I’ve been casting an impatient glance at this operation for a few weeks now…wondering, waiting, salivating. What should be a Lanesborough landmark, but is often, foolishly, treated as a fly-by, “I’ll stop in someday” location, Mad Jack’s BBQ, is finally open again after a long break.
A lot of my perspective on barbecue came from my little brother. He was a trained chef, but more of a cook’s chef than a chef’s chef, if you know what I mean. A real chef for the common man, and most of his most popular dishes were comfort foods done exquisitely and sold at affordable prices. We cooked together constantly at home and later in a bungalow we rented off Magnolia Ave. in Knoxville, Tenn. For a time, we worked together at the original Calhoun’s on the Tennessee River, which once took home first prize at the National Rib Cook-Off in Cleveland, Ohio. He was an avid smoker and griller who taught me a lot about food, even though I’d worked in restaurants for years before he donned his toque blanche.
What I learned about barbecue during my five or so years in Knoxville is that only a fool of a critic would declare one establishment the “best” barbecue in town. Even though Tennessee is known as the BBQ Belt, not many places dare to call themselves “THE official barbecue” of Knoxville. Tastes and recipes just vary too wildly, even on the same side of town.
That history informs my thoughts about my experience at Mad Jack’s.
Open May through September
4:00 – 8:30 p.m.
126 South Main Street Lanesborough, Mass.
This was a little over a week ago and the joint had been open for the season exactly one day when I stepped in for exactly one thing — a pulled pork sandwich. I don’t this craving a lot, having been spoiled by the famous “pig burgers” either at Sarge’s or at Brother Jack’s (no relation to Mad Jack’s) in Knoxville. Also working banquets-and-catering in the South means that I got to take home metric tons of left over pulled pork, so I’m really probably good until 2035 or so.
But when a hankering hits (and wallet obliges), I obey.
Problem was, when I looked at the menu, my iron drive began to falter. So many great aromas hitting me all at once. So many menu options. I saw that Mad Jack’s does beef ribs and tried to order a rack of them. Maybe eat just one there alongside my pulled pork sandwich and take the rest home…
“I’m so sorry! We should have beef ribs in next week! How about some pork ribs?” asked my BBQ consultant.
At that point, I started to become unglued.
“Well…I…uh, I originally came in for a pulled pork sandwich, but then…” and I trailed off.
“Why not go with a two-meat combo?” she tempted, “then you don’t have to choose!”
And that’s the very basis of the American Way, isn’t it? Have your cake and eat it too? Load up the tray at the nearest buffet? I went with the baby back ribs and pulled pork — sans the sandwich. It came with cornbread, so I thought I might make up for my gluttony by lowering the carb-count.
When my order was in front of me (14 minutes with only one other table occupied, which is a bit on the long side in the middle of the afternoon) I honestly didn’t know whether to try the ribs or the pulled pork first. So I loaded up a forkful of their hausgemacht coleslaw, which turned out to be similar to my own, which is good, but Mad Jack’s is more restrained with the mayo. I need to follow their example — good slaw doesn’t need to drown in dressing. Also, it wasn’t overly sweet, which makes me think either the base is more of a Hellmann’s-style mayo, or they simply don’t add more than a touch of extra sugar. The balance of green and red cabbage with carrots was perfect. I tend to overdo it on the carrots. Probably because I think to make coleslaw to make use of extra carrots before they go bad in the bottom of the produce drawer. The winning ingredient for me, though, was the caraway seeds. Not to excess, but just enough to add a little zing. Definitely going to be penciled in on my slaw recipe sheet.
Next, I tried the Mac ‘n’ Cheese, which I need to explain, was just one of several sides I could have chosen. If the list hasn’t changed since last year, I might have picked baked beans, dirty rice, sweet potato fries, steak fries, green beans, collard greens, mashed sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, potato salad, or fruit salad (seasonal).
Okay, I’ll admit it. I skipped the bun with the pulled pork because I needed to try the Mac ‘n’ Cheese. It was good. Was it great? Not really, but it was good. A little drier than I prefer, but it’s pretty close in taste and texture to a lot of the better house made versions I’ve come across, so I may like it higher on the gooeyness scale. My wife and I have been in a sort of cold war –esque contest to come up with the best mac ‘n’ cheese for about 20 years now. I lay claim to the best stovetop version, but have to admit defeat when it comes to baked mac ‘n’ cheese. Like her Southern-style biscuits, though (I actually spirited her away from Tenn., across the Mason-Dixon line in 1999), I know her secret ingredients and methods, but am sworn to secrecy under pain of domestic disharmony.
Both the pulled pork and ribs were at the perfect eating temperature by now, so I decided to tuck in to the very generous pile of pulled pork first. I few things I noticed immediately. Firstly, the tang. The item was served with a small spoonful of sauce on top, but the pork itself was infused with a hearty dose of vinegar and possibly some citrus. I’m not used to that. It was wonderful. In essence, it’s like BBQ spots that serve it dry (plain), and let you smother it with however much sauce you like, but in this case, the acidity of the vinegar pulls out the flavor of the pork itself. I salted it to taste and was really overwhelmed with how much it did NOT need be slathered with any other liquid.
The other point to make about the pulled pork is the texture. I’m guessing that Mad Jack’s does the pulling by hand, but however they do it, the fibers of the pork aren’t torn and frayed the way they can be elsewhere. This note on the texture of the pork may be a small thing, but the result is that the strings of pork are generally smooth and un-frizzed, which is probably why they manage to remain tender and juicy.
I should add too, that the bright flavor of the pulled pork did NOT go with the homemade sweet barbecue sauce I selected for my ribs. I tried adding some of the BBQ sauce to a forkful of the pulled pork, and found that I really just wanted to keep the two tastes separated. All in all, an outstanding example of pulled pork at its best — moist, flavorful, and great texture.
I was excited for the baby backs, even if they weren’t the beef ribs I was craving. I was also a little anxious, I’ve had way too many racks that were just enough overdone to instill a permanent skepticism. You know how you look at the thing you want on the menu and choose something else because you don’t want to ruin your dinner with disappointment? Mostly I’m talking about restaurants that don’t specialize in barbecue, so I was willing to take that bite of faith.
These ribs were lean, as they should be (I’ll go back to try the spare ribs, which typically have a nice amount of fat on them, one day soon). The amount of meat on the bone was about right, and the meat was tender. I might have taken them off the heat just a bit sooner, but they were by no means overdone — the right amount of char to mix in with the sauce.
And here’s where we have to talk about the sauce. Obviously, it’s housemade (what self-respecting rib joint would use store-boughten?), and carries a real freshness. Something about the canning process changes a sauce, so I took the opportunity to pick up a bottle (filled right in front of me) to take home. I chose the sweet sauce, in part because I feel like if you can’t make a decent sweet sauce, trying to hide that fact with hotness is pointless. This sauce was sooooo thick! It stuck like glue to the ribs and was like a side item on its own.
The ingredients list wasn’t surprising — you can read the label on the sample bottle on the counter. Molasses, tomato product, spices, etc. weren’t unusual, but the right amounts of each were definitely put together well. What I kept trying to figure out as I was noshing on the ribs was where were the fruit tones coming from? I’d swear there was a hint of some tropical fruit, or maybe peach, tucked away in there. It wasn’t until after I was finished eating that I found the sample bottle and looked at the ingredients list to find my answer — honey. That was the secret ingredient I was tasting. Honey is about 40 percent fructose, which is the type of sugar found in fruits. I’m thinking that when combined with the tomato product (tomato is a fruit, after all), the honey really magnifies their fruitiness, tomatoes being only moderate in fructose content.
The sweet sauce easily cleared the bar to the extent that I had to buy some to take home AND makes me very interested in the spicy variety. If Mad Jack’s ever experiments with a specialty Peach BBQ Sauce, I’d be all over that [hint, hint]. I’d even go to Apex Orchards to get the peaches.
Finally, as much as I wanted to try the Bourbon Pecan Pie (again, something my Southern Belle of a wife got me to reconsider and love), my belly was getting pretty full. As my combo was a Main Meal, it already came with Sweet Cornbread. As I have explained on our American Roots music podcast, The Cornbread Cafe, cornbread is the great American unifier. Every region of the country has its own take on this staple of folk fare. I started out loving cornbread here in New England, and mostly knew it to be soft, crumbly, and medium sweet — perfect with raspberry jam. Down South, most of the cornbread I tried was cakier in texture, but not as sweet as it is up North. I attribute this to the influence of Three Rivers Cornmeal Mix. This brand of cornmeal had been the final word in cornbread since 1873 until Smuckers purchased White Lilly Foods in 2008 and discontinued the line. Southern bakers rejoiced in 2019, when White Lilly quietly brought Three Rivers back, both in supermarkets, and now available online.
In the Southwest, I notice the cornbread is often of the savory variety and tends to have a coarser texture. Hit up a diner or small cafe if you’re out Arizona or New Mexico way and look for versions such as Jalapeño with Jack Cheese Cornbread or Red Peppers and Cilantro Cornbread with Whole Corn Kernels. As you hit the California coast and travel north, the cornbread tends to get a little sweeter and smoother with each parallel, but even when you reach Seattle, the sweetness level is still lower than is common in Connecticut or Massachusetts.
This cornbread, designated Sweet Cornbread on the menu, lives up to its name. It’s a little sweeter than standard Yankee cornbread, by maybe 20 percent. Interestingly though, it’s also moister, while also being cakey, as it is in the South. Now I’m wondering if maybe I need to hit up more of the Soul Food restaurants in the Northeast to find out if this is yet another fork in the cornbread evolution or if it’s just the Mad Jack’s way, based on a unique family recipe.
Either way, I loved it and would have drizzled some sorghum butter over it had there been any on hand.
All in all, for the money — I think it was around $18 when I added a soda — you just can’t find this level of quality at too many places in the Berkshires. Food that just tastes like it’s both lovingly and expertly prepared, in portions that are more generous than I was expecting, with service that was cazh and welcoming is what I was hoping for with the seasonal reopening of Mad Jack’s BBQ. That’s exactly what I got. The only thing that would have made it better is if they came and set up a buffet in my back yard. Which they’d be more than happy to do, since they also offer catering…