There are all sorts of foods I enjoy or revel in or remember with absolute fondness, but only a few are so overwhelmingly pleasurable they're satisfying at something beyond a merely gustatory level. I recall a platter of fudge that made its way from taste bud to belly to the deepest reaches of self's very soul; a perfectly rare and fat-ribboned rib roast shared with a dozen friends one drizzly January evening; the proverbial perfect peach. And: a platter of barbecued baby back ribs a friend prepared in her backyard on a sweltering August day in a nimbus of cayenne, cumin, garlic, and ginger.
I love barbecue; God save me, I love barbecue. I love the fragrance that serves as an aperitif of delights to come. I love the way the meat falls from the bone in a tender, limpid mess. I love the wood smoke and fiery sweetness encapsulated in every mouthful. I love the scarlet-stained wet-naps, the long-neck beer and noncommittal white bread, the happy torpor that results from an afternoon of gnawing glistening pig meat straight from the rib. I love, I repeat, barbecue.
An invention, purportedly, of native Caribbean islanders, barbecue has evolved and branched hither and yon on its meanderings throughout the continental United States. While North Carolina grill masters serve up minced pork doused in a pallid vinegary sauce, their South Carolina counterparts prefer a mustard-laced brew and pork-jowl hash alongside. In Memphis the emphasis is on dry seasoning rather than wet; mutton is the protein of choice in western Kentucky, mesquite-grilled brisket in the Southwest, tripe and pig's snout in St. Louis. Arkansans like something called barbecue salad, Kansas City is famous for its power-packed ribs, and the Deep South serves up the sweet, smoky tomato-based concoction that's become most synonymous with modern American barbecue.
The West Coast doesn't have a barbecue tradition it can call its own, but in the great tradition of cool jazz, the boysenberry, and other Golden State experiments in cross-pollination, Everett and Jones combines aspects from several fragrant disciplines into one successful package. Southern-style sauce drapes the ribs, links, and chicken. Texas brisket with pinto beans is one of the highlights of the menu. You can even get a bowl of salad topped with barbecued chicken, just like in Little Rock.
The original Everett and Jones opened on Oakland's 92nd Avenue in 1973 and eventually spawned half a dozen branch locations in the East Bay, plus one in Sacramento. "We've been serving good barbecue for 35 years," says Dorothy King, one of founder Dorothy Everett's eight daughters and owner of the Broadway location at Jack London Square. (Each daughter owns a different franchise.) The secret? "The seasoning, number one; the technique you use to cook the meat; and the best part is the sauce." Everett and Jones markets its sauces at three hundred grocery stores throughout California, and they also liven up sandwiches sold at hundreds of 7-11 stores up and down the state. Another branch is opening at the Oakland Airport in the fall.
The question, of course, is whether the pleasures of down-home barbecue can endure all of this marketing and franchising. Although the ribs served up at Everett and Jones don't attain the soul-stirring heights of the 'cue I've experienced at the Acorn in Durham, Charlie Vergos in Memphis, and Edith's in Chicago (or, for that matter, the backyard mentioned above), they're luscious, spicy, and satisfying. Smoked over oak wood and doused in the establishment's slightly fruity, latently sultry medium-heat sauce, they're superior to most of the Bay Area ribs I'm acquainted with. The brisket is even better: a fork-tender pile of thinly sliced smoked and marinated beef with blissfully burnt edges accenting the lushness. The freshly made beef links aren't as successful: they're kind of dry and overcooked with a granular texture that overshadows the pleasantly robust flavor. Best of all is the half chicken, an amazingly juicy bird that falls off the bone.
Each dinner comes with your choice of two sides (at lunchtime they're available à la carte), all prepared daily from ingredients purchased at the neighboring Oakland Produce Market. The long-simmered greens are luscious, silky, and pungent, and are a nice contrast to the overly sweet candied yams. Further textural balance is provided by the fresh, crunchy coleslaw with its bracing, vinegar-edged attitude. Cool, creamy potato salad and an inoffensive corn muffin are nothing special, but the baked beans are: slightly sweet, yielding, and infused with smoky flavor, they're a memorable complement to your meal.
Desserts are baked on the premises at each location. The caramel cake is a tall slice of Betty Crocker layered with sweet, gooey frosting; the pecan pie features a buttery crust and a toothsome, sugary filling but not enough pecans; the sweet potato pie, on the other hand, is rich and redolent of yam and spice. The wine list is limited to eleven perfunctory selections, but beer offerings include Guinness and Widmer Hefeweizen, as well as the house's own Saucey Sistah Ale, a Sierra Nevada-like pale ale with a bracing bittersweet after-bite to it: a fine foil for the rich food.
The Broadway Everett and Jones is a big barn of a place with exposed brick, potted palms, antique kitchenware, an old Coke dispenser, rustic tables topped with floral oilcloths, a mismatched array of chairs, wooden pews, neon beer signs, Raiders banners, numerous TVs, a shopping cart full of menus, an old luggage cart (a tribute, perhaps, to the train that rumbles nearby on a regular basis), and big windows looking out on Jack London Square. The Berkeley location is more reminiscent of a traditional rib joint, with minimal seating, paper plates, a well-stocked jukebox, and the only ambience provided by the guys behind the counter chopping up slabs of sweet, smoky ribs. In other words: my kind of place.