East Bay Bite of the Week: BBQ at Smokey J's
The most important thing about brisket is the way you cut it," says Josh Kemper, unwrapping a mass of meat so fatty it jiggles when he sets it down. "It's got three grains running three different ways." As he takes a knife to it, he explains. Brisket is like a meat map, you've got to know where you are to get what you want.
Molly Gore Smokey J's slow smoked brisket with collards and slaw.
Kemper runs Smokey J's, a tiny outfit in South Berkeley that's been serving classic Texas-style BBQ for almost three years. For one of those years, I lived in sight of the joint, but never knew it existed because until last year, there were no signs. It was not "unmarked" in the cool way modern mixology saloons like to stay coy, but "unmarked" in a way that seemed like someone was too busy basting ribs to really think about labeling the spot.
Kemper cuts a few strips off the leanest side, plunging them into a Texan "mop juice," a cowboy's au jus spunked up with beer and barbecue sauce. He grinds some pepper on top and tosses them into a papered plastic dish, shouldered up against a cup of collards, some coleslaw, sweet bread, and triangles of cornbread with honey butter.
Everything is good. The brisket is lean but tender, a little sweet, a little peppery. The collards, big and salty. The cornbread, toothy and warm. But the sweetbread, the sweetbread is strange. So puffy and sweet and perfectly square that I had to ask Kemper where it came from.
"I hate baking," he says by way of an answer. It's Kemper's obligatory concession to white bread, and it's from the outside. The spongy, sweet, pillow-soft counterpart to puddles of meat juice. Kemper actually tried working in pastry for a while, but it didn't work out. "I was always covered in chocolate and flour. It just wasn't me," he says. The man is a meat man, through and through.
When Kemper opened Smokey J's, he was coming off a long decade country hopping as a hotel chef for Meridian hotels. The bulk of his time found him in Asia, and for one year in Australia, where he did what any good red-blooded Texan man would do: he barbecued. But barbecue in Australia was a novelty, born from an idea he got after making a discovery at the local butcher shop.
"They had this unused smoker sitting in the shop, and they were throwing away all the baby back ribs. It was perfect," he says.
He made a deal with the butcher, who yielded all the pork ribs and use of the smoker if Kemper gave him steady business. Being a hotel chef, Kemper did.
Kemper grew up in Texas, where barbecuing was standard Friday practice. When he brought the ribs of his childhood to the hotel dining room, things took off and they sold like fifteen dollar hotcakes. After a while, he did start paying the butcher.
Now, Kemper gets to barbecue full time in a simple spot off Shattuck Avenue. It's a funny spot for barbecue, flanked by community acupuncture centers, somatic healing practices, and the world's most terrific stockpile of organic, fermented, hippie-approved foodstuffs: Berkeley Bowl. And yet, it works, and it's all because of the meat.
"This is Texas barbecue. Less sweet than the stuff in Kansas City, less vinegar than what you find in the Carolinas," he says.
As expected, the ribs are some of the best things in house; smoked for three hours, slathered in a mix pork jus, brown sugar and barbecue sauce boiled to a caramel thickness, then blasted under 500° of oven heat until they're crackling crisp on the outside, and meltingly soft on the inside. They are at once sweet and charred, crisp and soft. The inside melts, a custardlike revelation. If anything Texan will ever win over the hearts of Berkeley, this is it.