Jerome Faulkner wants to be the best pitmaster in Texas. That’s the goal he’s worked toward since 2016, when he opened the J Leonardi’s Barbeque trailer in East Austin with his business partner Cedric Griffin, of UT football fame. (The J stands for Jerome, and Leonard is Griffin’s middle name.) After four years, Faulkner knows he still has work to do. “I’m not where I need to be,” he said, “but I’m trying to make steps to get there.” Faulkner is holding out for an audience with Tootsie Tomanetz of Snow’s BBQ to garner some tips when the celebrated barbecue joint in Lexington reopens. For now, though, he’s just trying to keep his business afloat. “It’s hard at the moment,” he admits, then immediately counters with, “I come from a lot.”
What Faulkner means is that his family has a long barbecue legacy, just not in restaurants. He learned the craft by tending the firebox for his uncle Dwight Jones on their family’s land in St. John Colony, ten miles northeast of Lockhart. Dwight passed away in 2003. “He told me he was going to pass the torch to me,” Faulkner said. His uncle James and cousin Jermaine can hold their own on the pit when the family gathers for events, but Faulkner is the only family member who’s gone into the barbecue business.
Although Faulkner was born and raised in Austin, the land and the family homes in St. John Colony are hallowed ground to him. The community was founded as a freedmen’s town in the early 1870s by Reverend John Henry Winn and Jane Roland. Roland’s gravestone said she had 78 grandchildren and 163 great-grandchildren when she died in 1920. Faulkner’s family has consistently gathered in the colony at least twice a year, to celebrate Juneteenth in the summer and to spruce up the St. John Cemetery for Easter. Faulkner’s uncle Dwight is buried there and, he adds, “That’s where I’m getting buried. We all have plots out there.” The family had to cancel this year’s festivities because of COVID-19 and the poor health of family matriarch Bobbie (Roland) Jones.
Bobbie Jones is simply “Granny” to Faulkner. When he was handed the barbecue duties after his uncle’s passing, she was his harshest critic. Jones made great side dishes, and after about six months of Faulkner’s cooking alone, she finally declared his barbecue worthy to be served next to her sides. The barbecue he serves at the trailer also has Granny’s endorsement. Faulkner fondly remembers driving into Lockhart for barbecue while visiting her. Sausage from Kreuz Market or Smitty’s Market, along with cheese and crackers, composed the usual haul they’d bring back to the house. The J Leonardi Plate at the trailer is an homage to that simple, hearty meal.
The sausage on that signature plate is the beef and pork sausage from Texas Sausage Company in East Austin. (“I would like to use Lockhart rings, but they’re kinda expensive,” Faulkner said.) The sausage was juicy and familiar to anyone who ate at Franklin Barbecue before that restaurant started making its own. Alongside it on the combo plate, thick slices of brisket are incredibly tender with a good dose of smoke. Faulkner says he uses a blend of seasonings the family concocted for the rub. It’s light on black pepper, which was intentional to stand out against the pepper-heavy barbecue in Austin. The same rub is used for ribs, which are so tender that the bones slide right out.
That’s how the ribs need to be cooked for J Leonardi’s signature sandwich, the J-Rib. It’s a deboned portion of smoked baby backs. I asked Faulkner how he removes the bones, and he began, “I get my ribs … “—then stopped himself and said, “That’s a secret.” When you order this sandwich, spend the extra $1 to get it “ATW,” with sweet and sour pickles, raw onion, raw jalapeño slices, and a sweet barbecue sauce. That combination brings salt, smoke, sweet, sour, and spice all together into one bite that’s at once soft, tender, and crunchy. It’s a well-conceived and constructed sandwich that would be the envy of any McRib.
A stranger combination was the pulled pork sandwich topped with buttery smoked cabbage, which Faulkner says is “pretty much just slaw, but it’s cooked.” That means it’s nothing like slaw. I’d recommend both the pulled pork and the cabbage, but it’s better to eat them separately.
The other sides include a kale salad that wasn’t available during my visit and a potato salad, which I didn’t try. Instead I opted for the creamed corn—it had a nice burn from fresh, sliced jalapeños—and the beans with brisket. Maybe brisket with beans would be more accurate. The dish has so much beef that the beans eat like a main course.
This week, J Leonardi’s has gone back to its usual hours. The staff had taken Sundays off for a break and Tuesdays off to prepare sack lunches for children, free for pick up at the trailer. Now that school is back in session, they’re open for normal service Tuesday through Sunday. The trailer is parked on Eleventh Street, sandwiched between Franklin Barbecue and Micklethwait Craft Meats. Driving up you’ll see “Black Artists Matter” painted in yellow across the entire street. I asked Faulkner if he found the street mural, which was painted in July, particularly meaningful as a black entrepreneur in East Austin. “If you just pave the street and think something’s going to change, then nothing’s going to change,” he said. The city needs to be willing to make real change, he emphasized, noting that another of his uncles was a police officer for decades. He always told Faulkner that the most important part of his job was getting to know all the people in the community he had sworn to serve.
As for Faulkner, he’s simply trying to pass on his barbecue knowledge to those in his family willing to learn. He’s currently training his uncle’s sons, Jesse and Elworth Jones. “I’m teaching them to pretty much run the trailer so I can get me a little bit of time off,” he said. As for the next generation, he has high hopes for his youngest daughter, who is now just seven years old. When asked as a kindergartener what she wanted to be when she grew up, she answered: “A pitmaster.”