100 Fifth Ave., Market Square, Downtown
Call it the breakfast of barbecue champions, or just a delicious method of quality control. Either way, Jerry Harrison's morning meal at his Market Square barbecue restaurant, A&J Ribs, consists of some of his own specialty dishes: fried cabbage, barbecued chicken, and red beans and rice.
"As I cook it, I eat it," he says, while meticulously trimming the fat from a rack of pork ribs early one Friday morning. That way, he says, he knows what his customers are getting. And he hopes they get something good: Signs around the restaurant boast that A&J's offers "Just like homecooking, only better."
A&J's is homey: After all, it's run by Harrison, of the North Side; his nephew, Andrew Johnson; and a handful of other relatives. (The family also owns the adjoining shop, Sisters Beauty Supply.) "We wanted to put something else in Market Square, and they didn't have a rib restaurant," Harrison says.
A&J's opened in November 2009, and offers ribs, chicken, pulled pork, wings and other barbecue staples. Harrison covers the meat with a rub that has "seven or eight seasonings" in it, then slow-cooks it for hours in a smoker over cherry, apple and occasionally hickory woods. The ribs come out with a sweet and smoky crust, and the chicken falls off the bone.
Harrison's sauce is very sweet, with a nice tang lingering in the background. Ask him what's in it and he smiles. "I can't reveal it, but they always ask me about that," he says. "It's my own base." He made it up on the fly at the restaurant, he says, taking his customers' and family's opinions into account.
There are plenty of side dishes as well. Among them: corn on the cob; mac and cheese; collard greens; green beans; yams and apples; and that fried cabbage and red beans and rice Harrison enjoys each morning.
I had one of the two lunch specials: a quarter chicken with a heaping side and a drink for just $5.99. It was a lot of food for a little money; there were even leftovers. A friend had the other lunch special, which was the same deal but featured two large ribs instead of chicken. Several other customers, meanwhile, ordered a large pulled-pork sandwich that came with a pile of steak fries.
In addition to takeout, there are three tables and a lengthy lunch counter capable of seating about 10 diners, but it accommodated a steady lunch-time crowd on City Paper's visit. Tucked on the lower level of a building adjoining Costanzo's, A&J's may be hard to find at first, but it's certainly worth looking for.