I drive past the restaurant to get to my parents' house nearby. Since I work in the area on Tuesdays, I usually meet up with my dad for lunch. This week I finally noticed the open signs in the windows and a lot full of cars, so I swung by to pick up my dad so that we could try the new place out. I knew he would readily agree to try a new barbecue place, since my love of dry ribs is largely inherited from him. We still frequently have lunch at Fat Larry's, which is about a block away, and his decades-long devotion to Jack's Bar-B-Que Rib Shack is a big part of why the dry ribs there are a standard bearer in my mind.
The place was packed when we arrived, but the line was moving quickly. The menu is centered around a small selection of combo meals like at a chain fast food restaurant. Also following in the fast food model, the barbecue is cooked off-site and merely reheated at the restaurant.
Baby Jack's doesn't offer a pulled pork plate. Instead it offers combos with either one or two pulled pork sandwiches. All the combos include a fountain drink and two sides. It annoys me when restaurants automatically include the cost of a drink in every meal, since I just want water. I understand the motive, since fountain drinks are almost 100 percent profit for anywhere offering them. Most fast food places would go out of business at their current food prices if the majority of customers only drank water.
The half-slab was bigger than this when it was served to me, but I tore off a couple ribs for my dad to sample before I remembered to take a picture.
My dad got a pork sandwich combo with beans and baked potato salad. I got a half-slab dry rib combo with beans and vinegar slaw, since the menu listed both mayonnaise and vinegar slaw. The sign said the barbecue is slow cooked over hickory, and there were videos playing on flat screen televisions in the restaurant of hickory being piled into a barbecue pit and ribs cooking on it. But the ribs I ate had the least smoke flavor of any I've encountered. They even looked more like a grilled pork chop in their coloration than actual barbecue. The seasoning on them tasted good but not great while they were extremely tender and juicy. I don't know if they are primarily cooked by boiling or with gas heat, but they don't see very much actual smoke during the process. My dad said the pulled pork on his sandwich was also tender and fairly tasty but lacking in smoke flavor.
The mayonnaise slaw on my dad's sandwich looked like regular cole slaw. The ultra-soupy vinegar slaw that came with my sandwich was the most bizarre-looking rendition I've seen yet. It was finely chopped into tiny particles and completely swimming in liquid. That liquid couldn't have been all vinegar, since it didn't completely overwhelm the flavor like in the slaw at Paynes Bar-B-Q. I actually ended up enjoying it, just as a change of pace, although it seemed like more like something that would be served as an appetizer at a Japanese restaurant than what most people think of as cole slaw.
The beans were also a break from Memphis barbecue restaurant tradition. They had a very Cajun-inspired seasoning that was more reminiscent of red beans and rice than barbecue baked beans. I've eaten enough barbecue-sauced beans in the last seven months of my quest to enjoy the Baby Jack's beans as a novelty, although they would definitely throw off anyone in the mood for more traditional baked beans. The Cajun influence at Baby Jack's also carries over to the sauce selection. Besides the standard sweet, medium and hot barbecue sauces, the restaurant also offers a Cajun-seasoned sauce that ended up being my hands-down favorite out of all the choices there.
Like a fast food restaurant, Baby Jack's seems like a close approximation of the food it is claiming to offer. Authenticity has been sacrificed in the name of consistency and a streamlined kitchen where new workers can be readily assimilated with very little training. With an off-site cooking operation, it should be easy for the company to expand as a chain if the response is good. The food is definitely better than most fast food chains, and I could see it being a big hit in parts of the country that don't have genuine smoke-fueled barbecue joints to compete with.