When we write about barbecue, we try to not compare everyone against each other. For one thing, there is not any one "right" way to do barbecue. For that matter, there isn't even any one way to do Texas barbecue - not only is barbecue different across the state, it's wildly different across the country. Everything from the cuts of meat, to the way it's cut, to the way it's prepared to the barbecue sauce itself have differences some being more extreme than others. A stroll down the condiment aisle in your favorite grocery store can attest to this. Instead, we endeavor to find the nuances and differences between the various barbecue joints. Actually, when it comes right down to it, I guess you could say we try to do that with all the cuisines. As in life, things just doesn't always work out that way. "The best laid plans..." and all that.
Mama J's BBQ & Grill came into existence in the usual way; Mrs. Janousek (Mama J) had prepared many a meal for her kids' various sports teams over the years, always receiving requests for recipes and to prepare those same dishes for all manner of other social gatherings. Enter Janousek BBQ Catering. So when she and her family decided to realize their dreams and take it to the next level, the decision was based on a notion that their brisket and cheesy potatoes were the best in Montgomery County. After giving them some time to get their feet on the ground - and after enjoying a small sampling at the Taste of the Town this past February and another at a Woodlands Chamber Event, we recently stopped in for our first meal.
Mama J's Grill is located in what used to be Cafe Diem, on the south side of College Park Drive not far from I-45. When you walk in, the atmosphere is a bit of a two-ply comfort zone. On the one hand, the counter where you place your order and watch it being dished up is very high-school cafeteria. On the other hand, the dining area offers a warm and cozy side to enjoy some down home texas hospitality. Originally, Mama J's wasn't open for dinner - but we were informed they extended their hours shortly after their grand opening, in order to better accommodate the large number of visitors to the small, store-front establishment. On this day, however, we had the place to ourselves, having arrived at about 3:30 in the afternoon for a late afternoon meal.
It's always my job to order the brisket - not that I mind. She just doesn't care for it no matter who makes it, opting instead for the pork and poultry. But I was in the mood for a baked potato, so that's the direction I chose.
I had the Chopped Tator with Brisket ($7.95) and asked for my sauce on the side. The potato, while not as large as some other BBQ Potatoes I have enjoyed in the past, was nice and soft and had a decent flavor. The brisket had a nice looking smoke ring and imparted a nice flavor with each bite of the tender smoked beef. Due to the ratio of beef to potato always being more potato than meat, I generally like to get extra bbq sauce to add to the potato once the meat is gone. I found the bbq sauce to be unusual to say the least, visually it reminds me of some of that thin salsa you get at some Tex-Mex restaurants. Maybe I could eat smaller portions of the meat and make it last longer but, the carnivore in me tends to devour the beef as quickly as possible and so I am left with starch and cheese. Another way to look at this might be that the smaller size potato meant that there wasn't so much left after having eaten the meat so I didn't leave Mama J's feeling bloated. After all, I am trying to eat smaller meals these days - so all things considered, I left satisfied.
The problem with him ordering the baked potato is I end up looking like a totally huge eater ordering a Two Meat Plate ($9.95) with two sides - until you realize I had every intention of sharing everything on my plate with him. That being said, I opted for chicken and sausage (of course), cole slaw and those widely known cheesy potatoes. The chicken was a small portion of the breast and wing - I wanted white meat and, perhaps because of the oddity of the hour we had chosen for our meal, the pickings were rather slim. Still, I liked the chicken. It was moist and tender, certainly not dry. I credit this to their history in being a catering service and knowing how to keep the product fresh and flavorful while waiting to be served. There was a nice smokiness to it as well. The sausage looked very appetizing; Mama J informed us her sausage comes from a local vendor. Unfortunately, my plate lost all relative heat in the cool air of the dining area, and as the sausage lost it's warmth, it also lost it's flavor. By the time I got to my last couple of pieces of sausage, they had become quite bland. I thought that having added some of their in-house made sauce to my dish would have helped, but this should have been avoided as the sauce was, to me anyway, just... weird.
Let me explain it this way. The sauce was thin and chunky, almost like a lower-end salsa (you know, the ones from New York City) but with brown sugar in it. It wasn't thick and rich, like a lot of bottled sauces and even some from other barbecue restaurants. And it totally lacked the smoke or spice I'm so used to from just about any other barbecue sauce. About the only kind of sauce I can even think of was oddly enough was some that I once sampled at a barbecue place up in the Great Smoky Mountains. The restaurant I'm thinking of was the receiver of mounds of local praise and accolades - but their sauce just wasn't my thing either. But again, it's just my opinion, so maybe it's just me.
What was my thing at Mama J's, and most likely will be loved by just about anyone, would be those cheesy potatoes. They are surely every bit as bad for you as you imagine, between the carbohydrates of the potatoes, and the fat of all that butter and cheese, but my goodness, it's hard to not ask for seconds. I don't know how well they would have held up to the cooler temperature of the dining room, since I managed to polish them off pretty quickly. As for the coleslaw and roll, neither were remarkable. As a side note, when ask other people about Mama J's BBQ, the first thing many of them mention is the Cheesey Potatos; to us that's not really complimentary for a Barbecue Vendor.
The Bottom Line
It's been our experience that most caterers have a difficult time making the transition to being a restaurant - and vice versa. To that end, the growing pains showed a little to us at Mama J's, with the cafeteria-style serving line being the most obvious indicator, along with all that Styrofoam. Still, (one or more of) her recipes have developed a large following over the years, which is sure to keep her business growing steadily.
It also doesn't hurt that she's got some pretty tasty desserts up for grabs. This day's cobbler was cherry, which had a very nutty topping on it - pecans (what else? This is Texas, after all!) and her banana pudding was fantastic. The pudding was light and fluffy, with a rich, banana-y flavor and the signature Nilla wafers. All in all, a great way to end our visit.
If you like barbecue, you'll likely like Mama J's. And even if you don't, there are a number of sandwiches and burgers on the menu - the names of which alone ("The Wicked" and "Mike's Mean Green Chile") were enough to intrigue us into wanting to make a second visit. Let us know what you think about Mama J's Barbecue. Mama J's closed their dining (larger, second) location June 15, 2014 and went back to a catering only business.
More BBQ Reviews