Jonathan Wilson grew up on Stacy’s Barbecue, a Jacksonville institution. His family would eat at Stacy’s two or three times a week, and it’s one of the things Wilson missed most about Texas when he moved to Arkansas with his family in 2004. “You cross the Texas line and it turns into pork territory,” he says. To cure his cravings for Texas barbecue, Wilson learned to smoke brisket himself. By day, he worked as a marketing director for a nonprofit, but he still found time to cater a few small events on the side in addition to cooking meals for his wife Johnna and their two children.
A new job opportunity brought the family back to East Texas a couple years ago, and Wilson was happy to be in the land of brisket once again. He found some new favorites at Tejas Chocolate & Barbecue in Tomball and Hutchins BBQ in McKinney, but he couldn’t break the habit of smoking his brisket at home. Then came a fateful catering gig, this time for Texans. An investor happened to be among the attendees, and after tasting Wilson’s food, he offered to help fund a barbecue joint. “My wife and I knew this is what we were called to do,” Wilson says.
Right away, he knew he wanted to open a joint in Jacksonville. Wilson’s old favorite Stacy’s had closed for good in 2018, leaving a void in the Jacksonville barbecue scene. Wilson left his job, renovated an old produce stand known as the Tomato Shed, and opened JW’s Barbecue in October of last year.
Inside the former Tomato Shed, down the street from the Tomato Bowl, and with flyers posted for this year’s Tomato Fest, you already know JW’s serves a tomato-based barbecue sauce. The menu offers sweet or spicy versions of the sauce, both of which are thick and glossy. There are also two kinds of ribs: sweet “apple pie ribs,” which use Lane’s apple pie seasoning, brown sugar, and the sweet barbecue sauce as a rub, and a more traditional dry-rubbed version. The sweet ribs are well smoked, juicy, and tender, but if you prefer a stout bark, go for the dry-rubbed ribs. They aren’t labeled as spicy, but a thick layer of coarse black pepper brings some heat. I preferred them, and the locals are coming around too—sweet ribs used to outsell the dry-rubbed two-to-one, but Wilson now smokes the same amount of both.
That thick black-pepper bark is also a feature of the brisket. Even a slice of the lean was incredibly juicy. I would have preferred the slices about half as thick, but to be fair, they would have been falling-apart tender if cut thinner. There was an audible crunch when I bit through the bark on the burnt end of the fatty brisket, and my smile later on still featured some of that black pepper.
Wilson learned to smoke with hickory and pecan wood in Arkansas, and he’s chosen to continue that combination even in Texas oak country. The mix makes for a mild smoke flavor on the meat—or it might be the smoker Wilson uses. It’s a J&R Smokemaster Convection Oven cabinet smoker, which uses wood logs to smoke, but also has an electric heating element. The briskets and pork shoulders go on in the evening, and Wilson returns some twelve hours later the next morning to take them off and load the ribs and links of sausage from Miiller’s Meat Market in Llano. He purposely chose a smoker with a small footprint that would fit inside his kitchen, and one that required little babysitting, to maximize family time for him and his employees. “I didn’t want to hire somebody to be up here all night loading wood, and I didn’t want to do it myself,” he says.
Wilson and his staff also make the sides fresh every morning. The pinto beans are so popular, they were gone when I arrived an hour after opening. But I did catch the savory smoked corn, made from smoked kernels, mayo, cilantro, lime juice, cotija, cayenne, and chili powder. It was more flavorful than the sliced yellow squash and zucchini, but I do appreciate the offering of a fresh vegetable side, and so do the local keto adherents who requested it. They’re probably also thankful that the temptation of banana pudding only arrives once a week, on Saturdays, so I didn’t get to try the lone dessert option.
Business is good, but inconsistent, Wilson says. Thursday is his busiest day, rather than the Texas barbecue norm of Saturday. That may be due to a recent change in hours. He originally opened only for dinner on Saturdays, but the weekend after February’s winter storm, customers begged him to open for lunch so they could get their barbecue fix. He did as requested, and has been open for Saturday lunch ever since. That’s just one example of the attention Wilson pays to his community. He even hinted that he’s planning to build a block pit outside, where he’ll eventually be able to cook whole hogs. I guess it’s Wilson’s way of bringing a little bit of that pork barbecue tradition back with him to the land of brisket.
1015 E. Rusk, Jacksonville
Hours: Tuesday–Friday 11–3, Saturday 11–5
Pitmaster: Jonathan Wilson
Method: Hickory and pecan in a cabinet smoker
Year opened: 2020