You may have seen the ad in this very publication: Two dudes in cowboy clothes waving barbecued ribs at each other, Dodge City showdown fashion. What’s going on here? A sudden gust of exoticism at R.J.'s the Rib Joint, that’s what.
Rib exoticism, I mean. The world already knows that R.J.'s is distinctive to the max in just about every other way. It has sawdust-strewn floors and belt-driven overhead fans, illuminated panels representing Tiffany stained glass windows, and a piano player in a loft over the vast bar.
The collection of liquor behind that bar reaches almost to the ceiling, and the bartenders keep a library ladder to reach the rarer volumes. (It’s going to be a bad place to stand in an earthquake.) Opposite the vast liquor bar is a vast salad bar, and near the end of it you can see what looks like a chocolate-covered waste basket, which turns out to be an actual chocolate cake of awesome size.
In fact, awesome size is the main motif here. It’s a little hard on Beverly Hills’ image of careless wealth to see so many people thriftily carrying home aluminum foil doggie swans full of leftovers, but the reason is that they couldn’t possibly finish the portions they were served.
This would be paradise if the food were terrific, but R.J.'s tends to concentrate on hugeness rather than quality. Even the things it’s proudest of aren’t necessarily so good. Despite a money-back guarantee and about 15 things to put on it, the clay-baked potato is essentially bizarre. The oven’s clay coating has kept all moisture from escaping, so the potato’s damp inside, rather like a boiled potato with gray skin.
The desserts include that vast chocolate cake, which looks as if somebody had just stacked one cake on top of another. It happens to be delicious, a classic devil’s food cake that lies on the plate like a fallen redwood, but the other desserts aren’t necessarily so good. The apple pie may be about four inches tall, but the apple slices in it are mixed with a lot of doughy filler.
And now to the ribs. With a place so vast, I suppose there will always be a problem of quality control. Whatever sort of barbecue you order here, there’s about one chance in four it will come to the table at room temperature, and some parts of the meat may be slightly carbonized.
For me, though, the real problem with the barbecue here is the sauce--the same sauce goes on everything. Evidently R.J.'s regular customers don’t mind, but I find it rather drab, thick and sweet but almost without aroma. Here is where Layne Wootten, the other dude in the shoot-out photo, enters the picture.
Wootten is a barbecue chef who got his start with R.J.'s owner Bob Morris and went on to be known as barbecuer to the stars: Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, and as he likes to point out, various outlaw motorcycle gangs. In his ten-gallon hat and handlebar mustache he strolls around R.J.'s mildly handing out samples of his own style barbecue, which you can order as an alternative to R.J.'s usual barbecue. Things may still come lukewarm and everything, but the sauces are mostly as far from neutral as you can get.
For instance, the Texas Wild Boar Ribs, said to be ribs from real (domestic) wild boar, have a sharp, peppery sauce with an aggressively herbal aroma. No, herbal isn’t the word, it’s like acacia or eucalyptus leaves, probably from the balsamic vinegar in it (the other ingredients are molasses and Lone Star Beer--oddly, Lone Star is one of the few beers R.J.'s doesn’t stock). A lot of people will find this one too wild, but when it comes to raw, raspy, tough-guy barbecue sauces, this is one of the top contenders.
On the other hand, some of Wootten’s sauces are so sweet they make R.J.'s regular sauce seem austere. The Tennessee Candy Apple Ribs are literally as sweet as candy. The bright red sauce, flavored with applejack, sticks to your fingers like glue. There are some lurid pink candied apple slices resting on top of the slab of baby pork ribs.
And the Juicy Red Watermelon Pork Ribs are topped with what seems to be chunks of pickled watermelon rind, and a sauce that tastes like liquid candy cane. These Watermelon ribs are not at all smoky, and the meat gives the effect of the Cantonese appetizer char siu.
After these, the nice and smoky Rattlesnake Beef Ribs are relatively restrained. However, their arresting sauce tastes like apple butter dosed with a little vinegar and a fair bit of red pepper, plus some garlic and maybe cinnamon too. The Texas, the Tennessee and the Watermelon ribs are so exotic I doubt I could have them two days in a row, but I might be able to handle two straight days of Rattlesnake Ribs.
Finally there’s kalbi, Korean-style beef ribs sliced crosswise and prepared in a relatively sober soy marinade. Wootten says the kalbi is his personal favorite, showing that despite his watermelon mania and handlebar mustache he has his booted feet on the ground after all.
Suggested dishes: rattlesnake beef ribs, $15.95; Texas wild boar ribs, $16.95; kalbi beef ribs, $14.95; chocolate cake, $6.95.
R.J.'s the Rib Joint, 252 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. (213) 274-RIBS. Open for lunch and dinner from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, till 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, for brunch Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking from 6 p.m. Major credit cards accepted. Ribs and dessert for two, $30-$70.