Hog Heaven

'Cue up for first-rate ribs at James & James; ambience gives a boost to the vittles at Powell's Place

Don't get me started on barbecue. My passion on the subject is out of control. And in the days before I discovered James & James Ribs 'N Thangs, I tended to avoid such conversation, as it usually meant driving to the East Bay to Flint's to continue the discussion in a more appropriate environment. Most inconvenient at midnight.

When I think of the truly sensual eating experiences of my life, the ribs orgies rank right up there with dinners at Taillevent in Paris, Le Cirque in New York, and Masa's in San Francisco. Really.

A slab of tender, falling-off-the-bone pork ribs covered with tangy, dusky sauce; baked beans rich with molasses; crunchy coleslaw; and spongy white bread for mopping up the sauce. Links and chicken as a secondary attraction, once the craving for ribs has been satisfied. Sweet potato pie with flaky crust. Man oh man.

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Of countless barbecue extravaganzas during this humble writer's life, two stand out. There was the road trip from Chicago to San Francisco where we detoured to Kansas City and made only two stops -- at Arthur Bryant's and Gates to eat barbecue. Back to back. And the night, following a Grateful Dead concert in Oakland, where we stopped at Flint's about 1 a.m. and pulled off the freeway at the Berkeley Marina on the way home to tear into the bag of ribs and eat them under the stars, elbow deep in sauce, traffic whizzing by, Jerry Garcia's guitar still ringing in our ears. And then there was Ribs & Bibs on Chicago's South Side ... But I said two. I told you, don't get me started.

So needless to say, when I heard about James & James, I had plenty of motivation to check it out. When I called information for the number, and the operator gave the place a rave, I put down the phone and got into the car.

As we cruised down Third Street to Bayview-Hunters Point, I started getting nervous. A barbecue lover's life is full of disappointment: tough meat, liquid smoke, wimpy sauce. And when we walked into James & James and I saw a clean, spacious restaurant with wooden tables and red leather stools at the counter, I got really worried. Most of the great barbecue places I know are dumps. Then I smelled the oak-wood smoke and saw the twinkle in the eye of the man stoking the oven, and I relaxed. Something told me we were in good hands.

That man, by the way, is playwright, actor, and director Wedrell James, well-known for his roles in productions at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and at the Bayview Opera House. (The other James of the restaurant's name is brother Oscar.) You can tell he's a fixture in the community because everyone who comes into the restaurant is a friend. Or becomes one. This is a far cry from Flint's, where you have to put up with the churlishness of the people behind the counter to get the ribs.

We decided the only way to go was the three-way combo plate ($12): ribs, links, chicken, and choice of two side orders. But you don't have to go whole hog (sorry). There are half orders of chicken (three pieces, $4.50), beef links ($5.25), pork ribs ($5.75), and beef brisket ($6), and whole orders of same, ranging from $6.75 for chicken to $11 for brisket. James & James also has fried fish (catfish, snapper, sole, perch, and prawns), fried chicken, burgers, and Philly steak and cheese.

A big, steaming plate of baked beans arrived (this is a side order?), and we dug in. One sweet, rich bite, and I was wiggling my toes with happiness. And the ribs? Well, let's just put it this way: I wanted more even while I was eating them.

Wedrell told me later the secret to tender ribs is smoking them over almond and oak, being careful not to place them directly over the fire because it "tightens up" the meat. The sauce is a recipe that comes from his Texas-Louisiana roots, tomato-based with honey instead of sugar, plus vinegar, white and cayenne peppers, bay leaf, and lots of mysterious spices. The smooth fire of the sauce makes a point without obliterating all the other flavors.

The chicken was moist and didn't suffer the overcooking so common when it's cooked over wood with other meats. Our only quibble was with the links, which were just so-so. Wedrell says he plans to start making his own once things calm down. We polished them off anyway. Styrofoam would've tasted good under that delicious sauce. Coleslaw and potato salad were standard, the latter having that commercial yellow color, though it was crunchy with celery and onion. The white bread mopped up just right.

Sweet potato pie, baked by Wedrell's mom, was stellar: flaky, delicate crust and an impossibly light custardy sweet-potato filling.

His inspiration for opening the restaurant, says Wedrell, was his grandmother, who sold dinners to shipyard workers in San Francisco out of her car in the '40s. "She paid for her home that way," he says proudly. He promises Ribs 'N Thangs will one day re-create Grandma's candy cake, a traditional birthday treat for him and his six brothers.

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