Tennessee Jed's is a main street eatery on Merrick Road in Wantagh, just east of the Wantagh Parkway. When you walk in, there's a small bar to your left, spartan seating straight ahead and a semi-open kitchen to the left behind the bar. Usually there's just one server and just one cook on duty.
The barbecue roster at Tennessee Jed's includes Memphis style babybacks, St Louis pork ribs, Texas beef ribs, pulled pork, brisket, smoked Texas links, half chickens and pulled chicken. Two- and three-meat combos make ordering very flexible, and a rib sampler (all three rib types) and a Combo Feast with seven different meats and four sides.
For such a small joint, Tennessee Jed's manages to squeeze a lot of variety into its menu. Appetizers include chicken fingers, babyback ribs, barbecue shrimp, crabcakes, fried cheese bites, corn dogs, smoked wings, tater tots, onion rings and barbecue nachos topped with chili or brisket. There's a beef chili and a vegetarian chili. Non-barbecue entrees include fried chicken, grilled chicken, fried or barbecued shrimp, grilled steak, Angus burgers and four entree salads.
I visited Tennessee Jed's solo for a Sunday lunch, then returned two months later with a group of barbecue enthusiasts (all competition cooks and judges, with one restaurateur) for a Saturday lunch visit.
On the first visit I started with a cup of chili ($6.00), which was a lightly smoky, fairly straightforward chili consisting mostly of ground beef. The colorful corn chips served as a garnish and dipping vessel.
On the group visit we tried the wings ($9.00), which were plump and smoky (possibly too smoky) and served lightly coated with your choice of sauce. We sampled all three choices: Buffalo was true to form and not stingy with the heat; barbecue was fairly predictable; honey chipotle was the runaway winner. This one had deep flavor, just a hint of heat and a perfect consistency that stuck to the meat without overpowering it.
A pulled pork sandwich was served on a huge, plain sub roll and served with potato chips and a pickle spear. This was certainly an interestig presentation, closer to a deli than a barbecue joint. The meat was liberally sauced, so I braced myself for the worst before taking that first big bite. The smokiness surpised me, and by that I'm not saying that it was excessively smoky, just that I was expecting this to be oven-cooked pork, but it was real barbecue. I still wasn't crazy about the sweetness and quantity of Kansas City style sauce in the meat, but the few chunks that avoided it tasted pretty good. I wouldn't run back to revisit this sandwich, but I wouldn't run away from it.
A Rib Sampler ($38.00) on the Saturday group visit allowed a good survey of beef and pork ribs. it featured a half rack of babybacks, a half rack of St Louis cut spares and a single Texas beef rib.
The beef component was a giant short rib that had a well formed crust and tender meat, but lacked the visual appeal of the similar beef ribs available in the city. The flavor was pleasant and certainly beefy, just a discernable shade or two (or six) more muted than what I've had elsewere. The rub was minimal.
St Louis cut spare ribs made up that lack of rub with an extra sprinkling over the entire half rack after cooking, a nod to the Memphis style popularized by the Rendezvous. These were unsauced, tender, somewhat moist and very smoky, though the rub seemed to only flavor the outer meat. Babyback ribs were sauced, equally tender and equally smoky, but like the spares lacked that certain something that defines good barbecue. The bottom of the half rack was black and a little sooty.
A Texas links platter, served with onions and peppers, was barbecue meets ballpark. These were plump, juicy and similar to hotdogs, just a little spicier.
Tennessee Jed's for the most part has the doneness and barbecue textures nailed down, but is struggling somewhat with the flavors: some items were a little too smoky; other items were vastly underseasoned.
A Boylan's Sodas 4-pack with four squeeze bottles of barbecue sauce graces each table. The regular, sweet and hot are all subtle variations on the typical Kansas City style sauce available in stores. For me the standout was the mustard sauce that had some sweetness and kick to go with a pleasing syrupy texture that clung to the meat. My favorite sauce of all doesn't come in a squeeze bottle but is available on request: the honey chipotle wing sauce is well worth a try.
Sides here are a mixed bag. Beans were very plain and seemed like they came straight from a can. Cole slaw was very creamy and lacked flavor. Collard greens, on the other hand, were well seasoned and complemented with bright flavors as well as bits of bacon. Loose and creamy mac and cheese used gemelli pasta and a chesese very similar to Velveeta.
I know it sounds like faint praise, but it's true: the star here is the cornbread, served in generous blocks that are as warm and moist as cornbread can get and still be fully cooked.
The bottom line: This is a small but friendly neighborhood joint where barbecue textures generally succeed but the barbecue flavors are a work in progress.
Joan Reminick's Newsday review of Tennessee Jed's