Jonathan Wilson grew up at Stacy’s Barbecue, a Jacksonville institution. His family ate at Stacy’s two or three times a week, and that was one of the things Wilson missed most about Texas when he said he moved to Arkansas with his family in 2004. To cure his Texas barbecue cravings, Wilson learned to smoke brisket himself. During the day he worked as a marketing director for a nonprofit organization, but still found time to organize a few small events for his wife Johnna and their two children in addition to cooking.
Another job opportunity brought the family back to East Texas a few years ago, and Wilson was happy to be back in Brisket land. He found some new favorites at Teja’s Chocolate & Barbecue in Tomball and Hutchins BBQ in McKinney, but he couldn’t give up the habit of smoking his brisket at home. Then came a fateful catering gig, this time for Texans. An investor happened to be among the participants and, after trying Wilson’s food, offered to finance a barbecue area. “My wife and I knew we were called to do this,” says Wilson.
He knew right away that he wanted to open a joint in Jacksonville. Wilson’s old favorite Stacy’s had closed for good in 2018, leaving a void in the Jacksonville barbecue scene. Wilson quit his job, renovated an old grocery stand called Tomato Shed, and opened JW’s Barbecue in October last year.
At the former Tomato Shed down the street from the Tomato Bowl, and with flyers for this year’s Tomato Fest, you already know JW’s serves a tomato-based barbecue sauce. The menu offers sweet or spicy versions of the sauce, both thick and shiny. There are also two types of ribs: sweet “apple pie ribs,” which use Lane’s apple pie seasoning, brown sugar, and the sweet barbecue sauce as the rub, and a more traditional dry-grated version. The sweet ribs are well smoked, juicy, and tender, but if you prefer a hefty rind, go for the dry-grated ribs. They aren’t marked as spicy, but a thick layer of coarse black pepper will add some spiciness. I prefer them, and the locals drop by too – sweet ribs used to sell better than dry grated two-to-one, but Wilson now smokes the same amount of both.
Photo by Daniel Vaughn
This thick black pepper rind is also a feature of the brisket. Even a piece of lean was incredibly juicy. I would have preferred the slices to be about half as thick, but to be fair, they would have fallen apart delicately if sliced thinner. There was an audible crunch as I bit through the rind on the burnt end of the fat brisket, and my smile later showed some of that black pepper.
Wilson learned to smoke with hickory and pecan wood in Arkansas, and he chose to continue that combination even in Texas Oak Country. The mixture creates a mild smoke flavor on the meat – or it could be the smoker Wilson is using. It is a J&R Smokemaster convection oven that uses logs for smoking, but also has an electric heating element. Briskets and pork shoulders continue in the evening, and Wilson returns about twelve hours later the next morning to take them off and load the ribs and sausages from Müller’s meat market in Llano. He deliberately chose a small footprint smoker that would fit in his kitchen and require little babysitting in order to maximize family time for him and his staff. “I didn’t want to hire someone to load wood up here all night, and I didn’t want to do it myself,” he says.
Wilson and his staff also prepare the pages fresh every morning. The pinto beans are so popular they were gone when I got there an hour after opening. But I caught the hearty smoked corn, which is made from smoked kernels, mayonnaise, coriander, lime juice, cotija, cayenne pepper, and chili powder. It was spicier than the sliced yellow squash and zucchini, but I really appreciate the offer of a fresh veggie side, and also the local keto fans who requested it. You’re probably also grateful that the temptation of banana pudding only shows up once a week, on Saturdays, so I couldn’t try the lonely dessert option.
Business is good but inconsistent, says Wilson. Thursday is his busiest day, and not the Texas barbecue norm of Saturday. This may be due to a recent change in opening times. It originally only opened for dinner on Saturdays, but on the weekend after the winter storm in February, customers asked it to open for lunch so they could have their barbecue party. It did what it asked and has been open for Saturday lunch ever since. This is just one example of the attention Wilson pays to his community. He even indicated that he wants to build a log pit outside where he can eventually cook whole pigs. I guess it’s Wilson’s way of bringing a bit of that pork grill tradition to brisket land.
1015 E. Rusk, Jacksonville
Hours: Tuesday-Friday 11 am-3pm, Saturday 11 am-5pm
Pit master: Jonathan Wilson
Method: Hickory and pecan in a closet smoker
Year open: 2020