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Sometimes it pays to listen to the chef--Johnson's Barbeque

  • m

I am always looking for a good place that has good barbeque, pork ribs in particular. As I live in San Francisco, I usually go to Cliff's or in a pinch Big Nates. In my previous experiences I found Brother-in-laws overated and Leon's not good. My experience with Minnies occurred at an large event in Golden Gate Park, which didn't impress.

I missed the BBQ taste-off, but took it to heart. I'm going to give Minnies another chance...at the restaurant. I also intend to cross the Bay Bridge to expand my BBQ from just one visit to Everett and Jones in Berkeley. I think that it's a shame that the tasters didn't have a chance to try either Cliff's or Armadillo Willys. After reading all the posts concerning the taste-off, the one place that really stood out for me was Johnson's. I hadn’t even heard of it--San Bruno Avenue isn't really on my way to anywhere.

I dropped by at 7:30 on Wednesday night and ordered a full slab, which would give me leftovers for the next day's lunch and then some. It comes with three sides and costs just over $20.00. I ordered it hot as I normally do. Mr. Johnson asked me whether I was sure that hot was how I wanted the ribs. I assured him that it was. He pointed to friend of diminutive stature and suggested that he had been over six feet tall before he'd tried Johnson's hot ribs. I replied that his friend's predicament was unfortunate, but I'd try my luck.

When I got home, the ribs were still as warm as I got them. They were good-looking pork ribs; the sauce was all over them as I had forgot to say to put it on the side. I began to eat.

Let me first say that the sides were nothing special. I enjoyed them, but I wouldn't go an extra distance for the potato salad, coleslaw, or beans. The ribs looked good and to begin with tasted good as well. The problem was that they were really hot. I like hot and spicy food. And I like to think that I can handle any hot and spicy food, but this stuff was really hot. The rubs were juicy and smoked, but I was having real trouble with my sense of taste. As my mouth was going numb I was recalling Mr. Johnson's advice and considering the award that he has posted in his shop for his Thermonuclear Ribs. I drank a lot of water and ate a fair bit of vanilla ice cream that night.

I'll be going back to Johnson's, very soon. When I do go I think that I'll consider ordering ribs with the medium hot sauce.

Johnson's Barbeque
2646 San Bruno Ave
San Francisco, CA

(415) 467-7655

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  1. I usually just ask for a taste of the sauces if I'm not sure and when can you ever be sure? We had the mild at the tasting - very tasty. Thanks for putting your palate & stomach on the line for Chowhound.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Gordon Wing

      Tasting the sauces first is a good idea. It's unfortunate for me that lessons such as this tend to be learnt "the hard way."

      1. re: Gordon Wing
        z
        Zach Georgopoulos

        "We had the mild at the tasting - very tasty"

        Actually, I think I ordered them with the medium for the tasting (though my memory is hazy at this point). Still spicy, but doesn't make your eyeballs pop out...

        Johnson's is fiercely proud of its Thermonuclear hot sauce, but I have never tried it. A man's got to know his limitations...

        1. re: Zach Georgopoulos

          I can't handle too much heat in my food so I thought the sauce was somewhat mild - just because I didn't remember it being particularly hot - but very tasty. All the more reason to ask for a taste, I guess. Good find!

      2. Yes leons is a shocker. Went there last week and the ribs really sucked. All I can say is the best ribs I found were at a small joint in Santa Rosa, known as Hungry Hoggs. The baby back ribs with french toast, black beans and garlic potatoes is something I live for in between trips North. The sauce is thick and mild but you can get it in medium and hot as well.

        3 Replies
        1. re: weipanlan

          Sounds great, can't wait to try it! But, french toast seems a little out of place in that combo?

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            I suspect it is what Texas bq's refer to as "Texas Toast". It is a thick slice of bread (abt 1"plus ) fried in fat.Most bq's in Texas serve this.

            1. re: celeryroot

              Sounds good to me, I've not had it and look forward to trying this.

        2. Thanks for the info about Johnsons. Personally, I like Brothers-in-Law a lot. Recently made a trip to the east bay specifically to go to Everett and Jones. I was very disappointed. The sauce was way too sweet and the ribs and sliced beef weren't even warm. Not worth the trip in my opinion.

          2 Replies
          1. re: SFMike

            just curious, which branch of Everette & Jones did you visit? in our tasting, the Jack London branch was way better than the Berkeley (San Pablo Ave & University Ave) branch. Give Johnson's a try, tho - it was the "discovery" of the tasting.

            1. re: gordon wing

              I went to the San Pablo address. Thanks for the tip. I'll give the other location a try--after I try Johnsons.

          2. Since there is recent interest in Portola eateries, I'll revive this old thread and add a place link. Anyone been here recently? Anyone care to compare in-restaurant experiences at Johnson's to Minnies's?

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            Johnson's Barbeque
            2646 San Bruno Ave, San Francisco, CA 94134

            1 Reply
            1. re: BernalKC

              I was at Johnson's in 2005 and 2007. As far as the place goes, there's no comparison to Memphis Minnie's. Johnson's could easily be described as a dump, so if you're sensitive to that don't go. I haven't been back since then because (1) it's not near any route I normally traverse and (2) it's such a dump I don't go out of my way to get there. As far as comparing the food to Memphis Minnie's, I'm a fan of MM and it's by far my favorite bbq place in the Bay Area. Here are my two experiences of Johnson's from my notes:

              08/24/05 – Beef was very ordinary, no indication of being smoked and virtually no flavor. Pork was much better. The mild sauce (requested on the side) was quite good, and better after adding a little of the hot sauce. Didn’t try the ribs. I’d call the mild sauce a Kansas City type with some sweetening, maybe molasses, with a small but noticible trace of “hot”. We got a side of the hot sauce and it was good added to the mild sauce in very small amounts to taste. Sides were baked beans (pretty standard and not to my liking but much better after adding some bbq sauce) and cole slaw (a heavy mayo version, didn’t like it much).

              3/9/07 – I had the ribs. Pretty good, if light smoke flavor and a bit tough in places. Great sauce again (again on the side; mild version with a little of their hot mixed in). Much better beans.

              So there you go. Barbecue fans really should try it for themselves. I keep meaning to stop back there and buy some of their sauce to take home.

            2. I think Mr. Johnson would quadruple business overnight if he would just...clean..that..place..up!!

              13 Replies
              1. re: Rockman

                Agreed...but if you notice the health dept. inspection card, they got 100 pts. on the lastest score (as of a few months ago). That's perfect cleanliness!! Shows how laughable health inspections are in S.F. It really depends on your inspector. Maybe that's just in relation to other San Bruno Restaurants. Ever been to Wing Hing BBQ?...Now there's a dump. As to Johnson's food, I'm almost certain that all the sides are canned or frozen. You can even see the boxes of cans along side the kitchen. And although I really like the sauce, I'm pretty sure those are just cans with a little doctoring. We're still waiting for the "Queens Louisiana Po Boys" up the street to open up after at least a year of "Coming soon" signs and an unfinished website (queenslapoboys.com). Although I did actually see someone working in there the other day and the iron bars are off the front door.

                1. re: bdl

                  >although I really like the sauce, I'm pretty sure those are just cans with a little doctoring<

                  If that's true, I'd sure like to know what those cans and doctoring are :-)

                  1. re: Mick Ruthven

                    Just look around next time you're in there. I'm sure you'll see some bottles, boxes or cans sitting around somewhere in the "dining room".

                    1. re: bdl

                      Good idea. For anyone who goes there from reading this thread, please see if you can read the name of a bottled or canned bbq sauce there and report back!

                  2. re: bdl

                    >Agreed...but if you notice the health dept. inspection card, they got 100 pts. on the lastest score (as of a few months ago). That's perfect cleanliness!! Shows how laughable health inspections are in S.F.<

                    I know it looks like a dump inside, but I really don't know if it's actually dirty or that their food handling is improper. They might be doing all the important food-health things right.

                    1. re: bdl

                      >We're still waiting for the "Queens Louisiana Po Boys" up the street to open<

                      I found this as a 3/2009 comment on the web:

                      Just to let you know that coming soon to San Francisco is an original, authentic Po-boy Shop named Queen's Louisiana Po-boy Shop. We will open sometime in late summer. Come and join us. We will be happy to have you. By the way, we will use original Louisiana Po-boy bread and Gulf shrimp.

                      1. re: Mick Ruthven

                        Since I like Johnson's sauce, too, and not to vary too much from the thread...for a similar style try Stubb's Mesquite Bbq Sauce, available at Safeway.

                        1. re: bdl

                          Thanks! I'll look for it although the "Mesquite" part of the name implies liquid smoke to me and I hate that. But I do have to stop back by Johnson's and get some of theirs (and look around :-)

                          1. re: Mick Ruthven

                            I'm not sure how else you get smoke into a sauce. But Stubbs has other flavors as well.

                            1. re: bdl

                              >I'm not sure how else you get smoke into a sauce.<

                              I also don't know of another way. I don't like a smoke taste in my sauce. To me, smoke flavor should come from the cooking method, not the sauce. I didn't notice any smoke flavor in Johnson's sauce. Ah ha, I see that Stubbs also has an "Original Bar-B-Q Sauce" that might be just the thing for me to try.

                              1. re: Mick Ruthven

                                You could always simmer the sauce inside a smoker. Not the likely procedure for commercial sauces, but it is the preferred method when making (or doctoring) your own.

                                1. re: Civil Bear

                                  >You could always simmer the sauce inside a smoker.<

                                  I've never even thought of smoking a bbq sauce. To me, the smoke flavor in the meat from cooking it the right way provides all the smoke flavor. I've always assumed that smoke flavor in bbq sauces was only for meat that hadn't had any smoke applied during its cooking (faux bbq). Are "smoked" bbq sauces favored by real bbq chefs?

                                  1. re: Mick Ruthven

                                    >>"Are "smoked" bbq sauces favored by real bbq chefs?"

                                    I don't know about all that, but it does have its uses, especially in quicker cooking or grilling sessions where there is not enough time for the smoke to take to the meat.

                                    There is a popular glaze recipe out there that won renowned BBQ Chef and pit designer "Fast Eddie" a 1st place ribbon in ribs at the annual Memphis in May contest:

                                    (1) 18-oz jar of KC Masterpiece
                                    1/2 cup of honey
                                    1/2 cup water

                                    Mix ingredients together and place in smoker with baby back ribs until reduced to a thick glaze. Brush on ribs 1/2 hour before ribs are done.