In January, after many trips through San Angelo, I finally stopped at RJ Bar-B-Que. I’m not sure why it took so long for me to visit, but my tardiness was especially embarrassing once I saw a sign hanging on the wall that noted the joint’s inclusion in the 2003 Texas Monthly Top 50 barbecue list. When I opened the lid to my to-go container in the car, the spareribs may as well have had a halo over them. It was the prettiest white Styrofoam box of barbecue I’d ever witnessed. My kids in the backseat weren’t interested and demanded we continue toward home after a long trip to Big Bend, so I made a note to return to San Angelo for a conversation and more of those ribs, which I happily ate.
Charles and JoAnn Thomas have run RJ since it opened in 2001. The restaurant was empty at 2:30 in the afternoon on a recent weekday. JoAnn worked the counter and asked me to fetch her a can of Big Red from the cooler as I grabbed a Diet Dr Pepper, having been convinced to try my first can by a podcast I’d listened to while on the road. I’ll stick to iced tea next time. A sign on the counter, and a matching one on the wall read, “Good BBQ is not Cheap…And Cheap BBQ is not Good!” That sign was on my mind when I later asked Charles how that squared with their scant $13 per pound price for brisket. He said he knew it was low, but he didn’t have the energy to argue with his customers about a price hike.
After ordering, I watched through the opening into the kitchen as Wilbur Duncan prepared my food. He’s been working at RJ Bar-B-Que for the last three years. The Thomases had operated the place by themselves for most of its life, but now they need some help, especially with the big steel pits in the back. Charles had them welded up when RJ moved to its current location in 2004. The structure of the room had to be built around the pit. They needed more space once they’d made the Texas Monthly Top 50. Little about their methods has changed in the sixteen years since that article. They still smoke with mesquite, but the pound cake mentioned in the write-up has been replaced by banana pudding. JoAnn makes it from scratch for Tuesday and Wednesday services. Other days of the week she makes the less time-intensive peach cobbler, which I enjoyed on a Thursday.
The barbecue is served in a Styrofoam container whether you’re taking it to go or eating in. A scoop of pleasantly salty pinto beans and a classic Texas potato salad, with enough mustard to produce a yellow tint, are the only side options. A combo plate comes with both. I had to try those ribs again, and they did not disappoint. The seasoning is simple, primarily salt without any of the black pepper you’d find in Central Texas. These are big spareribs, the ones that are hard to get tender without overcooking them. Duncan hits the sweet spot and gives them just enough smoke to let you know this is mesquite country.
Briskets stay in the smokers anywhere from twelve to fourteen hours. Charles prefers a cooking temperature around 225 degrees. “Some people say, ‘Well, I can cook a brisket in seven hours,’ and I’m glad you can, but I don’t want to eat that,” he said. His is tender and smoky. It could use more salt, and it grabs a whole lot more smoke than the ribs. Charles considered using oak until he got a quote for a load of it that was about double his mesquite price. I’d suggest getting the beef chopped for one of their generously stuffed sandwiches, covered in sweet and tangy barbecue sauce.
Charles couldn’t give me a straight answer about how he learned to barbecue. He wasn’t being evasive, but he may have put the tiresome days of learning on the job nearly two decades ago behind him. Growing up in Los Angeles, he doesn’t remember any barbecue joints. A couple of uncles knew how to barbecue, and one would let him tend the fire, but it wasn’t any sort of apprenticeship. He moved to Houston in 1970 to sell insurance for the next twenty years before settling in San Angelo in 1990 and selling newspaper subscriptions to the San Angelo Standard-Times. “It got to where it was hard to sign anybody up for new subscriptions,” so he left the job in search of his next venture.
His son suggested barbecue. RJ Bar-B-Que first opened in a tiny storefront with no parking. Charles called it RJ because he liked the sound of it and because he didn’t want to name the place after himself. “It’s just a name. That’s all,” he told me, adding the ironic note that everybody now calls him RJ. Cooking for a restaurant was a lot different than serving family and friends. He had to market aggressively in the early days, dropping off bags of free barbecue sandwiches to local businesses. “I just hoped they’d talk about it and come back and buy a sandwich,” he said, and they did. Commissions were no longer part of his job, but he never really left the sales business.
Business can get slow these days, especially during the weekday lull between lunch and dinner. On Saturdays they sell out a little earlier by design because he smokes fewer briskets. “We try like hell to get out of here on Saturdays by 4 or 4:30,” so they can enjoy more of the weekend. At RJ, they cook a fresh batch of barbecue every day and never serve leftover meat. “Whatever we have left in the evenings, if we have anything left … There’s a soup kitchen a couple of blocks from here,” Thomas said.
I asked him if he missed California, especially given that his niece was visiting from San Diego. He still roots for the Dodgers, but he doesn’t figure he’d be cooking barbecue these days if he’d stayed. “They don’t barbecue out in Los Angeles,” he said emphatically. As for leaving LA and Houston for the biggest city in Texas that’s not on an interstate, Thomas told me, “It’s a culture shock. It’s different. You get accustomed to it, but it’s different.” I guess the same could be said for an Austinite eating mesquite-smoked barbecue for the first time, but there’s nothing hard about getting accustomed to finding barbecue this cheap that’s still good.
1405 N Bryant Blvd., San Angelo
Hours: Tues-Sat 11-8 (or sold out)
Pitmasters: Wilbur Duncan and Charles Thomas
Method: Mesquite in an offset smoker
Year Opened: 2001