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 V.14 No.7 | February 17 - 23, 2005 

Restaurant Review

Big John's BBQ

No-pork clause doesn't keep Big John's from going whole hog

Dennis Johns ladles sauce over smoked meat.
Stacey Adams
Dennis Johns ladles sauce over smoked meat.

Barbecue is never an easy topic of discussion. Regional variations in the sauce ingredients or the cooking method, the type of wood used in the smoking, and even the style of the side dishes can cause a major food fight. Most comfort foods, especially barbecue, have roots that go deep into our family trees. We like it our way and that becomes the right way. I'll admit I'm very attached to my own homemade barbecue sauce and when it comes to potato salad, my mother's hallowed recipe sets the standard. So, I'm pleased to report that Albuquerque is graced with a new barbecue restaurant that serves sauce and potato salad that both pass muster, at least with me.

Big John's BBQ opened just a few weeks ago on Yale, near the corner of Avenida César Chávez. Owner Dennis Johns is no newcomer; he has been in the barbecue business since 1972, when he worked at his uncle's place down on Broadway (it was also called Big John's). Johns has been on his own for several years now, serving his smoky meats all over town, through the window of a food service truck. This last fall he had such a smashing success selling his vittles at the State Fair, he decided it was finally time for a permanent location—brick and mortar, as they say.

The decor here is literally brick and mortar, to the third power. Three colors of brick—white, beige and brown—are used in the walls and floor. That's the sum total of the ambiance. There's no art, no frills, no nonsense, just damn good barbecue. In fact, Big John's feels more like a takeout place than a hangout place. There are a few small, oddly proportioned booths, and an open, bricked floor space. You place your order at an open window that looks into the kitchen, then pay cash for your chow (no credit cards are accepted). You get your food in takeout containers with plastic utensils, and then you're on your own.

Brisket (sandwich for $4.50 or plate for $8.50) is the star on this limited menu. Johns uses exclusively oak in his smoker, which produces the most moist, tender brisket I've had in years. I went back for three visits in three days to make sure it was as good as I remembered. In fact, it was better. The barbecue sauce here is a Texas homestyle recipe that has been a family secret for generations. It's good and thick, not spicy, and not too sweet, with a nice depth of flavor.

The rest of the menu also comes in two sizes, either sandwich or plate, with two sides. You can get large, tender, smoky beef ribs ($4.50/$8.50), smoke-burnished, moist chicken ($3.50/$5.50), or spicy Elgin Texas beef sausage ($4.50/$6.50). Turkey legs ($6.50/$9.50) are also offered, but I stuck with the ribs and passed on the legs. (I must admit that I have a minor fetish about wet food. I cannot abide dryness when it comes to food of any kind, especially meat. I remember eating one of the highly touted turkey legs at the New Mexico State Fair years ago. It was gigantic, expensive and dry. I've stayed away from turkey legs ever since. Maybe next time I'll try one at Big John's.)

You might have noticed the conspicuous absence of pork on this menu. Well, there's a story. The Islamic Temple next door is the landlord and there is a “no pork” clause in the lease. Johns told me, “I'm a pork person myself, but I have to respect the terms of the lease.” So pork is not in the picture right now.

No need to worry about choosing side dishes since plates come with beans, potato salad and Texas toast, period. Big John's beans are plump, cumin-laced and tasty. The potato salad is smooth in texture, not acidic, with just a little hint of pickle relish. (Johns hinted to me that there would be additions to the menu in the future. I vote for cornbread and collard greens.)

I asked how the peach cobbler was. Johns' face lit up in a giant grin, “You gotta try it, I sure stepped in it with this cobbler.” Indeed he did and we're all the luckier for it. This cobbler ($1.25) is delicious. It's just sweet enough with a hint of ginger and cinnamon. It cries out for whipped cream and I'm told that it will be offered in the very near future. You can also enjoy delicious homemade chocolate chip or peanut butter cookies that are a real bargain at only three for a buck.

Bulk specials are offered on a regular basis like the recent Superbowl Special, a whole brisket with beans and potato salad, enough to feed eight or 10 good eaters for $60. Catering is also available for large groups. I've got a sneaking suspicion I'll be heading back to Big John country for barbecue on a regular basis.

Big John's BBQ; 1024 Yale SE; 266-2799; open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday; inexpensive; cash only

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