Larry J's House of Q is a surprisingly large space in what looks more like an office building than a restaurant. Ordering is over-the-counter. The huge dining room would be impressive in its own right, but for Chelsea or a barbecue restaurant, it's shockingly breathtaking, with high ceilings, exposed beams, natural wood, long windows, a garage door and a modern fusion of pub decor and family dining. The huge dining room has a condiment station that virtually divides it into two sections. One side has a jazz theme; the other has a chalkboard for kids that goes all the way to the floor. Seating consists of plush vinyl booths, tables for two and larger communal tables, all made of heavy varnished antique wood. The landing outside the building accommodates outdoor tables in warmer months. There's no bar or alcohol served, but that's a work in progress. The smoker is a Cookshack.
A usual downside of over-the-counter joints is lack of appetizers, but Larry J's is almost singlehandedly changing that paradigm with a bevy of innovative treats: rib tips, burnt ends, Fire Balls (spicy meatballs with spicier dipping sauce), wings, chili, Hawg Wings (pork shanks), catfish bites and more. The barbecue menu is equally far reaching, with both pork ribs (St Louis cut spares) and beef shortribs, pulled pork, sliced brisket, two varieties of sausage, smoked and pulled chicken. Beyond 'cue, there's a burger, a veggie burger, a catfish sandwich, assorted stuffed baked potatoes and four salads. Although not mentioned as such on the menu, cornbread is included with platters. I like that chili is available as one of the choices for sides. I almost like the way the combo plates (up to four meats) are configured, with different prices depending on whether ribs are included, but the only way you can get chicken on a combo is paired with ribs.
Two visits with friends spaced more than four months apart hit Larry J's on a Saturday afternoon and a Wednesday night.
Burnt ends: I asked how these were prepared, then was intrigued by the answer: Smoked, rubbed, deep fried, served without sauce. The burnt ends ($7.95) arrived as an order of about a dozen one-inch cubes in a cardboard boat, each one glistening and more than generously rubbed. They were appetizing, but a smoke ring might have improved the appearance. The first bite delivered a light smoke with the rub taking lead; juices gushed readily. The texture was similar to steak cooked to medium: not tough by any means, but not as tender as most burnt ends I've sampled. Flavorwise, these were fine with or without sauce added, and it was a good start to my first meal at Larry J's.
Chili: A no-brainer side selection on my first visit, this was the second thing I tried and it hit the spot despite not being what I call a barbecue chili. This one was a simple, beanless mix of ground beef, spices and a tomato component similar to marinara but with a hint of chile pepper tingle. The texture was velvety smooth. I'd probably add some hot sauce if it were available at the condiment station, but the chili did alright on its own.
Wings: Billed as smoked-then-fried, the wings ($8.95) had two things I liked: gentle smoky flavor and the perfect amount of just-spicy-enough chipotle sauce (BBQ, Buffalo and habanero are the other options). They also had two things I didn't like: rubbery skin on the majority (a few pieces had moderate crisping) and not much (if any) rub presence. A few extra small containers of chipotle sauce (spicier than what was on the wings already) and habanero perked the wings up a bit, but lack of crispness made the wings just so-so.
Hawg Wings: A trio of pork shanks on the bone ($7.95) are also smoked-then-fried, and these were superb. Served unsauced, they immediately showcased the virtues of a minute in the deep fryer. The skin—or whatever you call the exterior of a pork shank—was super crisp and still gently bubbling. One bite in, the moist meat glided meltingly off the bone. A dining mate who shares my disdain for falling-off-the-bone ribs noted, "This is one time where falling off the bone is a good thing." I agree. The meat wasn't what I'd call overly porky or noticeably seasoned, but the smoke and joyful contrast of crisp and moist made these a winner.
Fire Balls: Also served as a trio, these continued the progression: the Hawg Wings added the crispness the wings lacked, then the Fire Balls ($5.95) added the rub/spice component both lacked. The smoked, spiced meatballs offered a hint of smokiness and some decent juiciness. These were tasty as is and even better lightly dipped into the chipotle and habanero wing sauces.
Pork ribs: There's no getting around it, the pork ribs—the menu item many equate with barbecue—were the glaring weak spot on the first visit. The good news is that they packed more rub than the pork, sausage (none expected) and brisket combined. The not-so-good news is that the ribs were pale, dry and tough, to the point where they were near-impossible to cut with a plastic knife. As I said earlier, I'm not one who demands (or even seeks) fall-off-the-bone tenderness, but these were not even close to being tender. I can't really comment on the flavor, because the texture was such a show stopper.
The second visit's half rack showed some improvement in tenderness, allowing an effort-free cut while maintaining rigidity.The rub was noticeable but still light. Ditto the crust. Ditto the overall flavor. Moistness was high, with juices trickling out with each bite.
Beef rib: A giant smoked shortrib ($16.95 alone, $19.95 with 2 sides) delivers enough meat on one bone to easily share among a group. The behemoth from our second visit had a thick bark with borderline crispness and minimal rub. Inside, the meat was moderately tender, slightly pink and extremely juicy. The inherent fattiness of the beef rib kept it moist and somewhat flavorful; the denser pockets of fat were easily discarded. I'd still like a little more pink coloring (from smoke, not undercooking) and glistening shreds, but as consistituted, this beef rib was at least adequate with or without sauce.
Pulled pork sandwich: Served on a fresh, powdery bulkie roll, the first visit's pulled pork sandwich ($8.50 with one side) presented a good serving of delicate pork strands, lightly coated with sauce (choice of mustard, hot mustard, Carolina vinegar or Texas tomato). There was decent bark representation, though as with some previous items, it wasn't crisp. Aside from that technicality, the texture was just about perfect, with good moisture, no steaminess and cooked to a tenderness that didn't even think about being mushy. The hot mustard perked the pork up nicely without hiding the natural flavor, but smoke was light, as was the rub.
Pulled pork: A plastic tub of pork on the second visit's Ribs+1 combo ($14.95 with 2 sides) yielded similar results: perfectly tender, very moist, light smoke, lighter rub. This time I chose Carolina vinegar, which added some mild acidity and light sweetness without taking over the show. Note that the pork and the wings are the only items that arrive sauced.
Sausage: A whole link is included when chosen on the Ribs+2 combo ($15.95 with 3 sides). Much like the burnt ends, a long link arrived in its own boat, perspiring in its own sheen. Equally spaced notches assisted with portioning but might have impeded juiciness, which was nevertheless abundant. Flavor was good with some welcome heat (I ordered the hot version). Although it seemed more like Italian sausage than Texas sausage, it was very satisfying.
Brisket: Also served in its own boat on the Ribs+2 combo, the brisket was your classic case of "decent" across the board: moist for sure but shy of juicy; texture neither tender nor tough (though closer to tender); agreeable flavor without much rub and fairly light smoke. While the pork was good enough to stand on its own, the brisket would probably fare much better in a sandwich.
A single sauce at the condiment station is a reddish brown tomato-based number similar in style to what you'd get at the store, but much better executed: a little thinner, a little zippier and more homemade tasting. I also asked for an extra cup of the hot mustard sauce that I chose with the pork, and enjoyed that even more. On the pork it had the feel and flavor of Cattlemen's mustard sauce, but a taste of the sauce by itself revealed hotter, brighter flavors. This sauce (which straddles hot sauce and barbecue sauce) needs to be included in a squeeze bottle of its own. I might even buy some if it were available by the bottle.
Al dente cowboy beans swam in a thin, tangy-spicy broth that was more neutral on the second visit. Mac and cheese is the tight Southern style with minimal cheese. Collard greens were basic green leaves, cooked to the brink of wilting, in a light broth. Coarse, "corny" cornbread in a square mini loaf was fresh, slightly moist and extremely sweet.
The Bottom Line
Roomy, easy to park at and extremely clean and friendly, Larry J's is a comfortable hang with a deep menu and decent 'cue. If you move past or bypass ribs in favor of appetizers, pork and sausage, the 'cue is a little better than decent. The best dishes—the Hawg Wings and Fire Balls—show promise of what might yet come with more fruitwood smoke flavor and more assertiveness in the rub department.
Larry J's House of Q segment on Phantom Gourmet
Urbanspoon reviews of Larry J's House of Q