Let me begin by saying that Big Jim's offers both southern pecan pie and sweet potato pie for dessert. Perhaps for some this is enough, but for those of you not already walking out the door, I shall expatiate.
I am a Southerner. Well, I was born in Maryland but below the Mason-Dixon line, and although in almost every other aspect of waking existence I would deny it, when it comes to barbecue, I am a Southern-boy down to my soul. I have known ribs on Beale Street in Memphis, pulled-pork sandwiches in Nashville, catfish in N'orlans and sides of beef that could bring a grown man to his knees in Kansas City.
But this is Southern California, a translucent land where nothing seems real. Could such an ephemeral area produce something so thick and hearty, something with such substance as Southern cuisine? I was a bit skeptical, especially when I was told I would be taken to the finest barbecue establishment on either side of the Mississippi.
“Welcome to Big Jim's-y'all here for the all-you-can-eat catfish?” Ah, the waitress' words warmed my cynical heart. However, I had business to attend to, an eating public to guide, and limiting myself simply to catfish, while tempting, would not be fair to them, nor me. So I ordered boldly and with impunity; pork ribs, a rib-eye steak, a pulled pork sandwich, sides of hush puppies, slaw, baked beans, sweet potato fries, potato salad, three iced teas and a trio of Turbo Dog Stouts.
The drinks came in plastic cups accompanied by two baskets of cornbread. Steaming hot with a hint of honey, the homemade cornbread was fine indeed; just the right amount of crisp around the edges, soft and flaky on the inside. Perfect.
All the food is served on paper plates and eaten with plastic forks and knives (and fingers of course). The tables are wooden, unvarnished and unpainted, the chairs are mix-matched and lack cushions, and the main dining area sits beneath a permanent tent. One would think that this combination would suit a county fair, that people vying for the area's largest squash and trying to win Bon Jovi posters by tossing plastic rings over Fanta bottles would be wandering in and out in sleeveless flannels and mullets. Fortunately, this is not the case. While casual and comfortable, Big Jim's exudes a certain charm, a grace that is distinctly Southern.
Big Jim is an elusive character, and during our dinner we were able to get bits of info on our mysterious host. Apparently he does exist and is of good size, roughly 6 feet 3 inches by our waitress' estimation, and hails from Alabama. Alabama has a bit of a dubious history, but one thing is for certain-if you go there you will experience the taste of the true South. From Mobile to Birmingham, Alabama embodies the tastes of Southern cooking, and Big Jim has managed to bring that taste to San Diego.
The massive pork ribs are coated with a thick barbecue sauce that combines hints of vinegar and brown sugar to produce a savory, tangy marinade that brings out the flavor. The rib-eye steak is a thing of glory to behold, the juices slowly seeping out around the edges; a bit of salt is the only extra flavor needed. Each bite is a testament to the virtue of carnivorous activity. Rounding out the main courses was a mountainous pile of shredded pulled-pork resting atop a toasted roll. Coated in the aforementioned sublime barbecue sauce, the sandwich was a choice compliment with the ribs and steak and inspired future visions of lunch at Big Jim's.
No Southern barbecue is complete without side-dishes-crisp hush puppies with Remoulade sauce; creamy baked beans prepared with pulled pork; peppery coleslaw, chunky, country-style potato salad; and thick-cut sweet potato fries soon filled our table. A harmonious feast ensued, as the waitress hustled more iced teas, Turbo Dogs and baskets of cornbread to us with impeccable timing.
We finished ourselves off with homemade peach cobbler and slices of pecan and sweet potato pie. Already stuffed, we thought we'd have trouble with another bite, but once our noses picked up the sweet scent, the pies were devoured without a second thought.
The table was unanimous in bestowing accolades on Big Jim's. Between the three of us Southerners-a Marylander, a North Carolinian and a Virginian-we felt our combined histories of family barbecues and cookouts merited enough authority to make a sincere and clear-headed evaluation. And outside of a notorious pork-pulling Uncle in Wilmington and a wily old barbecue sauce-brewing Grandmother outside of Richmond, Big Jim's took the prize.
Go in on Monday nights for all-you-can-eat pork ribs ($19.95) or Tuesdays for all-you-can-eat catfish ($14.95). Most entrees run from $12 to $16 and are all hearty portions. If you're from the East and miss the taste of good barbecue or are a local and want to know what Southern cooking and hospitality is all about, head to Big Jim's-you'll be happy you did.