First Look: J-Bar-M Barbecue, Perhaps Houston’s Next Best BBQ Place, Now Open At EaDo


A platter of smoked meats at J-Bar-M Barbecue, a new barbecue restaurant at 2201 Leeland. Photo: Robert J. Lerma

Two interwoven stories of postponed – and ultimately resumed – barbecue dreams merge in the smoky surroundings of Houston’s newest (and perhaps largest) smoked meat temple.

One of those stories belongs to John Toomey, the owner of the new J-Bar-M barbecue at 2201 Leeland. Toomey, 93, retired from his real estate business Toomey-Guseman, has always been passionate about barbecue. He never stopped thinking about having his own barbecue joint again.

The other story is Willow Villarreal’s quest to reclaim her place in front of a smoker as one of Houston’s top pitmasters. Just months after receiving an enthusiastic 3-star review from Houston Chronicle restaurant reviewer Alison Cook in November 2018, Villarreal was forced to shut down its popular Willow’s Texas BBQ food truck at the Shady Acres Saloon in the Heights. After years of building a dedicated fan base and climbing the ladder of the barbecue hierarchy in Houston, Villarreal’s barbecue dreams seemed to fade like a cloud of oak smoke.

Until now. J-Bar-M Barbecue represents a dramatic reboot in barbecue passions for both the owner and the pitmaster of the new, extremely fine barbecue restaurant which opened at EaDo on Thursday. But J-Bar-M (the name is an interpretation of a traditional Texas iron with initials depicting John Toomey and his late wife Michelene Guseman Toomey), is about to make a splash in this city-loving city. barbecues. The large, oversized restaurant – built on a plot of land acquired by the Toomey family in 1900 – is both a thoroughly modern smoked meat mecca in form and function, while being a classic heir to barbecue roots. of the city when the booming fifth and third quarters were known as “barbecue halls”.

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Indeed, a wall map on the vast patio of the J-Bar-M pays homage to the history of the barbecue of Houston, to the beloved joints and especially to the missing pioneers of the barbecue of Houston who practiced quietly and effectively their profession of smoked. . Like traditional barbecues, smokers blow in the back of the J-Bar-M and diners line up in front of cutters wielding knives to select their meats arranged on platters lined with paper.

But in almost every other way, J-Bar-M represents a fresh, thoughtful, and bell-and-whistle-laden presentation of the contemporary barbecue business. The building itself rewrites the notions of look and feel of barbecue restaurants. The sloping-roof rising structure with its cathedral-shaped glass siding is a slick urban construction with giant orbs of luminescent balls hanging from the rafters and a chic and clean interior design, with a functional fireplace, which would make Chip and Joanna Envious Gaines (the work of Context3 Design). The tables are adorned with real flowers inside and the patio area, lit by string lights, includes additional seating, space for special events, a stage for performances and a majestic view of the downtown skyline. city. A bar, which serves both indoor and outdoor patrons, is stocked with premium spirits, draft beer, and bottles of Texas wine. There is also a private dining room with its own patio area.

The 8,330 square foot building has 177 indoor seats and the patio offers 254 additional seats.

The restaurant, which has been planned for years (and also recently hosted one of the culinary challenges of the next season of “Top Chef Houston”), has forged its identity in waves. “He grew organically after every meeting,” said Charles Toomey, John’s grandson who acts as director of operations.

“Our goal was to be different,” said John Toomey, adding that he wanted to create an upscale or elevated barbecue experience with an outdoor garden aesthetic.

For Villarreal, J-Bar-M is a glorious new playground with a state-of-the-art pit hall (he calls it his “office”) fitted with four smokers of staggered 1,000 gallon barrels built by Moberg. Smokers of Dripping Springs and two direct heat smokers for preparing whole pork. It even has a pretty fireplace for making coals. When the pit room is in full swing, Villarreal and his team will be able to smoke 100 breasts at a time.

For the pitmaster, this new venture is the opportunity of a lifetime to get back into the barbecue game following the closure of Willow’s Texas BBQ amid a confusion of the bureaucracy of food truck operations brought in by the city at a time when Villarreal was also struggling with health issues.

“It looked like such a failure. And that was – it didn’t go well, ”he said of his barbecue business which closed in March 2019. The timing, however, was on his side: the same month. , he shook hands with Toomey and was brought to J-Bar-M. team whose opening was delayed by the pandemic.

“I have become quite silent,” he said. “I wondered if people still remembered us.

Villarreal’s longtime barbecue partner, fiancee Jasmine Barela, is also on board as the restaurant’s chef, ensuring the foods and flavors that have earned them allegiance at Willow remain intact. Their barbecue menu is familiar and straightforward: premium post-smoked Villarreal oak beef brisket, pork ribs, turkey, pulled pork and sausage. The barbecue can be served in meat platters, in stuffed baked potatoes, in barbecue sandwiches and by the pound.

Barela’s exquisite accompaniments include charro beans, potato salad, red cabbage salad, collard greens, creamed corn, macaroni and cheese, creamy cauliflower au gratin topped with fried leeks, green beans with bacon and an invigorating pickled tomato salad sprinkled with shallots, basil, and garlic and a pinch of red wine vinegar. She’s also responsible for the menu’s sweet endings: banana pudding, indulgent chocolate ganache pie, lemon ice cream pie topped with meringue built on a ginger cookie crust, and peach cobbler infused with local honey.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Barela said. “I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to continue doing what we love.”
J-Bar-M was built from the ground up in the neighborhood where the Toomey family owned rental properties where John Toomey was sent to collect rents as a young man. Over the past decades, he walked the streets of the East End, knocking on doors. Today, thanks to its new restaurant, Houston will knock on its own.

J-Bar-M barbecue, 2201 Leeland; Currently open Thursday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Additional days and hours of service will be added soon.

Greg Morago writes about food for the Houston Chronicle. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Send him current advice at [email protected]. Listen to it on our State of Mind BBQ podcast to learn more about barbecue culture in Houston and Texas.

  • Greg Morago

    Greg Morago was editor and reporter for The Hartford Courant for 25 years before joining the Houston Chronicle as a food editor in 2009. He writes on food, restaurants, spirits, travel, fashion and beauty. . He is originally from Arizona and a member of the Pima tribe of the Gila River Indian community.

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