A small town barbecue rivalry that’s really no contest.
Jacob and Marlena Beran wanted out of Barefootz corner store, and Greg “Barefoot” Tarnowski was happy to see them go. So the Berans opened up shop two blocks away, and Barefoot fired up a pit of his own. Thus, on a dead end road in Dime Box, a Sunday morning barbecue rivalry was born.
Dime Box is a tiny unincorporated town of about 300, just south of Old Dime Box. In 1912, Southern Pacific built a rail line there that went right through the land farmed by Ava Moses, who demanded a bridge be built to connect his split parcels. The Moses Bridge, also known as the Black Bridge, spanned over the tracks a mile east of Dime Box until 1999. According to locals, it was eventually condemned and the railroad refused to repair it. County Road 425 has been a dead end ever since.
When the Lions Club decided to move the bridge into the center of town as a memorial, presumably so it would be closer to the enormous glass-encased dime on display in front of the Prosperity Bank in Dime Box, Jacob bought the land and built a metal building to house Jake’s Bar-B-Que, which opened in August. Despite the portable painted sign that read “Jake’s BBQ Today” I almost missed his place entirely.
I visited a year ago when Jake’s was still housed on one end of the Barefootz store. There were big burn barrels in the parking lot and a larger pit. Pork steaks, ribs, and sausage filled the pit as I pointed around at various cuts of meat while Jake collected my order. It was cold, and Jake had switched to lump charcoal for that Sunday and nixed brisket from the menu. No matter, though—he wasn’t expecting much business. There had been a Dime Box wedding the night before, and Jake expected most of the town was hungover. I enjoyed the thick-cut pork steak, spare ribs, and smoked sausage, which he got from Kovasovic’s in nearby Birch.
I was excited to try it again last week, but when I pulled into town Sunday, the burn barrels were gone and the pit was new. But not all had changed—the same BBQ sign was still up. After I walked in to order a little bit of everything they had ready, there was no sign of Jake. I asked the man behind the counter, who turned out to be Barefoot himself, about the missing pitmaster. “Don’t talk about Jake,” he grumbled as he rung up my order. “He moved out.” I went back to my car with a load of barbecue and a couple sides and ate inside to escape the stiff, cold wind. I chuckled to myself that Barefoot was still using the old Jake’s sign as I unwrapped the meat.
Barefoot cooks with lump charcoal in a converted fuel oil container. There’s no offset firebox, so it’s direct heat cooking. When I had ordered at 10:30 in the morning, the thick cut pork steaks were still an hour from being done. The pale half chicken was juicy, but could use more time above the coals to give it some color and smoke. The heavily seasoned baby backs were enjoyable enough, but it was the spicy green onion sausage from Kovasovic’s that impressed the most. A bit dejected that the barbecue didn’t quite match what Jake’s had offered up the year before, I went to get some of that green onion sausage from the source.
While paying for a few links at Kovasovic’s, I asked the clerk about Jake. She said he was in a new building down the street from his old place. That’s when it hit just how dense I had been. The Jake’s sign wasn’t a leftover sign still in use by Barefootz—it had been a sign pointing down the dead end road to Jake’s. I raced back to Dime Box and pulled in front of the new metal building. Smoke was still coming out of the smoker that Jake, a welder by trade, had built.
Jake’s opens at 8:30 in the morning on Sunday, so at 11:00 most everything was already sold out. There was still pork steak and spare ribs, but the homemade sausage links still hanging in the smoker weren’t quite done. Even with just two meats, I feasted. The pork steak is thick cut from the shoulder and sold whole, so a plastic knife would have to do for slicing. The slices weren’t pretty, but a dip in the thin tomato-based sauce flecked with onion made me forget their looks. They had great flavor from the pit even though Jake was still using lump charcoal. The burn barrels were out back, and he swore he usually burns wood down to coals. Even so, I was two-for-two on days he cooked with charcoal.
The spare ribs were also great. Tender and well seasoned, these big ribs were hard to put down. I was wishing I’d have been early enough to try the brisket and chicken, or late enough to get the sausage. They were making next week’s sausage in the kitchen while I ate. Yet another batch was hanging in the metal smokehouse out back. Some were pork sausages from a 500 pound hog they’d butchered (it was so big their hoist couldn’t get it all the way off the ground), and others were venison sausage. There was even a friend’s venison backstrap jerky, but all I could do was look.
Back inside, I asked Jake about his move just a few doors down from where I’d found him the year before. “[Barefoot] and his partner busted up,” he said. “I can deal with his partner, but nobody can deal with Barefoot.” For now, Dime Box is the beneficiary of the disagreement. When Jake sells out around noon, Barefootz is just getting their full menu ready, so you could theoretically start at Jake’s for breakfast, then move to Barefootz for lunch. But something tells me neither one would suggest that itinerary.