For weeks, a single century plant stalk has reached toward the sun outside Pack Jack Bar-B-Que readying for its decade-in-the-making bloom. Now more than 10 feet high, the aptly-named succulent is bursting into life suddenly, brilliantly after years and years of inactivity.
In its shadow, a long-cooled brick oven fire has been re-lit and a legendary roadside restaurant re-opened. Yep, Pack Jack is back.
A little history, first. For the uninitiated, Pack Jack was a favorite Sonoma County barbecue outpost halfway between Cotati and Sebastopol for years. Owned by the Harris family, it’s an unassuming roadhouse that you’d pass by without a second glance. Natives of Egypt, Texas, their brick oven smoker and Texas-style meats had a following of fans that bordered on cultish. After a fire gutted the restaurant in 2004, the ovens went cold and the Harris family moved their operation to Vallejo, promising to someday return.
Reconstruction on the spot started and stopped without explanation in recent years, but mostly faltered. Then quietly, and without fanfare, Robert Harris (son of original owner Donnie Harris) re-opened on June 15, alerting friends and neighbors with wafts of burning oak, sizzling meat and a cryptic message or two on Facebook.
And though Harris hoped to keep the opening mostly under wraps until July, word is out.
Open Friday through Sunday from 11am to 10pm (to start), it’s a family affair with uncles, cousins and grandkids involved in cooking and waiting tables. Like any serious barbecue restaurant, the menu is simple and straightforward: Chicken, ribs (both pork and beef), sliced beef brisket, hot links (made in house) and lamb.
Being Texas-style ‘que, it’s about the rub and the smoke. Sauces are secondary, and with bark like this, it’s icing on the cake. Sweet sauce, mild sauce and hot sauce. You pick. Chicken and brisket are stand-outs. Do not leave without a combo plate of these two (about $16). Ribs are a more a matter of taste: They were chewier than I prefer but my dining pal, Mike, who is a meat and barbecue devotee, gave them a thumbs up. Hotlinks are salty, spicy, meaty sausages that you either love or leave. BiteClubber Rick gushes: “The hot links were just like the old days (bringing tears to the eyes from heat and great taste).” We skipped the lamb, mostly because the portions are intensely huge.
Barbecue without sides, of course, is sacrilege and all dinner and combo-plates come with two. The sweet barbecue beans come from a 100-year-old family recipe, and all Robert will tell you is that yes, they have cumin in them. Potato salad tastes like homemade and the coleslaw has a vinegar base rather than mayo (“thank God”, says Mike). There is beer in a bottle and soda in a can. The menu tempts with sweet potato and pecan pies, but so far they haven’t materialized. Perhaps soon.
There’s no air-conditioning, and the smell of smoke permeates the no-frills interior, so if you aren’t up for sweating and smelling like a campfire, take-out might suit you better. But regulars live for the ambiance, especially when Robert, an imposing figure in a cowboy with a smile as wide as Texas strolls through the room.
Whether this is Sonoma County’s most-authentic barbecue will be debated hotly over the next several weeks, perhaps years. To find it, just look for the century plant that will bloom briefly, to guide you. Otherwise, your nose should work just fine.
Pack Jack Bar-B-Que, 3961 Gravenstein Hwy. South, Sebastopol, 827-3665. Open limited hours during opening, cash only.