Wood stacked up outside a barbecue restaurant usually is an early alert system that the real deal is just inside. At Papa Jones BBQ, the stack of alder wood -adjacent to the building tucked into a flower bed -says it all. Meats are smoked here. You can smell it a block away.
Pork shoulder, ribs, brisket and chicken are rubbed with a sweet-smoky spice blend and slow smoked over alder and cherry. Papa Jones is a restaurant that has the technical aspect of barbecue nailed. The Hilltop restaurant opened July 29. The atmosphere is seat-yourself casual with modern decor – stained concrete floors, snazzy pendant lighting and attractive earth tones. It’s downright pretty, which, if I know barbecue aficionados – and I think I do – might make diners pause. Good barbecue restaurants are seldom well decorated. But don’t fear, the woman at the helm knows what she’s doing. Helen Alfred learned from one of the region’s best – William Jones, who started the popular Jones Original Barbeque in Seattle (his son and daughter-in-law now run it).
I’ve long been a fan of Jones. Slow smoked meats with a tomato-based spicy sauce draws crowds. Tacoma’s Papa Jones not only is named after William Jones, it’s an homage to his barbecue recipes. Alfred cooked for Jones for 18 years before starting her own barbecue restaurant in Seattle, which was short lived before she lost the space to a building owner’s foreclosure. Two years later, she picked Tacoma because of the location. She operates the restaurant with her children, son E.J. Evans and Ashleigh Bess.
The meat is what Alfred calls a merge of Texas- and Arkansas-style barbecue. Meats are rubbed with brown sugar, smoked paprika and garlic, then slow cooked and served naked (if requested) or with one of the spicy-sweet tomato-based and cayenne-fueled barbecue sauces. Be warned heat haters: it is accurate on the Papa Jones scale. Hot really is hot, medium truly is medium heat. Best order the sauce on the side if you’re afraid of tongue sizzle. I found the hot permeating with a full-mouth sting. Medium was more tolerable.
The barbecue tasted near perfect on two separate visits – the pulled pork sandwich ($7.75 at lunch) was tender and lightly hit with smoke, the connective tissue all melted away, leaving a big pile of unctuous meat sans chewy gristle. The bun was just ornament, I didn’t eat it. A lunchtime rib tip basket ($7) with slaw or fries came with a healthy mound of tips that were lightly kissed with smoke and had just the right amount of pull and chew. A chopped beef sandwich at lunch ($8.50) also showed they know how to cook tough meats into smoky magic without turning them into pot roast. Consider me a fan.
All lunch specials come with a house-made salad, creamy red-skin potato salad, mayo-dressed macaroni or a crunchy cole slaw .
Ribs ($13.95) come a la carte and were six bones of spare ribs (a full rack is $24.95) that were slightly too chewy, but more assertively smoked than the other meats I sampled. The smoke ring is a sure sign of a kitchen that knows what it’s doing.
While they’re getting started, expect tweaks and specials to the menu. I already know I’ll be back to try gumbo Saturdays.
Papa Jones BBQ
Where: 1902 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma
Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday, noon-9 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.