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.
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.
One of the best parts of a barbecue orgy is you get to relive it for the rest of the day via the sauce under your nails. As we rolled to the car, eau de barbecue wafting in our wake, I started planning my next trip to James & James. I want to taste the fried fish and brisket, so I'll have to take a couple of friends. I wouldn't consider ordering anything but ribs myself.
On another ribs note, Powell's Place, a 23-year-old fixture on Hayes Street owned by Emmit Powell (of Emmit Powell and the Gospel Elites fame) and his brother, Mel, is still going strong. With its salmon walls, chandeliers, and pictures of the Gospel Elites, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Bland, and Luther Vandross lining the walls, this is definitely not the new Hayes Valley.
The ribs at Powell's are the baked-in-the-oven variety, the sauce not too exciting. And the fried chicken, Powell's signature dish, had been cooked ahead on the night of our visit.
But there's still something satisfying about the place. Where else in the middle of the city can you get a dinner of smothered pork chops, liver and onions, or ox tails (with two sides plus corn muffins) for under $10? The corn and green beans may be canned, but the black-eyed peas are great, the service superfriendly, and the jukebox outstanding.
As we left, we noticed a brown Cadillac with big fins idling outside while its owner ran in for takeout. Definitely a classic.
James & James Ribs 'N Thangs, 5130 Third St, S.F., 671-0269. Tues-Thurs 8 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri 8 a.m.-3 a.m.; Sat 10 a.m.-3 a.m.; Sun 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Powell's Place, 511 Hayes, S.F., 863-1404. Open daily, 8 a.m.-11 p.m.