It all began at the most unlikely of places – a convenience store, located at the corner of SH30 and FM158 in College Station, Texas. Chip and Jo Manning bought the corner shop in 1981, where they sold gas, beer, and other goods on the outskirts of town. Just after opening, Chip put in a BBQ pit, and started smoking. Soon, he was selling 20 pounds of meat each day and making a name for himself in the community.
The Mannings converted the corner store into C&J BBQ in 1997, and by 2000, won the Reader’s Choice Award for BBQ in the Brazos Valley. In 2002, they would add to their acclaim by winning the Best of the Brazos Award for BBQ.
Since first winning these awards, C&J BBQ has won each year in their category, filling the walls with plaques. In 2002, C&J BBQ opened its second location, a large restaurant on Texas Avenue in Bryan, Texas.
This location became the flagship location for the restaurant, housing two large Oyler Barbecue Pits and becoming the central hub for their emerging catering business. The pit master and General Manager at the main Bryan location is Charles Alexander. Charles and Taylor, his assistant pit master, are responsible for smoking over 2,000 pounds of meat each day. They accomplish this monumental feat with the help of two enormous commercial wood-burning ovens, manufactured by J&R Manufacturing, Inc. in Mesquite, Texas.
These rotisserie pits are 100% wood-fired and can go 14 hours without being tended.
The dining room is large with ample seating, with two additional banquet rooms that provide even more space for private parties, events, or just for extra seating. Wood paneling covers the walls, and red-checkered table cloths cover large picnic-style tables to give the dining room a very rustic look and feel.
The Brisket: I was surprised to learn that the brisket is smoked in a 100% wood-burning pit, as the portions I sampled had little in the way of a bark or smoke ring. What it did have appeared to be more of a thin skin, or perhaps crust of char, than a well-developed bark. Developing a nice bark is so important because that is where so much flavor resides. Here, the crust (I refuse to call it bark) tasted like char, and had an off-putting flavor to it. One piece that looked especially promising was chewy, and lacked any redeeming flavor.
There was some redness from smoke infusion, but not much, and it was not even across the sampling. The moisture and tenderness was on the dry end of the scale, but the fat was appropriately rendered, which makes me think it was a bit overcooked. Still, the meat pulled apart easily without falling apart, and had a hint of smoky flavor. Ultimately, I was left with the overwhelming desire to dip the meat in barbecue sauce, which incidentally, is a pretty good vinegar-based sauce with a well-balanced spice profile that adds flavor to otherwise dull meat.
The Ribs: Based on looks alone, the ribs were the best thing on the plate. The bark on the ribs looked fantastic.
My mouth watered picking up my first rib, and the meat came perfectly off the bone with each bite, while maintaining its integrity otherwise. The meat was tender, and perfectly moist. Technically, these were some great ribs. In fact, across the board, every reviewer scored the ribs perfect in every category save one: flavor. The ribs needed…more. To be blunt, they needed SOMETHING. The ribs and brisket left me with the distinct feeling that this barbecue was intended to be eaten with sauce. The Sausage: The sausage did not appear to be hand-packed, but was most likely sourced from a local meat-packer. The flavor that was lacking in the brisket and ribs came through big time in the sausage. Pepper and smoke billowed through the crisp casing with each bite.
However, there is a reason The Best of Texas’s official scoring method only allocates 9 points out of 50 for sausage: it is not hard to make delicious sausage. The truth is, grocery stores are full of delicious sausage (Slovacek’s being the author’s favorite of this variety) that only need to be warmed over a grill before serving. For this reason, Senior Barbecue Editor Felix Cox noted, “the sausage is good, but I wouldn’t come here just for it.” I suppose the best way for me to express my opinion of the sausage is to convey this story: after sampling and reviewing the sausage, I put the last four slices between two pieces of white bread slathered with sauce, and proceeded to eat it as a sandwich.
The potato salad was swimming in its mayonnaise-based sauce, and the beans were spicy but boring. On previous occasions I have enjoyed the fried okra and loaded mashed potatoes, which are both better choices.
I know I will darken the doorway of C&J BBQ again, as it is a popular restaurant in this community for meetings, events, and gatherings. Their catering is served at corporate sponsored luncheons and workshops (my own firm hiring them on occasion.) I will gladly enjoy their food when our paths cross, but it will be with the understanding that sauce is to be liberally applied, and everything tastes better on bread.