ALLEN PIERLEONI / apierleoni@sacbee.com

Mesquite-smoked beef ribs were tender at J.R.'s Texas Bar-B-Que.

Counter Culture: J.R.'s Texas Bar-B-Que

Published: Friday, Dec. 16, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 33TICKET
Last Modified: Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011 - 3:31 pm

Floyd Rothenberger was on the phone the other day. His customers know him as J.R., the 'cue-meister who opened J.R.'s Texas Bar-B-Que 25 years ago. He also opened two satellite joints, one four years ago in West Sacramento and one in mid-October on El Camino Avenue. He does a lot of catering, and the grazers who have tasted his smoked brisket at fundraisers around town don't forget it.

At the mother ship – in a light-industrial area off Highway 99, near the Campbell Soup factory – J.R. loads cast-iron smokers with mesquite and cooks brisket, beef and pork ribs, pork shoulder, chicken, turkey, hot links and the like. Side dishes cover the standards, but they're treated as afterthoughts – cornbread, beans, macaroni and potato salads, coleslaw, corn on the cob. The menu is the same at all three stores.

J.R. is locally famous for his dark, luscious briskets, which he smokes for up to 18 hours.

"I don't know that there's any secret to how I make my brisket," he said. "I put the meat here, the wood there and the smoke comes out."

This time of year, J.R. sells party trays ($130-$140) and whole smoked turkeys ($38-$50), and is also jammed with catering gigs.

"I just booked one for 500 people, and I've got one for 1,200 next week. I've got to get up at 2 tomorrow morning to cook," he said. "In the middle of our recession, the Lord has blessed me."

Breakfast will join lunch and dinner at the recently opened store, "probably after the first of the year."

We dropped by the new store last week and recognized it for the former IHOP it is – high ceilings and faux wood, with a chill in the air.

We ordered a combo platter of two beef and two pork ribs, two hefty slices of brisket, and two sides – tasteless mac 'n' cheese and whole "cowboy" beans in watery broth ($14.90). The beans looked like pintos and had ideal texture, but it took a pour of 'cue sauce to wake them up. "I could doctor up these bad boys in a heartbeat," said my lunch pal, a formidable home cook.

We dipped the three meats in three thin but tasty barbecue sauces of varying degrees of heat 'n' sweet. The well-seasoned beef ribs were dark and tender, but the tough pork ribs had obviously come off an untrimmed rack. The smoky brisket shouted flavor but resisted J.R.'s flimsy plastic utensils.

Busing our table at meal's end, we were reminded that 'cue has no table manners and doesn't get dressed up to go out. What's that overused saying? It is what it is – which is the way it should be.

New Blue Sky's a great find

We're always on the lookout for solid Chinese restaurants. Small, family-operated places where one sauce does not fit all. Where the ingredients are fresh, the sauces made daily, the portions large, the prices fair, and the kitchen devoid of MSG.

We found that combination at New Blue Sky, owned and run by sister-and-brother Jane and David Lau.

Our sampling of dishes included better-than-average egg flower soup, served appropriately hot; juicy pork dumplings from the dim sum menu; a green onion-flecked pancake that was more like the Indian bread nan; and well-prepared kung pao chicken and prawns in dark sauce with vegetables but not enough heat.

A plate of excellent honey walnut prawns arrived artfully rimmed with strawberries and slices of orange and persimmon. The from-scratch sauce was made from "lemon juice, honey, milk and other things I can't tell you," said Jane Lau.

Lightly battered and pan-fried eggplant in well-balanced garlic sauce was our favorite – crisp outside, tender inside.

New Blue Sky is in Discovery Plaza, 1518 W. El Camino Ave., South Natomas; (916) 922-5440, www.newblueskymenu.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.

J.R.'S TEXAS BAR-B-QUE

WHERE: 3445 El Camino Ave., Sacramento. The two other sites are at 180 Otto Circle, Sacramento, (916) 424-3520; and 4055 Lake Road, West Sacramento, (916) 373-0800.

HOURS: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays

FOOD: 3 stars

AMBIENCE: 1 1/2 stars

HOW MUCH: $-$$

INFORMATION: (916) 514-1148, www.jrtexasbbq.com

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