Thursday, March 13, 2014

Barbecue Bliss in Downtown Fullerton

JP23 BBQ Smokehouse
101 S. Harbor Blvd. 
Fullerton, CA 92832

Barbecue could be the "it" food of 2014. There have been so many barbecue restaurants opening up, that OC is starting to resemble Texas or the Carolina's. Okay, maybe that is stretching it a bit, but there have been a rash of barbecue joints opening up recently. Famous Dave's are popping up all over, there's Fred's BBQ in Orange, Leadbelly's is now open in the old Shortstop BBQ location in Fullerton, and also in Fullerton is a restaurant that is celebrating their one year anniversary this month, JP23 BBQ Smokehouse.

JP23 is located in Downtown Fullerton, right in the middle of all the action, on the corner of Harbor and Commonwealth. If you remember where the dreary club Church was, this is in the same spot. I never understood how Church stayed in business as long as they did. Every time we walked by, there was never anyone in the place. Now that JP23 has taken over, it's a much more vibrant spot. You would think that with 43 TVs this would scream sports bar, but sports bars usually conjure up mediocre finger foods, lackluster burgers, and pretty dull drinks. JP23 wants you to think of them as more of a, "sports restaurant". Where food does not take a back seat to watching a game with your buddies.

We were recently invited to try JP23 by General Manager, Adrienne Bennett, who we had met about two years ago at another restaurant event. She came to JP23 two months ago, and has been busy. She is hiring staff like crazy, working on a overhaul of the wine list, and hired a new chef. As with many restaurant general managers, she's working long hours, with minimal days off. We were excited to see what she, and JP23 had in store for us on this night.

Arriving at JP23 just after 6PM, the sweet aroma of barbecue hits you as you walk in the door here. We were sat right away, and there was a good amount of people already enjoying their dinners. We were sat in a very comfy booth, with plenty of TVs showing the Ducks pregame show. I had a feeling we were in for a great night. The menu here is broken up how you would imagine a lot of barbecue restaurants do things. Appetizers, salads, burgers and sandwiches, then of course the main event, the barbecue meats headline things. After making the trek up from Irvine to get here, we were pretty hungry. Let's see how things turned out for us at JP23.

There were plenty of appetizers here to choose from, but most of them incorporated meat into them. I knew I would be having my fair share of their barbecue, so we went with the Smoked Artichoke Dip ($7.95) to start off with. This was a very good version of the classic spinach and artichoke dip. Not too rich, the smokiness really came through in this. I also liked the cheddar cheese on top of the dip, which I thought was a nice touch. This came with their house made tortilla chips, that they make here everyday. Thicker than your usual tortilla chip, these definitely held up to the dip without breaking off. A good start to our meal.

Katie also started off with a JP23 House Salad ($5.95). Their house salad is made up of a spring lettuce mix, arugula, Roma tomatoes, shallots, and Parmesan cheese, tossed with a balsamic vinaigrette. This pretty good sized dinner salad used fresh produce, but what really set this apart for Katie was the dressing here. It kind of had some garlic undertones to it, with a good amount of tanginess. Just as she polished off this salad the entrees made their way out to our table.

You would probably not expect to see pasta dishes on the menu at a barbecue restaurant, but Katie was pretty excited to have this Linda's Pasta ($12.95). The menu proclaims that this is the owners home favorite, and it is one of Katie's now as well. This dish starts with penne pasta, which is joined by smoked sausage, grilled chicken, peppers, sundried tomatoes, shallots, and a Cajun cream sauce. This came out of the kitchen smoking hot, and Katie had to let it sit for a minute or two. Once cooled, she really enjoyed this rich dish. The chicken was tender, there was plenty of sausage, and the Cajun seasoning really popped with flavor. The heat started off slowly with this, but with each bite it became much more prevalent. This was a good sized serving, which Katie could not finish, so I had the rest for lunch the next day.

As with all barbecue restaurants I eat at, I almost always gravitate towards a combo plate on my first visit. It makes the most sense, so you can get an idea for what's the best for subsequent visits. JP23 offered a BBQ Two Meat Combo Platter ($27.95), which I also added a Kentucky Hot Link to this meal. This was a big plate of food. What I liked about the barbecue here was that it came out with no sauce. I always feel that barbecue that comes slathered in sauce is hiding something. You don't really get a true taste of the meat. It also allows you to add the right amount of sauce for your personal preference. I'll talk about the sauces next, but my observations of the meats were that they were all pretty solid. The brisket was probably my least favorite, as it was a little inconsistent, with some dry pieces in the middle, but the ends were really tasty and showed great promise. The hot link had a good smoky flavor, was juicy, and could stand on its own.  The best of the bunch was the half rack of baby back ribs. These were very tender, as the meat came off the bone in big hunks, which was perfect for dipping into the sauces. Real good ribs here.

JP23 has four barbecue sauces to offer, which are brought to your table for you to decide what you are in the mood for. The four sauces loosely represent four geographic areas of barbecue hot spots. The Chipotle Pepper Sauce is supposed to conjure up Texas, while the Citrus Bang BBQ sauce for some reason is supposed to represent Kansas City barbecue. JP23's signature sauce is a Berry Bourbon Spice, and is said to express California barbecue. The last one was the Same Ole BBQ Sauce, which is more of a standard sauce that you would see in southern barbecue. Going in, I would have thought that the chipotle one would be my favorite, but the citrus sauce really got my attention on this visit. I'm really not much of a citrus fan, but the citrus popped in this sauce, and really went well with the meats. My second favorite was the Same Ole BBQ sauce, which had a nice mellow flavor, without trying to do too much. Simple, great tasting, and it really complimented the meats, without overwhelming your taste buds. I also have to mention one other sauce that we had. Our visit to JP23 was during OC Cocktail Week, and Chef Eric made a special sauce for the event, which was excellent. The Siracha Cherry BBQ sauce was so good, this is the one that I had packaged up so I could enjoy it with my leftovers. It started sweet, then really packed a punch. Before I realized it, I had gone through two glasses of iced tea, and still could not wait to have more of that sauce. I still have a little bit left in my fridge, that I am saving for a special occasion.

Not taking a backseat to the meats here, the sides at JP23 can not be ignored. Adrienne told us that they had the best Collard Greens in OC, so we had to give them a try. She was right. These were some great greens. Not overly soupy, still firm, and with the little hunks of bacon and other meats in here, the greens really picked up the smokiness. This is a definite must get when choosing a side item at JP23. The Mac and Cheese was also a winner. Their version included bacon throughout the bowl, and I liked the layer of cheese that was placed under the broiler, to provide a nice crunchy crust. On the way home, Katie could not stop raving about the Cornbread here. She was enamored with the simplicity of it. It was not overly sweetened, but had hints of honey and corn, which negated the need for butter on it. Since our visit, she has mentioned going up to Fullerton just for this cornbread, which I am sure we will do soon.

Chef Eric allowed me to cross something off of my bucket list on this night. I had mentioned that I wanted to get a picture of their smoker, and there was nice looking pork butt that was ready to be taken out. He grabbed some of this, which shredded at the merest of touch, and gave some to me. I have watched all the cooking shows, where the host gets to pick at the meat, straight out of the smoker, and he always makes that, "oh yeah" face. It was my turn to make that face tonight. This was delicious. Very tender, and it made me glad I was not a chef, because I would never be able to part with the meat after tasting it right out of the smoker. Thanks for this great opportunity Chef Eric.

Both Katie and I were pretty excited with our visit to JP23 BBQ Smokehouse. Pretty much everything we had on this night was a winner, and I'm sure things will continue to move that way with Adrienne and Chef Eric at the helm. They are working on a dessert menu, and the regular menu will be going through some changes as well. I'm hoping that one of those changes will be having that Siracha-cherry barbecue sauce added to the menu, but no pressure guys. We are pretty happy that barbecue restaurants are sprouting up all over OC, and it's an added bonus when it's good barbecue like at JP23 BBQ Smokehouse.

Thanks go out to Adrienne and Chef Eric for the invite to JP23. We really enjoyed talking with you guys, and getting a sneak peek at what is to come for your restaurant. We are excited to come back again soon. We would also like to thank all of the servers and waitstaff that we encountered on this visit. You guys really made us feel comfortable, and met all of our expectations. Thanks again.

For more information about JP23 BBQ Smokehouse, check out their website here:

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