Hugs and Tears of Joy at Pack Jack Bar-B-Que in Sebastopol
Thursday afternoon I tried calling the new phone number for Pack Jack Bar-B-Que one more time, and unlike all other attempts, somebody answered. I needed to know if it would really be opening on Friday, June 15. The answer was affirmative, open at 11:00am until 10:00pm. For background and news of the re-opening, check out this thread: “Pack Jack's BBQ up in smoke!!”
Where to have lunch on Friday turned into a no-brainer. As I got closer on the Gravenstein Hwy, I spotted the colorful pennant streamers strung over Pack Jack for opening day.
I wasn’t the only one, as other passers-by and old customers pulled in to see what was going on. As they came in and learned that their neighborhood barbeque restaurant had re-opened after eight years, there were excited phone calls to friends and family, hugs all-round, and many tears of joy. Like me, some had lost faith after some false alarms, especially after the passing of the family matriarch. Our mutual disbelief turned into celebration. We, eager first day customers, did a count off among ourselves. By arriving at 11:40am, I earned the spot of customer #4 in the hierarchy.
My first sight on stepping inside was the view into the kitchen. Front and center, a barbeque-lover’s vision of loveliness: a big hunk of well-smoked, swarthy near-black brisket under the knife. Bursting with juices, rimmed with fat and a smoke ring, this point cut brisket met the knife like butter falling off into steamy, supple slices. I knew what I had to order even though the sliced beef had never been one of my favorites here.
With no printed menus yet, Brendan, Donnie Harris’s grandson, recited the choice of meats to me: chicken, pork ribs, lamb, or sliced beef. No homemade hot links or beef ribs yet. The $15 combo plate would include two meats, two sides (slaw, potato salad or beans) and a couple dinner rolls and butter. For me, sliced beef (brisket) and lamb with beans and coleslaw.
This was decidely old-style barbeque with deep, dark smoky bark served up in an out-sized portion untrimmed of fat or tough edges. I asked for some of the hot and some sweet sauce served on the side.
Pack Jack’s lamb burned brightest in my taste memory and anticipation was high. Sadly, this first example was a let-down, but it was the only disappointment on this first day. Once I picked through the layers of fat and pulled off the heavily smoked, too tough to chew bark, the remaining meat was somewhat overcooked and starting to break apart. Still tasty, yet low on yield and it’s been better in the past.
The sliced beef (brisket) side of the combo fared better and was everything that my first drool-inducing sighting promised. Much heavier on smoke than anything else I’ve tasted locally, true to Texas style. A small inner voice of a KCBS Certified BBQ Judge protested that it was oversmoked and too chewy in spots, but no matter, I was nutty for this brisket. Sure, could have been more tender but the rich beefiness complemented by just smoke, salt, pepper, and rub was so very satisfying. I bought a pound to take home to share with weekend guests. One said that it was the smokiest thing she’d ever put in her mouth. When I offered up a choice of sauces, another remarked that he would not want to sully smoked brisket as good as this with sauce.
In a booth behind me, an unseen customer exclaimed, “I’ve been waiting eight years for these beans”, and I nodded in silent agreement. A touch sweet, quite smoky and meaty with a slug of black pepper and spice, I loved those beans too. The fresh, crunchy coleslaw, made with large shreds of cabbage and some carrot, was dressed lightly with a mustardy tang and minimal (if any) mayonnaise. Good marks on these sides.
I also brought home a whole smoked chicken, $15.95 a la carte, another of my past favorites at Pack Jack. It was as good as I remembered. Mahogany of skin with heavy smoke influence, not overbrined, too salty nor injected with sweeteners, again, this old-fashioned chicken, bringing together just smoke and meat hit every button. What’s old is new again, and the back to basics style was a welcome bolt from the past.
And about those sauces, the hot was plenty fiery but seemed not quite as incendiary as my recollection. Still liked it very much, many other flavors firing besides just heat. The sweet had good depth and a nice tang to strike a balance. And while I also had a cup of the mild version, I somehow missed tasting it.
By the time I finished lunch, the opening day menu print job arrived.
The young woman who was touching up the menus said she would be making the sweet potato and pecan pies, as the keeper of the family recipe. None were available on Friday, but should be soon.
For now, Pack Jack Bar-B-Que is open weekends only and plans to serve six days a week (closed on Mondays).
Pack Jack on opening day
Last Friday I stopped by again, this time mid-afternoon, when there were no other cars in the lot or customers. The staff were all slumped in chairs, taking a load off, exhausted from a crazy busy lunch crowd on the first day of service after news had spread that Pack Jack was back. One sign of progress: the menu board was up, as shown here,
No pies yet. But I was able to order the beef ribs and hot link this time as a combo dinner with beans and potato salad as sides.
The beans, even better than the week before, convincingly smoky, deep and complex with a hint of molasses rounding out the finish. I was told that the recipe was 100 years old. The potato salad, made with firm chunks of red-skinned potato, mayonnaise, pickle, celery and more was fine and a solid example in the world of potato salad, but a third-place compared to the beans and the coleslaw sides.
The beef ribs were new to me, no recollection of having them before. Bare of meat on the top of the curved bones, the flesh between the ribs was generous and chewy, again mahogany-colored and very rich with smoke. While thoroughly cooked, these had some blobs of unrendered fat to eat around. Somewhat undersalted, a dip in the hot sauce brought out more of the concentrated beefiness. While I enjoyed these ribs, I suspect that when I’m in the mood for beef, I’ll be lusting for the brisket.
On the other hand, the house-cured hot link was a visit with an old-friend who has mellowed with the years. Not as spicy as I remembered, the medium-grind marriage of pork and beef with spices brought out the best in each as well as a snappy bite. With some of the “hot” sauce, turned up a notch in fiery heat since last week, this mouthful was a chilihead’s dream.
Pack Jack even has finger bowls.
Service is still working out some kinks. Potential patrons stepping in the door might wait some time before being greeted. I pointed out a couple times that there was a customer waiting in the vestibule, and was told that the door will soon have a bell to signal when someone walks in. However, barbecue aficionados won’t want to wait. Pack Jack is kicking it old school, burning oak logs with a little apple wood for its magical smoke. No charcoal, no propane, doing it their Texas great grandfather’s way with wood.
re: Melanie Wong
Just a caution for those those intending to go on a Sunday. I stopped there last Sunday at 1:30 pm and all they had left were chicken and links. I wasn't interested in those so I'll come back another time. I was told that because they're only open Friday through Sunday now, they plan to not have food left after Sunday so that means they plan to run out of food on Sunday.
I had lunch there today with mixed results. I had the Sliced Beef half dinner with the pit beans. First, the beans were great, one of the very best versions I've ever had. But the beef consisted of thin slices of quite dry meat without much flavor. The slices had a pink smoke ring and I could taste the smoke, but not much else. The meat was really dry. I used the sauces (I got all three on the side) to give the meat some flavor and moisture. The sauces weren't my favorites, but that's a personal-taste thing. I hope they usually do better with the brisket and that this was one-off. But the next time I'm there, I'll try the pork ribs, not the brisket.
A few photos.
re: Malcolm Ruthven
Love those beans! Any pies available yet?
From your photo, your portion of brisket was cut from the flat. They did tell me that they smoke the whole packer brisket. I don't care for the flat because it tends to be dry almost everywhere and ask for point cut. But many don't like the point cut because it's fatty. I eat around the fat and revel in the marbled meat.
Thank you thank you I must check out since I live up that way almost part time now. The other bbq place over by the Whole Foods has gone down hill.
I had a nice grilled chicken that was very flavorful at the Occidental Friday Farmers Market recently and must say that FM has improved greatly the best produce and it has been a go to place for Friday night dinners.
re: Lori SF
Lori, what a delight to see you here again! I'll mention that both my visits were at lunch time on Fridays. That might be the best way to ensure quality and selection, as the meats will be freshly cooked.
A few weeks ago I had a chance to stop by the Occidental farmers market. I was there the day it rained. It had been a couple years since my last time and I was happy to see the expansion of farms yet still keeping the small town charm, e.g., those adolescents who sell pie.
I went to Pack Jack for lunch today and ordered the small dinner of pork ribs ($10) with two sides, baked beans and cole slaw. The ribs were as good as any I've had anywhere. Just great. Tender but not too tender, good smoke flavor as well as good pork flavor. I had their three sauces (mild, sweet, and hot) on the side. The ribs were great without any sauce, and then I settled on a combo of sweet and hot (the sweet wasn't very sweet and the hot wasn't very hot but both were good). The mild sauce sort of "escaped" me; didn't care much for it. The beans were wonderful as always, the cole slaw OK (too bland for my taste). The quantity of food (three meaty ribs) was just right (to me) for one person.
Pardon the poor cell phone photo.
Another data point for Pack Jack. I ate there tonight, the half dinner portion of ribs (pork) with their baked beans, my favorite things there from a prior visit. Tonight the ribs were tough. Not just needed to pull a bit off the bone, but it seemed like the collagen wasn't broken down enough. Also, the beans weren't as good as before; not the same complex flavor, and they were a mushy consistency. Overall, a mediocre food experience.
After 2-1/2 hours of dental work for a crown, I was hungry for gumbo at Hole in the Wall... or, Pack Jack's lamb for take out.
The reheated take-out lamb and pork ribs dinners, homemade hot links, pulled pork sandwich, single portion sweet potato pie... 4 sides, and three sauces Hot/Mild/Sweet were tasty and generous enough for dinner and the next day's lunch. Both the lamb and pork are tender and nicely smoked. DH/dear husband appreciates the sweetness of the beans/coleslaw/sweet potato pie. I liked the creamy potato salad.
Meats are definitely the draw with the hot links, lamb, and pork ribs topping the food chain.
note to MR: beans are NOT mushy, cooked just right - too sweet for me, but DH likes this style. The ribs had a chewy bark when cold, but reheated with smoky tenderness - and chin-dripping fat. Good Q. I'll be back for more of this lip-smackin' smoked meat. We also like the Hot sauce best.