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Fifty years ago, John Toomey opened a barbecue joint in downtown Houston. It closed five years later. He’s been thinking about his next restaurant ever since. “It’s something I wanted to do all my life,” he said, but working in the family real estate and car dealership businesses took priority. Finally, at 93 years old, he fulfilled his wish with J-Bar-M BBQ, his new restaurant in the EaDo neighborhood, just a mile and half from his first venture.
Toomey grew up in the Riverside neighborhood of Houston. At twelve years old, he built a barbecue pit in his backyard with bricks he’d stolen from a nearby construction site. His favorite barbecue was at Matt Garner’s Bar-B-Q, a legendary haunt on West Gray. After Garner’s closed, Toomey hired the former cook, Raymond Walker, to run a new spot. He called it the Green Room, and it was housed in a building behind the Ambassador Hotel (now the Lancaster Hotel), on Louisiana Street. In August 1972, the Houston Chronicle said the restaurant served smoked brisket “that conjures up the past.” When Toomey had been in business for five years, the hotel changed hands, and its new owners wanted the restaurant space for themselves, so the Green Room closed.
In November 2019, J.C. Reid, the barbecue columnist for Houston Chronicle, introduced me to Toomey at the Texas Monthly BBQ Fest. Toomey was with Willow Villarreal, a talented pitmaster whose work I was familiar with when he and his wife, Jasmine Barela, ran Willow’s Texas BBQ food truck. Toomey and Villarreal described their grand plans. Reid, a former architect, was acting as a design and barbecue consultant, and Villarreal had been brought on staff as pitmaster. Their restaurant was still a long way off then, but none of us knew it would take another two years.
I recently sat down at J-Bar-M with Villarreal and Barela, who is the restaurant’s executive chef, to hear about their journey. I wrote a glowing review of their Willow’s Texas BBQ trailer several months before Houston Chronicle restaurant critic Alison Cook gave it a whopping three stars in November 2018. “The day after the [Chronicle] review was in print, the health department inspector was at our trailer,” Villarreal recalled. When a trailer-mounted smoker is used under a regular restaurant permit, it needs to be towed into the city’s commissary facility for daily inspections. The inspector gave the couple the option to pay for a more expensive special event permit instead. Considering that the trailer was full of meat with an active fire at all hours during the days the truck was open, they bought the expensive permit. Soon after, they realized they didn’t have enough to buy ingredients for the next week. “It felt like such a soul crush,” Villarreal said. They shut down Willow’s Texas BBQ in March 2019.
“I fell ass-backwards into a f—ing dream” is how Villarreal described the improbable week that followed. He and Barela searched for work. She found a gig walking dogs, and he got a call from Reid to meet Toomey to discuss a new restaurant. Villarreal left the meeting as the pitmaster, and would start receiving paychecks immediately and for the next 32 months until the restaurant opened—a rare amount of financial stability for the job.
Doubts crept in for Villarreal during the long construction period. Did he still know how to cook barbecue? Would his and Barela’s small-scale experience translate into a massive dining room, a kitchen with an actual staff, and a pit room with six smokers? Before J-Bar-M opened last November, Villarreal ordered raw meat and seasoning to test the new Moberg smokers. He sampled enough of the barbecue to boost his confidence, and the rest was donated to a local charity.
I planned a trip to Houston three months after J-Bar-M had opened. Reid and Toomey agreed to meet me. I knew the kitchen would be prepared for my visit, so I tried to sneak in the day prior. “Tried” is the key word. Michael Fulmer, who cofounded the Houston BBQ Fest with Reid and is now the restaurant’s manager, parked next to me as I walked in. Reid walked out the door as I approached, and Jess Timmons, front-of-house consultant and former Cherry Block chef, was just inside the door. They’ve gathered quite the collection of barbecue cognoscenti.
The special that day was the smoked sausage and chicken gumbo. I opted for a scoop of red-skinned potato salad in the center instead of rice, and the coolness of the potato salad offset the heat of the deeply hued gumbo. Tender sliced brisket, a lightly glazed pork rib, and a link of the house-made beef and pork sausage were a promising preview of the next day.
When I arrived the following day, Villarreal was working the cutting block. He served several customers ahead of me, and only a small chunk of lean brisket was left on the block. I could see him itching to turn around for a fresh brisket in the warmer. I asked for a few slices of that lean brisket before he could. If it was good enough for other customers, I wanted to try it. The fat was meltingly rendered, and the prime beef was still incredibly juicy. The black pepper didn’t overwhelm, and the meat was well salted. It was just the slice of brisket I was hoping for, even if that’s not what Villarreal wanted to serve me. I tried the fatty brisket too, chopped and served between two slices of buttered and griddled Texas toast. A few pickles and some pickled onions provided the brightness and crunch needed to offset the rich beef.
The spareribs were even better than the previous day’s. There’s some acid along with sweetness in the glaze, and the pork was perfectly tender. The casing on the sausage was so thin you could see the bits of jalapeño and cheese beneath it as if they’d been preserved in amber. The casing was crisp, and the link was juicy. I couldn’t pick a favorite between the jalapeño-cheese and the classic link.
I’d expected great things from Villarreal when it came to the Texas trinity, and he delivered. But I hadn’t yet tried his chicken, which is cooked on a direct-heat grill from BQ Grills in North Carolina. The chicken is mopped with a vinegar-based mixture while it’s cooking. The melted fat from the meat and the sauce drip onto the coals below, creating an alluring aroma. The chickens are bathed in that steamy smoke. Even the white meat was juicy beneath the mahogany skin. The incredible chicken is what makes J-Bar-M stand out from the rest of the tough competition on the Houston barbecue scene.
But the sides are where J-Bar-M shines above pretty much every other barbecue joint in Texas. They are Barela’s domain. She wore an orange apron with “Sides” embroidered where her name should go as she brûléed marshmallows atop a buttery roasted sweet potato. The sweet side pairs well with the savory roasted cauliflower au gratin with melted gouda, fried leeks, and tender cauliflower. It’s the best mac and cheese alternative I’ve ever tried.
When ordering a combo plate, I’m always trying to build the right duo of sides. Here, you could go light with the ginger-infused red cabbage and carrot slaw and the tomato salad with shallots and parsley, whose bright dressing cuts through the fat of a brisket slice. There’s the classic combination of sturdy pinto beans and the green onion–flecked potato salad. Or fresh green beans and jalapeño cream corn. The mac and cheese is topped with toasted bread crumbs and collard greens, which thankfully are not sweet but which needed some pep. I squeezed on some packets of Boerne brand hot sauce, available at the condiment counter. You could truly leave here happy with just the sides.
Dessert is no afterthought, either. Cinnamon rolls the size of bundt cakes sit next to the register, but I went with a masterful version of banana pudding with fresh whipped cream. For the next visit, I sought the indulgence of the chocolate ganache pie. Let it warm up a bit to soften the dense filling before you enjoy.
Just like the sides, the desserts, and the meats, the restaurant is a mix of old and new, traditional and modern. Spherical orbs of light hang from the cathedral-like ceiling and taxidermied animal heads line the wall. Customers stand in line for barbecue, but can order several Texas wines by the glass from the bar (you’ll have to commit to a full bottle to get any of the California offerings). It’s certainly more like a restaurant than anything you’d call a “joint,” but it’s still comfortably casual while offering a meal that feels like a special occasion.
“The place turned out better than I expected,” Toomey said, and I’d have to agree. I knew they had a talented team, but I wondered how Villarreal and Barela would handle what could have been an uncomfortable jump from producing small-batch barbecue on their own to leading a team to recreate their vision on a much larger scale. “Coming from a spot where you did everything, it’s hard to let go,” Barela admitted, but she has relished the challenge and she stepped up mightily, based on everything I tried. The same can be said for Villarreal, who told me, “There was a day where everything was great. I stopped and realized I didn’t cook any of it.” It was his most satisfying day on the job as a leader in the pit room. Thanks to them and a determined nonagenarian, Houston has yet another barbecue gem that’s sure to bring in Texans from every corner of the state.
2201 Leeland St., Houston
Hours: Tuesday-Wednesday 11-8, Thursday-Friday 11-10, Saturday 11-4
Pitmaster: Willow Villarreal
Method: Oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2021