Food & Drink

Jambo’s hits the marks with its Arlington ’cue

Jambo's BBQ manager Hailey Hemphill displays the Jambo Texan, which features every meat Jambo’s specializes in: brisket, bologna, pulled pork, sausage and ribs. This one measured 7 1/2 inches tall.
Jambo's BBQ manager Hailey Hemphill displays the Jambo Texan, which features every meat Jambo’s specializes in: brisket, bologna, pulled pork, sausage and ribs. This one measured 7 1/2 inches tall. Special to the Star-Telegram

It’s a scene most barbecue lovers are used to seeing: a long line of hungry ’cue lovers snaking from one end of the building to another.

It’s not necessarily a scene that Arlington, however, is used to seeing, which is why some of the people in line at the new location of Jambo’s BBQ Shack look a little confused.

Standing in a long line is as much a part of the barbecue vernacular as asking if any burnt ends are left or washing down your pulled pork with sweet tea. But it’s a relatively new phenomenon here in Arlington, where good barbecue — and the long lines that go with it —can be hard to come by.

On this Saturday afternoon, the line zig-zags through the dining room, while patient employees show people where to stand. When the place gets crowded and workers have to focus their energies elsewhere, up goes a hand-written sign directing line traffic; employees cross their fingers that people piling in abide by it.

Although Arlington may still be getting the swing of things here, this is old hat for Jambo’s, now three locations strong. Originally owned by Jamie “Jambo” Geer, a competitive barbecuer who also sells his own line of barbecue pits, the first store opened three years ago in a tiny spot in Rendon.

Geer sold the name and business to husband-wife duo Paul and Ashton Lovato, who opened a second location in Arlington, on Little Road; the popular store can go through 200 pounds of brisket in a day.

Now comes location No. 3, recently opened in the old Arlington Steak House, whose lovably rickety shell dates to 1931. Those sweating over whether the Lovatos were going to mess with the integrity of Arlington’s oldest restaurant can breathe a sigh of relief: Other than a few cosmetic nip-tucks, they barely touched the place.

Jambo’s serves barbecue as most ’cue joints do — by the pound, in sandwiches or on plates with sides. Meat is smoked for hours over pecan wood, in an Ole Hickory smoker.

While ordering, you’re told of the restaurant’s signature item, the Jambo Texan ($15), a skyscraper sandwich layered with brisket, pork ribs, bologna, sausage and pulled pork, all between two thick slices of buttered and grilled Texas toast; a skewer keeps the thing from toppling over.

It’s impossible to eat it as a sandwich; no mouth is this big. Dismantled, it’s a smart and inexpensive way to sample and share each of Jambo’s meats.

We were most impressed with the sausage. Not many barbecue restaurants in North Texas make their own, but Jambo’s does, and it makes a tremendous difference in both the taste and texture.

The links are a mix of beef and pork, and have a deep, rich, smoky flavor. Our sandwich’s single link, sliced in half down the middle, came wrapped in a snappy casing that popped like a knuckle.

Hardly the flappy mystery meat of our youth, bologna was excellent, too, sturdy and thickly cut, its edges trimmed in a nice amount of smoky char. St. Louis-cut pork ribs weren’t huge but packed a lot of flavor: smoke from the pit, sweetness from a likable rub, a hint of pepper. So good were the flavors, we overlooked the fact that they were a bit overcooked.

Pulled pork and chopped brisket were dry, requiring us to spruce them up with the restaurant’s house-made barbecue sauces, one tangy, the other sweet.

At the bottom of the sandwich were four thick slices of brisket, each cleanly, perfectly chiseled with razor-blade precision. A ruby-red smoke ring rode along their spines, a good sign they were smoked by deft hands, and each was framed in thin lines of peppery crust; tiny tufts of fat hung from their tips.

For fans of meaty, lean brisket, these were fine specimens. If you’re hoping for Hill Country-style brisket, with lots of fat and crust, like you’ll find at Pecan Lodge or BBQ on the Brazos, you’ll be disappointed. A sampling of moist brisket yielded pieces in which the fat had not been rendered and, as a result, was gummy; stick with lean.

Jambo’s other signature item, The Sadie ($9), is a Jurassic monster baked potato sliced open and filled with chopped beef, grated cheddar cheese, pinto beans, butter, sour cream, onions and tiny bits of sausage. Brisket, onions and sausage were thrown on the grill for a moment, all together in a heap, giving them a sinfully greasy flavor.

Of the sides sampled, we liked the chunky, mustard-based potato salad ($1.75), which was nice and simple, and the pleasantly spicy Cowboy Corn ($1.75), sweet corn mixed with cream cheese, Hatch chile peppers and diced pimentos.

A freshly made yeast dinner roll, a menu holdover from Arlington Steak House, was a quarter well spent. Less impressive were thin, hand-cut fries, which needed seasoning.

We lucked out and arrived just as the terrific peach cobbler ($2.50) was coming out of the oven. We lucked out in another way, too: We got there before the line started.

Jambo’s BBQ Shack

On the opening night of the Fort Worth Food and Wine Festival, barbecue takes center stage and we get saucy with the crowd to test their knowledge of the Texas delicacy. (Video by Steve Wilson and Rick Press, Star-Telegram.com)

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