We get a bit messy at Papa Jones BBQ at South 19th and MLK.
What is the hallmark of a good barbecue joint? I used to think it was the decor: rustic Southern inspired interior with a smattering of sweet tea and 70′s funk. The floor would be a mix of stained hotel carpet and yellowed tile, everything would be coated with slightly sticky residue, and there would be altogether too much gold accenting. The decor would age along with the well loved menu and master barbecuer, and the clientele would consist mostly of local equally aged regulars. Papa Jones proved this rather stereotypical assertion incorrect. The place exists at 19th and MLK within a brand new strip mall in the shadow of St Joe’s hospital. Spotless, full of busy working folk, and quite modern. The menu however is timeless.
The Papa Jones menu is loaded with soul favorites and BBQ classics from ribs to gumbo (Saturday only) and sides like collard greens and candied yams. The back proudly proclaims the origins of the food as authentic to Arkansas and Texas, passed down from earlier generations, cooked “Low and Slow.” The restaurant is deli style, with orders put in at a register and your food delivered with an accompanying shout of your name. We beat the lunch rush and took our time browsing the menu, taking care to sample as wide a variety of soul goodness as possible.
As we sat happily suckling at our sweet tea and Kool Aid waiting for our orders, I just couldn’t get over the feel of the place. The hanging lights were modern chic, the walls a trendy rust, and the clientele – now steadily pouring in through the front door – a mix of young and old, townie and professional. This place was quickly shattering my comfortable illusions.
The first plates to arrive were the Pork ‘n Fries and Rib Tip Lunch. All lunches come with a side of coleslaw, potato salad, or mac salad. To hell with green salads. They lack soul.
The Rib tips were a fabulous kickoff to the sticky meat fest. Arriving alongside a side of potato salad and a piece of Wonder bread, the meat was extremely tender and ample, and generously slathered in homemade sauce. The most intriguing part of this meal though was probably the sauce itself. The sauce was adequately smokey, but amazingly full flavored without the sickening sweet body all to often plaguing ribs in more commercial restaurants. Kudos to Papa Jones. Getting this most basic of meals down pat is a sure sign of BBQ greatness. Spotless interior be damned. The Pork ‘n Fries were a big hit with our friend Emily. I dunno, I’m not altogether sold on the combo, but it sure makes for a nice picture.
In addition to rib tips, the lunch menu boasts some very tasty sandwiches: pulled pork, chopped beef, and chopped chicken. Unfortunately the chicken wasn’t available today, but the beef and pork were fantastic: succulent meat drenched in delightfully spicy sauce piled high on a fresh light bun. I don’t know what it is with BBQ and white bread. I guess it’s the soft texture and simple flavor of the bread, it showcases the meat so well. Like a plain frame around an intricate oil painting. In this case…one you’d want to eat.
The accompanying salads were all very standard, tasty but not life changing; however, the fried okra was excellent. The okra was sliced into small sections, presumably to maximize fryable surface area. It was perfectly crisp and served with a tasty secret sauce that tasted much like spiced Mayo. We were hoping to sample some more items off the side menu, but several things were out of stock. Apparently people have been loading up on their red beans and rice.
For dessert I managed to put down a sweet potato pie. Dense and extremely sweet, this tasted much like the sweet potato pies I’ve had before only more so. Denser, sweeter, pie-er. The other options were Pecan Pie and Peach Cobbler.
With the already established Fish House cafe and Papa Jones BBQ, and Ezell’s chicken coming soon, South 19th and MLK is quickly becoming Soul Food Corner (coined that…just now). This is one spot you need to hit soon before it blows up. Just bring a wet nap.
Mention us and get….nothing. Just a waste of breath really.Papa Jones BBQ 1902 MLK Jr Way #D Tacoma, WA 98405