For a chef as talented as Mike Randolph, you might think opening a counter-service operation would be, if not easy, less challenging than running the high-end restaurants that made his reputation. Randolph thought so himself as he and his wife, Liz, prepared to debut Original J’s Tex-Mex & Barbecue in November.
Ask him now about the early days of Original J’s, though, and he’s apt to riff on Mike Tyson’s famous observation: Everyone’s got a plan till they get punched in the mouth.
“It’s been a humbling experience, for sure,” Randolph told me in a phone interview.
Original J’s looks to central Texas for its barbecue inspiration, so brisket — seasoned here with salt and pepper and then smoked for 21 hours over post oak — is paramount and unforgiving.
“Any other place that I’ve ever cooked, you can throw (the meat) back in the pan, or you can baste it,” Randolph said. “When you’ve got that brisket off the smoker, that’s what you got.
“There were some days early on when we were like, ‘Let’s eighty-six brisket,’ just because it was so important for me for that to be the flagship protein of the restaurant.”
On my visits, Randolph didn’t eighty-six the brisket. At its best, it showcases a crackling, peppery bark, sinuous ribbons of fat and a flavor that evokes both well-marbled steakhouse cuts and backyard bonfires. Even when Randolph folds the brisket into tacos or a bowl of chili, its flavor is prominent, its texture supple.
So, yes, this brisket can be a “flagship protein.” What, though, is it the flagship of? As Original J’s full name makes clear, this isn’t only a barbecue restaurant, nor does its menu cleave neatly between barbecue and Tex-Mex. The eponymous J isn’t Randolph’s alter ego or even a fictional character with an illuminating backstory. J doesn’t exist.
Randolph, if you need a reminder, is the chef responsible for some of the best restaurants of the past dozen years: the Neapolitan pizzeria the Good Pie; the wood-fired, Latin American-influenced Público; the love letter to Italian-American cuisine Randolfi’s Italian Kitchen; and the four-star, career-to-date capstone Privado.
The restaurant business is ruthless and capricious. Each of those four restaurants closed. (The Randolphs still operate the cafe Half & Half in Clayton and Webster Groves.)
Closed is closed, and the loss of each still stings, but here too you can find the thread of determined evolution. Randolfi’s didn’t simply replace the Good Pie but sought to both expand its mission and refine its approach. After Randolfi’s closed, the lease for its space still in hand, Randolph swung for the fences with Privado.
Though counter-service in format, Original J’s displays a level of production design on par with Randolph’s upscale restaurants. The space (previously a Fortel’s Pizza Den) resembles a cross between a 1980s family restaurant, with wood-paneled walls and an arcade claw machine, and a Texas dive.
Or maybe “Texas” “dive.” Original J’s combination of the old-school country playing on the sound system with the framed country album covers and other, ad hoc decor gilds the Texas wildflower.
The look might work for you, and you won’t care either way once the brisket is on the table. A more pressing issue is Original J’s as a counter-service operation. A fast-casual restaurant needs speed but also coordination. I didn’t wait too long for my meals here, but on two visits when I dined with a group, our plates arrived at oddly staggered intervals.
In fairness, I would wait a while for Original J’s brisket or the spare ribs, tremendous slabs (Randolph doesn’t trim the tips) from Compart Family Farms heritage pork. Randolph dry-rubs the ribs with salt and a generous measure of black pepper and then, roughly three-quarters through the cook, glazes them with a habanero barbecue sauce. This gives the bark a fearsome bite, but the chile’s fruity sweetness also rounds out the pork’s natural flavor.
The smoky, tender pulled chicken and pulled pork also impress. The latter stars by itself but also, as barbecue and Tex-Mex converge, in the chile colorado, where a blend of guajillo, arbol, puya and New Mexico chiles both buttresses and sharpens the meat’s smokiness.
Chicken enchiladas are a less successful Tex-Mex variation. The variation is slight. A little ricotta gives the chicken an extra lusciousness, and cream cheese intensifies the tang of the salsa verde. In the end, these are chicken enchiladas.
The barbecue, chile colorado and enchiladas are listed on the menu as Platos, served with flour tortillas and two sides ($14.25-$16.75). The sides wobble. The fries are standard-issue, crisp but forgettable; the Mexican rice is underpowered. The beans sometimes prickle with chorizo spice. Sometimes they don’t. My favorite side might be the simply dressed kale sprinkled with cotija, an antidote to all the meat.
Is Original J’s menu trying to range too widely? Maybe. The chunky, citrusy guacamole ($9.25) is excellent, but both the flavor and texture of the queso ($6) fail to register. The rice bowl with your choice of meat ($10.50) feels like a slapdash concession to fast-casual dining, leaning too heavily on the punch of pickled vegetables.
But what will bring me back to Original J’s — besides the brisket and spare ribs — is Randolph’s continued, restless creativity. For Original J’s tacos, he dresses a snappy, punchy hot link as if it were a Chicago hot dog ($9). Most intriguingly, for the Tacos Norteños ($10.65), he looks to Tijuana-style birria de res, currently enjoying a breakout moment in Los Angeles, for inspiration.
Randolph griddles a corn tortilla topped with brisket, queso, cabbage, onion and cilantro, ladling beef consommé fortified with chiles and spices over the arrangement as he goes. The tortilla takes on a brilliant red hue, and the consommé infuses the taco as a whole with a beefy savor to match the brisket’s.
In LA, you might receive a cup of the consommé alongside your birria de res. I can’t say for sure that Original J’s consommé is ready for such a close-up, but given the pains Randolph has already taken with the brisket, I suspect it is.
Where Original J’s Tex-Mex Barbecue, 7359 Forsyth Boulevard, University City • 2½ stars out of four • More info 314-202-8335; originaljs.com • Menu Barbecue and Tex-Mex fare • Hours 11 a.m.-8 p.m. daily