Ryan Scott, the affable host of the enlightening and entertaining Break the Chain radio program has rapidly become the voice for Albuquerque’s mom-and-pop restaurants. When it comes to celebrating the Duke City’s independent eateries, he’s like E.F. Hutton in that when he speaks, people listen…literally. The Break the Chain Web site receives more than 10,000 visits per week, many visitors stopping by to catch up on programs they may have missed or more likely, listening to those they enjoyed most a second (or tenth) time.
While Ryan is unabashed in his promotion of New Mexico’s non-chain restaurants, he will admit to being a snob about only one type of food. That’s barbecue. Ryan won’t hesitate to tell you he hasn’t found barbecue greatness anywhere in New Mexico. He’s found good barbecue (his favorite being Josh’s in Santa Fe), but he’ll tell you if you want great barbecue, you’ve got to visit our neighbor to the east. He should know. His beautiful better half Kimber is from the Houston area where Ryan lived for a few years.
Ryan has major street cred when it comes to barbecue. He smokes his own meats at home–as in low and slow over fruit woods, not the quick grilling we amateurs do. He’s made pilgrimages to the holy grail of Texas barbecue–Lockhart, the barbecue capital of Texas and home to Kreuz Market, Smitty’s Market and Black’s Barbecue, the tastiest triumvirate in the Lone Star State. He’s even visited Snow’s Barbecue which Texas Monthly Magazine rated as having the best barbecue in Texas, an honor as sacrosanct in Texas as having the best green chile cheeseburger is in New Mexico. Barbecue sauce flows in his veins though he’ll tell you great barbecue needs no sauce.
Many of New Mexico’s barbecue restaurateurs actually had their start in the Texas of Ryan’s barbecue dreams. Lubbock is where Gary West of Rio Rancho’s Smokehouse Barbecue Restaurant cut his teeth. Daniel “Pepper” Morgan of Pepper’s Ole’ Fashion BBQ smoked meats in the Dallas area before moving to Albuquerque. Pete Powdrell moved his entire family from Texas to open the historical Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House in Albuquerque. Neil Nobles owned and operated two very highly regarded barbecue restaurants in Texas before opening Sugar’s BBQ & Burgers in Embudo. The County Line Restaurant was founded in Austin while the first Rudy’s Country Store & Barbecue first launched outside of San Antonio. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, a Dallas chain didn’t survive long in the Duke City.
Then there’s JR’s Bar-B-Que in Albuquerque which got its start in Houston where the Rogers family launched a number of successful barbecue restaurants. In the late 1980s, Howard and Julie Rogers brought the family recipes and traditions to Albuquerque where they launched restaurants throughout the Duke City and even into Rio Rancho. Today only one JR’s remains. Fittingly it’s located just outside the Louisiana gate to Kirtland Air Force Base. It’s fitting because barbecue is as American as baseball, apple pie and patriotism.
There aren’t many restaurants in New Mexico as patriotic as JR’s Bar-B-Que where tribute after tribute to the veterans of America’s armed services are proudly displayed. So are the stars and stripes. It’s no wonder the restaurant is frequented by men and women in uniform. They feel right at home among the framed posters and photographs you almost have to be a military veteran or family member to fully understand and appreciate. It’s not only military personnel who will appreciate JR’s which is a popular favorite to barbecue aficionados throughout the area.
Barbecue options include beef brisket, pork ribs, sausage, turkey, ham and chicken all cooked over a mesquite pit for sixteen hours. The sauce is simmered for six to seven hours. Barbecue figures prominently on the appetizer menu where nachos are made with chopped brisket. A barbecue burrito deluxe is made with barbecue beef, beans, cheese, sauce and lettuce with sour cream or green chile on request. Your best bet is a barbecue plate, either the Sunwest Special (one barbecue meat and two sides), the Kirtland Combo (your choice of two barbecue meats and two sides) or if you’re really hungry, the Gibson Trio (choice of three barbecue meats and two sides).
There’s more to barbecue to like at JR’s whose full appellation includes “seafood, too!” The seafood includes Mississippi hand-breaded catfish, fried shrimp, fried oysters and clams. The menu also offers three burger choices, a super stuffed spud (butter, cheese, sour cream and chopped beef), a chef’s salad, green chile chicken stew, chicken fried steak and a combo dinner that lets you have one seafood item and one barbecue meat. Even vegetarians will find something on the menu they can have though vegetarian options are greatly outnumbered by carne.
As you peruse the menu, a tasty trio of yeasty, muffin-shaped rolls are brought to your table along with those annoying, hard to open plastic tubs of butter. The rolls are soft and have a slightly golden sheen. The homemade onion rings are a unique must-have item. What makes them special is the crispy coating which made me think panko (Japanese bread crumbs) because of their gritty texture. More than likely, the crispy coating is resultant from a double-frying technique. In any event, the barbecue chef wouldn’t share the secret to these terrific rings. The crispy coating sheathes wonderfully sweet onions in perfect ringlets served with creamy ranch dressing.
The Gibson platter (three meats and two sides) is brimming with meats slathered with barbecue sauce unless otherwise requested. Despite the long simmering process, the sauce is fairly unremarkable as if it’s trying to determine what its personality should be. It’s a little bit sweet, slightly tangy, somewhat savory and just a tad piquant, but none of those qualities really stand out. The meats would be much better sans sauce, especially the turkey which has a faint, but discernible smokiness. The pulled pork and brisket are similarly overwhelmed by the sauce.
The pork ribs have a thick bark permeated with remnants of the somewhat salty rub applied to the ribs. Peel back the bark and you’ll find plenty of moist, tender meat in these pig ribs. A side of sauce accompanies the ribs, but the sauce is wholly unnecessary. Fried oysters are a perfect counterpoint to the ribs. Beneath the lightly crunchy breading is a gooey, not at all briny uniquely flavored oyster innards. Having lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for eight years, it would be so easy to complain that these oysters weren’t just off-the-boat fresh, but the truth is, they were pretty good for being offered in land-locked New Mexico.
Sides–and there are a lot of them–include green beans, mashed potatoes with gravy, fried okra, corn on the cob and beans. The beans are of the barbecued (meaning just a bit of Southern seasoning) pinto variety, not the conventional molasses-based baked beans many barbecue restaurants tend to offer. The fried okra, a southern favorite with barbecue, is lightly breaded but just a bit mushy.
Whether or not JR’s Bar-B-Que is yet another in a long line of good barbecue restaurants in New Mexico or a great, Texas quality barbecue restaurant is a matter of personal taste and preference. Both my visits have been hit and miss with some items (that turkey is terrific) being quite memorable while others are only so-so. Still, it’s a good option for communing with great American patriots eating an All American food favorite.
6501 Gibson, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 October 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Barbecue Turkey, Fried Oysters