What is Bay Area-style barbecue? It’s the perpetual dog-chasing-its-tail question in our local food world, where 50 people will likely provide 50 different answers. In a region that adores barbecue but doesn’t have a deep, detailed history with it à la Memphis, Kansas City or Texas, does the Bay Area have a specific style of barbecue?
No. Or at least, not really. The better question resides on the micro level instead of the macro level, as each barbecue chef is free to blend traditions from elsewhere with their own narrative on the great, smoky craft. There are no hard and fast rules that brisket must be exactly like this and the sauce must have a specific vinegary kick.
For Ja’Don Anderson (who goes by JD), the founder and gifted barbecue voice of the J & D’s BBQ truck, it’s about the wood flavoring, the rub and patience.
“To me at the end of the day,” JD explains, “If you’re smoking, you’re low and slow.”
Indeed, everything in barbecue is a process and it takes time, not to mention a lot of space. That’s why there is effectively a barrier to entry for being a barbecue restaurant or truck in the crowded, expensive Bay Area.
If you really want to make amazing barbecue in the Bay Area, you have to be committed to it.
While JD certainly is committed to the craft, it hardly happened overnight. Well, J & D’s BBQ actually in a way did start because of overnight shipping.
Barbecue has pretty much always been a part of JD’s life, from being the theme of the TV cooking shows he watched, to being a key part of big family gatherings as he grew up in San Francisco. JD was always an independent student of this cooking art, yet it was never something intended to be a profession for him. He worked for nearly two decades with UPS until around 2015, when an injury forced him away from work. That’s when JD’s wife Loran gave him the nudge of encouragement that he didn’t know he needed for finding his second profession, telling him essentially, “You should sell BBQ.”
JD loves to joke how his then “JD’s BBQ” started as the smallest of the small dining operations. His debut stage with customers was as a pop-up at a barber shop. However, things sometimes do have a way of working out, even from unlikely beginnings. Soon, JD was catering events with upwards of 80 people. Then, as the BBQ ambitions were growing, JD’s older brother and one of his pivotal BBQ mentors, passed away tragically after he had moved from San Francisco to Seattle. Shortly thereafter, JD decided to make his BBQ operation a bonafide business.
Still, the speed bumps continued for J & D’s BBQ — but there’s no way that JD could have seen them coming.
For many talented chefs in the pricey Bay Area, the question of “What’s the next step?” rarely can be a restaurant. A food truck, however, is a different story.
According to JD, a food truck was “more feasible” to get off the ground. “We can do that,” he thought. That was 2019.
J & D’s beautiful new BBQ truck was ready to offer Anderson’s compelling brisket and links to Bay Area diners. Then, while parked, it was hit and heavily damaged before the truck ever even served customers. Before it could get back up and running, 2020 arrived, and we all know too well what that brought the world. The Covid-19 pandemic dissolved any catering opportunities. The truck didn’t have anywhere to go. Business faded away into the pandemic fog.
Except, being ever the optimist, JD notes “when one door closed, another one opened.”
JD connected with Off the Grid, admitting to us that “they were all I knew for the food truck scene.” He was aware of OTG’s reach around the Bay Area. J & D’s BBQ joined other OTG creators from around the Bay Area for Off the Grid’s Great Plates Delivered, cooking dishes to be brought to the Bay Area’s elderly and other at-risk communities while sheltering in place. Then, as the Bay Area slowly started to reopen, the demand for food trucks started to rise. As JD notes, it’s an outdoor business and a to-go business—the two recurring themes of pandemic era dining.
2021 was “go time” for J & D’s BBQ and the truck has swiftly become an anchor for Off the Grid’s gatherings and at Spark Social.
JD sticks to traditional meats and sides, but doesn’t follow a specific style other than his style.
He uses a specific rub that he created and is particularly careful with the wood selection for smoking. Sometimes it’s oak, other times it’s oak, walnut and apple. He loves to mix and match and strategize, pretty much being a wood whisperer.
Brisket is the heart of the menu, being the most challenging meat and the most popular meat simultaneously. That means the brisket is usually the first to sell out and not always on the menu since it requires so much smoking time. You’ll also find chicken, links, tri-tip, pulled pork, pork ribs, and sometimes giant beef ribs in the rotation. The quintet of sides are baked beans, collard greens, potato cheese, mac ‘n’ cheese and coleslaw.
JD isn’t trying to reinvent one of the great culinary arts in the world. But, being essentially only 10 months old when it comes to being a truck serving customers, J & D’s BBQ isn’t afraid of adding something new to the mix—just not something new to that incredible seasoning rub. “We’re babies at this!” JD admits.
For example, he finally caved in and created his first sauce for the barbecue. You’ll have to add the sauce on your own, though. It’s the rub and the low, slow smoking that is J & D’s secret sauce; not the sauce itself.
It’s been a long journey for J & D’s BBQ, and the adventure continues as year one of the truck soon becomes year two. JD’s late brother Delvon is always there with J & D’s, next to JD in the mural on the side of the truck with wings and a halo. J & D’s name does purposefully connect the brothers ( Ja’ Don and Delvon), though the name JD’s BBQ to J & D’s BBQ switch actually happened before Delvon’s passing.
“The name change came before my Brother’s passing in 2017,” explains JD. “At the time I figured that I should change the name early on so that I wouldn’t have to do it later on after already building a name. At some point I figured my brother would come back to California and join the business.” The name and the mural are a touching tribute “to keep him alive and to honor him” says JD. It continues to be a family affair for J & D’s with Loren and some of their four kids (ages 4 to 21) helping out at the truck.
Hopefully the road smooths out for this truck as we navigate our way through the pandemic. Even with all the uncertainty around the world in 2021, one thing is certain: there might not be a definitive kind of Bay Area barbecue, but it’s BBQ talent like JD that ignites our passion for the genre.
Where to find it: J & D’s BBQ is often at Off the Grid’s Levi’s Plaza gathering on Thursdays and Spark Social on Saturdays. However, its schedule is often subject to change week-to-week, so check the truck’s Instagram and Facebook for updates.
By Trevor Felch