Like many of their fellow ex-pats living in Bywater, Pete Breen and Jenny Tice descended on New Orleans from other, more consumerism- and reality-stricken locales, pursuing ideals if not utopia. They found fun, friends and an impossible job market. Jenny worked various jobs, from watering plants in corporate lobbies to helping rescue a child from its autistic trappings, before settling in for three years' employment with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Pete toiled for a while in what he terms a "chump CBD job," and worked for Jazz Fest, too, until budget cuts took his job away.
While opening The Joint -- a fabulous, authentic barbecue spot on Poland Avenue deep, deep in the Bywater -- might have seemed like a dream, it was firmly rooted in reality. For years, Pete fooled around as an amateur grill sergeant, throwing backyard barbecues that grew in both complexity and quality. In the winter of 2003-2004, Pete stepped up his efforts, purchasing a small smoker and starting to smoke pulled pork in large, delicious portions. The two hosted a Sugar Bowl party during this time, with a large group coming over to watch LSU win its share of the national championship and to drunkenly devour Pete's pork. At this party, I told Pete with full, finger-licking sincerity, "You should do this for a living."
I always couch my (obnoxious and somewhat delusional) authority on barbecue with proud statements about my hometown of Columbus, Ga., which I consider tops among the South's many barbecue meccas. In Columbus, pitmasters at area restaurants loom large with legendary status, like Jimmy Johnson at 13th Street Barbecue, "Home of the Original Pork Chop Sandwich." Columbus has several top-notch barbecue restaurants, my favorite being the Smokey Pig, where the pork is so good, "It'll make you wanna slap your mama," as they say back home. I helped escort Pete on a tour of Columbus' barbecue landscape, and if he wasn't inspired, he was at least well fed.
Perhaps Pete took notes on his swine sojourn, as the menu at The Joint reflects the down-home goodness typical of places in Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina -- certainly not New Orleans, which until the past year seemed lacking in truly quality barbecue. The menu boasts pulled pork, beef brisket, ribs and chicken as the meats -- each coated in a thick, housemade rub and smoked for upward of 12 hours. Jenny handles the sides: potato salad, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, green beans and coleslaw. The two sauces available -- also steeped in barbecue tradition, one tomato-based and the other vinegar-based -- are both housemade from scratch.
When spreading the gospel of The Joint to the uninitiated, I always begin with the disclaimer that they're my best friends and "I may be biased, but ... ." Then come my drooling rants about how the ribs just fall of the bone, the brisket beats brisket I've tasted in Austin, Texas, and the pulled pork, well, "It'll make you wanna slap your mama."
Word about The Joint is starting to spread, business is starting to boom. The couple opened The Joint in June in the old Bywater location of Palmer's Jamaican restaurant, slapping a fresh coat of yellow paint on the outside and leaving the Marley-inspired mural inside. Six months later, the restaurant earned a glowing review in this month's issue of OffBeat, and this fall was widely hailed on local food guru Tom Fitzmorris' message board.
Countless customers tell them how to market the place, practically demanding they advertise to lure tourists. They shrug off such notions, a testament to people who have just hit 30 and are hoping that this is as businesslike as they'll get. They hold to a do-it-yourself ethos that allows them to close early on Sundays to watch The Sopranos and take three weeks off over the holidays to ski in Colorado.
The Joint has become a second home to our friends, who suffered through the Saints season every Sunday at the restaurant and contribute their own ideas -- such as Scott Williams, the jukebox manager, bringing to the (unofficial) menu the smoked bowl: coleslaw topped with pulled pork, served in a bowl. This isn't to say that everything has come up roses for Pete and Jenny. A belligerent, profanity- and threat-spewing racist nearly crushed Jenny's idealism. The inherit stress, long hours and close proximity to each other has put strains on their relationship -- Jenny admits it sucks having her boyfriend bark at her for more potato salad. But the two march on, staying true to each other and their dream, watching a small business grow and deliver, in my own admittedly biased opinion, the best damn barbecue in New Orleans.