Interview: Punarbassi Sandy of Jaws Bar-B-Que
From Guyana to Port Arthur.
Owner/Pitmaster: Jaws Bar-B-Que; opened 1985
Smoker: Indirect heat wood-fired pit
Port Arthur was flooded for days after Hurricane Harvey. Recovery has been slow, but the pace is picking up. When I stopped into Jaws Bar-B-Que, which has been a Port Arthur staple since 1985, pitmaster Punarbassi Sandy said I’d missed the worst of the awful post-storm stench. “If you were here last week, you wouldn’t want to come to Port Arthur,” she says. I was just glad to see that one of the area’s most popular barbecue joints was still filling the air with oak smoke.
Daniel Vaughn: How long have you been in Port Arthur?
Punarbassi Sandy: Since 1979. My husband, Arthur, wanted to come to America, and we ended up in Port Arthur. He was an educated man. He was a statistician, but he had a disability so he couldn’t get a job. He had a polio leg, but his brain was sharp.
DV: Where did you move from?
PS: British Guyana. He was from Trinidad, and I’m from Guyana. He used to work—you know the United Nations? He worked with CARICOM which is like the United Nations, but for the Caribbean countries. He worked in my country. We met there, and knew each other for four or five years. He wanted to visit the States, so we came to visit.
DV: What kind of work did you do in Guyana?
PS: I worked in the market selling produce like watermelon, eggplant, tomatoes—anything that the farmers would bring, I would buy and resell. I’ve been in the food business all my life.
DV: Was there someone in Port Arthur who had offered Arthur a job?
PS: He was hoping to find one, but he couldn’t get hired. We saw a Servomation truck. They would serve food from the trucks, but it was just snacks and sandwiches. We decided we could do something like that. We bought a truck and tried our Caribbean style of food, like beans and rice. It didn’t work, so we tried little hamburger patties, steaks, and sandwiches. When we changed to American style, people started to buy our product. We made enough to live on.
DV: How long did you run the truck?
PS: In 1982, the refinery and the shipyard closed down and we had nowhere to sell food. We were losing everything. We decided to go back home, but there was a man who ran a barbecue pit by the name of Tommy Shell in Bridge City. He needed someone to help him work, so we did. It started on a percentage basis. We learned a lot from him, and he sold us his business.
DV: What did you serve?
PS: Ribs, brisket, sausage. We parked at Safeway stores for two weeks at a time. It was good. After he sold us the business, a new manager came and said they didn’t want us at the store anymore.
DV: Why do you think that was?
PS: I don’t know. We were kinda disappointed at the time, but we found a man in Nederland who had a convenience store. He said we could stay there as long as we wanted. It was hard to go so far back and forth [from Port Arthur to Nederland] every time. Then, we got this place to rent. After we rented it, the [landlord] wouldn’t fix the leaky roof. We fixed it, and told him he could pay for it or sell us the building. He sold it to us. That was in 1985.
DV: Where did the Jaws Bar-B-Que name come from?
PS: Jaws is my husband’s initials. His full name was Arthur Jefferson Washington Sandy. He moved the “J” to the front.
DV: There’s a sign out front for Jaws II. Was that another location?
PS: We had four spots at one time.
DV: Were those all in Port Arthur?
PS: Yes. Then he got sick. He couldn’t go back and forth, so we stayed with this one location. Since we’ve been here, we’ve had no problems.
DV: What kind of problems did you have?
PS: All day they’d come and say we’re not doing it right. If you’ve got something that’s good quality, why change?
DV: Especially if people are buying it.
PS: Yeah. We never had food to throw away or leftover.
DV: When did you start making the famous links?
PS: People on this side of town wanted links. We learned to make the links from [James Nicholas, founder of Nick’s Bar-B-Que in Port Arthur]. He was a helpful guy.
DV: That’s nice of him to help his competition.
PS: We’re not competition. We used to work together.
DV: I’m guessing the recipes aren’t exactly the same.
PS: In our country we cook. We don’t go to restaurants like they do here. We know taste, so we put our spice with his spice.
DV: What are the primary spices in Guyana?
PS: All Indian spices because the British traded with India.
DV: So, you’re bringing Indian spices into Southeast Texas barbecue?
PS: Yes. It makes it better.
DV: What’s the most popular order here?
PS: Bones and links, and the ribs are third.
DV: It’s great to see you open after Harvey. How long did you have to close?
PS: We had to close for a month. Water didn’t come into here [the dining room], but we had six inches in the back. It went away and the concrete dried.
DV: When you reopened, I bet there were not a lot of people ready to go out and buy barbecue.
PS: Nah. It was busy, too busy. They called on the phone every day. “When are you going to open?”
DV: How is your house?
PS: Half of the house is damaged. FEMA said they can’t give me nothing because my house is still livable. It’s a shame. A hairline leak made the whole ceiling come down.
DV: Have you ever seen a storm come through here like Harvey?
PS: We see lots of storms here, but Harvey wouldn’t go. It sat on Texas for four days. I’ve never seen anything like it. Ike [in 2008] was bad, but it came for maybe two hours, then it was gone. Ike took the roof and the sides of the pit room. The metal flew [across the canal] to Pleasure Island.
DV: The pits were okay?
PS: Yes. They were fine. They’re forty years old. They were built by some company in Kansas, but I don’t know if they build them anymore. I never see them. Most of it now is electrical or gas, with no firebox.
DV: Cooking with wood is hard work, and you’ve been at it for a long time. Do you have any plans to retire?
PS: I’m gonna stay here, and when the Lord says to retire, I’ll go. If you have some energy, use it constructively and don’t waste it. I still have some energy.