Acclaimed chef Mike Randolph and his wife, Liz, will open Original J's Tex-Mex Barbecue at 7359 Forsyth Boulevard in University City, the couple announced on Monday.
Randolph, who has been a James Beard Awards “Best Chef: Midwest” semifinalist for his work at Público and Privado (both of which closed last year), knows St. Louis doesn't lack for barbecue restaurants.
However, he tells Off the Menu, “I certainly don't think we're anywhere near critical mass for barbecue. And if you go to towns like Memphis, Kansas City, Nashville, there's a ton of good barbecue.
“I think people in St. Louis have proven that they love barbecue and that they're willing to seek out different barbecue experiences at different restaurants.”
Randolph believes Original J's focus on Central Texas-style barbecue and Tex-Mex cuisine will set it apart.
“There's an entire half of the menu which is either loosely derived from, or not all derived from, barbecue at all,” he says.
Original J's will feature brisket, a sausage link, spare ribs with habanero sauce, a quarter-chicken with a guajillo-chile marinade and Mexican-style barbacoa. The meats will be available as a platter with two sides and tortillas, as a taco or in a bowl over lettuce or rice.
Sides will include beans with brisket but also lighter options such as a kale salad with cotija cheese and a salad with tomato and smoked mozzarella.
Randolph says his wife is not a fan of barbecue, which made her “the perfect foil” for developing the Original J's concept: “How do we attract people that don't just want 10 ounces of smoked meat for lunch?”
For Randolph, the appeal of Central Texas-style barbecue is its simplicity, with brisket cooked slowly at a low temperature (16 hours at Original J's, he says) with minimal seasoning.
“You know, the rub isn't some closely held secret with two different types of paprika and 16 spices,” Randolph says. “For the most part, it's salt and it's pepper. You just let the wood and time really be the reference for flavor when it comes to the end product.”
Randolph compares barbecue to the Neapolitan pizza he served at his first restaurant, the Good Pie, and its successor, Randolfi's Italian Kitchen.
“We did (Neapolitan pizza) for 10 years, but we never claimed to really know or claim to be experts,” Randolph says. “I hold barbecue with that same reverence, that same regard, where we will cook 20 briskets a day every day as long as the people will support us, but you never truly figure it out, right?
"Some days the wood's wet, some days the humidity's up, some days your pitmaster's 10 minutes late.”
Tex-Mex dishes will include chips and salsa, guacamole, queso and brisket chimichangas. Randolph says his travel to Austin, Texas, revealed a simple truth about Tex-Mex cuisine: “...95 percent of it was just Mexican food served in Texas.”
Original J's will seat 45. Given the restaurant's proximity to downtown Clayton, Randolph expects a strong carryout and delivery business.
As for the fictional Original J who gives the restaurant its name, Off the Menu will defer to Randolph's statement in the official announcement: “J is the guy that you want to sit on a front porch with and listen to the countless stories of his travels and adventures. He’s a Renaissance man who puts his family first. That’s the vibe that we’re going for at Original J’s.”
Original J's will be open from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.