Though BJ's Brick House BBQ opened a little more than three months ago in the former Charlie's Pit Bar-B-Que space on North Nevada Avenue, it shouldn't really be considered a newbie. That's because owner Brad Poppell brings roughly 20 years of barbecue-restaurant experience into his proprietorship, built on never-frozen, hickory-smoked meats with common sides and salads.
Notwithstanding the smell of smoke in the air, the small eatery gives off the vibe of an immaculately clean diner. A Christian diner. On blue walls, outside of cornflower curtains, are posters depicting religious themes. A contemporary inspirational radio station plays in the background.
The faith plays out with a familial warmth; Poppell's children and a nephew, naturally much greener than Poppell himself, work at BJ's. And on one visit, Poppell's cousin (a fellow diner that day) offered a few tricks to my children on shelling the salt-roasted peanuts that are complimentary on each table.
Crack open the menu, and above a small reference to John 3:16 comes a hint of Poppell's devotion to something else: a sweet, tangy and mild house-made sauce. It coats everything, and the menu advises that if you don't want it, you'd better say something.
The sauce, also bottled for sale, coated my thinly sliced beef brisket ($7.45 lunch/$11.95 dinner), whose pink smoke-ring and flavorful bark made for a satisfying entrée. But I initially cringed at the pork spare ribs ($12.95). The platter arrived as perfectly sawed individual ribs, as opposed to an intact rack. When I order ribs, I want to be able to rip them apart myself and see how clean the meat comes from the bone. Call me overly carnivorous, but I felt robbed. Fortunately, they tasted quite good.
The entrées' sides were a mixed bag. Our curly fries lacked seasoning and were limp, and adding bacon and onion to canned green beans is a disservice to the bacon and onion. But the potato salad was pleasantly creamy, and one bite of the mayo-less coleslaw set off a tingling behind my ear. Crunchy, sour and sweet, it was a perfect accompaniment to the rich meats. The texture of some diced green bell peppers and onions helped enliven BJ's tasty baked bean rendition.
Timing proved an issue on our second visit, which brings me back to the peanuts. Arriving for lunch, we ordered one of four signature half-pound burger options and a pulled pork sandwich ($7.45). After 30 minutes, inside of which we consumed half a can of peanuts, our food arrived. Though a lunch rush was in progress, the young staffers will have to step it up to avoid ill tempers (and a colossal peanut bill).
Synchronizing plate times also needs work (or a heat lamp), as my pork was apparently plated some time before the burger, leaving it cool. While succulent, it relied heavily on the sauce's endowment. The bacon mushroom burger ($6.95) brought nice, thick bacon, but unfortunately arrived well-done instead of medium, as I'd requested. An outstanding apple cobbler ($2.45), which sported a delicious, moist, cake-like topping instead of the ubiquitous crunchy oatmeal crumble or pie crust, at least made for a happy ending.
Speaking to Poppell later by phone, he acknowledged that beyond smoking meats, he needs to light a fire under his kin. I've got faith it'll happen — in a friendly, Christian way, no doubt.
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