay extra for the collard greens, but they are among the best in town, laced with heroic amounts of smoked meat and boiled down to a fragrant, salty mash, the kind of collard greens that modern cooking techniques and the accursed USDA food pyramid have mostly made obsolete. If you fancy macaroni and cheese, you should know that it is the stirred version here, creamy and perfect in its way, but definitely not made from the kind of cheese you buy at Whole Foods. My 4-year-old ate the whole bowl.
There are those who tout the brisket and sliced smoked pork here, but they tend to be dry. The hot links are bouncy, finely textured creatures that are different from the crumbly, highly spiced links you may be used to.
But the brawny, dripping beef ribs are great, and the chicken is fine and moist, just chewy enough without being as overcooked as most rib-stand chicken. It is the spareribs, however, that make the barbecue stand. J?N?J’s long-cooked babies are compelling — blackened, rendered of most of their fat, tending almost toward a jerkylike chaw, charred at the tips, saturated with smoke, and profoundly spicy even without the sauce, which blankets the pork like a winter coat. J?N?J cooks in a different style from Phillips and Woody’s, and the barbecue is perhaps a bit less polished, but Phillips and Woody’s don’t happen to be a three-minute drive from Sony. And there’s Mom’s sweet-potato pie for dessert.
J?N?J Burger & Bar-B-Q, 5754 W. Adams Blvd., L.A., (323) 933-7366. Open Mon.–Thurs. 10:30 a.m.–7 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 10:30 a.m.–9 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.–5 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking. Cash only. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $6–$28. Recommended dishes: pork ribs, barbecued chicken, sweet-potato pie.