Where there’s smoke, there’s BBQ. Or, bar-b-q. Or, barbecue. Whatever.
Martinez has seen a steady increase in places you can eat smoked meat – the newest, Willie Jewell’s, opened up off Old Petersburg Road right where it crosses over Baston Road, by the railroad tracks.
Since its opening in February, it’s already gained loyal customers, and its triangular parking lot is often heaving during the lunch and dinner rushes.
Close proximity to the tracks notwithstanding, the location is unique for a number of reasons; perhaps most significantly, this is the first of the Willie Jewell’s Bar-B-Q franchises to set up shop in a stand-alone building.
While the others have developed in retail centers and strip malls, the Martinez site – something of a cozy, worn in wood cabin – actually mimics the kind of old school Bar-B-Q joint conjured up by the name. The concept originated with the Adeeb family of Jacksonville, Fla. In fact, the franchise was named after a talented and hard-working young lady who, many years ago, worked in the kitchens of the Adeeb’s Green Turtle Restaurant.
People tend to get into heated discussions about whether barbecue includes pork, beef, chicken, or all three. Regardless of the type of meat, there is a commonality that determines whether the end product is actually barbecue: the smoke. And there’s no denying Willie Jewell’s Old School Bar-B-Q knows how to smoke its meat.
Quality cuts of beef, pork, sausage, turkey and chicken are prepared on-site; their slogan is “Smoked for hours, served in minutes.” And diners can see their food as its being made, thanks to a window that reveals the kitchen’s prep station. In addition to the barbecue dishes, diners can choose from a wide variety of side dishes, and desserts, beverages (such as their grape lemonade) and beer and wine are also available. Kids can choose from a smaller menu if they wish.
The inside of Willie Jewell’s is as old school as its name suggests. Wood reigns; from the paneling to everything else, diners are immersed in so much wood they emerge from the experience with a deep urge to perpetually surround themselves in Americana. Akin to the blast-from-the-past décor and memorabilia-laden interiors of Cracker Barrels everywhere, Willie Jewell’s reinforces its brand by appealing to America’s desire to go back to a time when life was wholesome, simple, and satisfying.
It’s comfortable inside. Relaxing, clean, esthetically pleasing; the smell of barbecue welcomes you from the front porch. Step inside, order at the station – the menu is up on the wall there – and head to your wood table with a number, and the food will be out soon.
In the meantime, diners are welcome to grab their drinks, utensils, and choice of condiments from a self-service station. The Willie Jewell’s Bar-B-Q sauce selection includes four flavors. Hickory Heaven promises a smoky red hickory flavor, Sweet and Sassy offers a sweet tang, while the Low Country Gold is described as a Carolina mustard-based sauce. The Hot Momma is also mustard-base, but in my opinion you need to really like to sweat to choose that one.
My pulled pork sandwich, Brunswick stew and collards were served piping hot – on a silver tray. Yes, the franchise is smart, it makes everything as customer-friendly as possible, while also reducing the workload of its kitchen staff. I can appreciate that. Efficiency is always a kitchen’s best friend, but in the case of Willie Jewell’s, we see efficiency in action in order to focus on the food.
The pulled pork was barbecued well enough that I really didn’t feel the need to smother it with a sauce – the smoky flavor used up every taste bud in my mouth. Instead, I chose to dip my sandwich in the cup of Sweet and Sassy when I felt the need for a little kick. The greens were great and the Brunswick stew bore some resemblance to the Brunswick stew I grew up eating. Overall, I could not fault this meal.
However, the best thing about Willie Jewell’s is the people. Both the folks who work here, and those who show up to eat. Friendly, attentive, and skilled staff who truly take care of their equally friendly customers.
Perhaps it’s because of the casual atmosphere, but everyone was cheerful and having a good time – there was chatter and laughter at the service counters, and across tables. It felt like a giant family reunion, but without the awkwardness of family and the inconvenience of clean up duty.
That, more than the barbecue, and more than the name, is what will keep customers coming back. At the end of the day, Willie Jewell’s is a destination that offers good affordable food, and the kind of environment that helps us kick back and enjoy our time on this earth.
Simple, perhaps, but then again, we are talking about barbecue.