"There have been few culinary experiences in my life that have quieted, humbled, and thrilled me with its utter perfection, but Jinx's pork did all of those things."
Jinx's Pit's Top Barbecue in Charlottesville, Virginia, fulfills our deepest dreams of the ramshackle Southern barbecue joint, where pork reigns supreme and the air is thick with hardwood smoke. The term shack seems the only fitting word to describe the place, a dusty one-room affair in the less affluent part of town.
Owner Jinx (James) Kern fusses over his guests like a mother hen, except that he is a kindly gentlemen in his fifties with graying hair and crooked glasses. Inside there are a few booths and a bar with stools, where you can sit and chat with Kern as he prepares your meal.
We arrived on a sweltering day in July. He watched as we piled through the screen door and threw his hands up in the air, exclaiming, "Well, you're all just going to have the sandwiches, because there's nothing else on the menu today. We're out of coleslaw, which wasn't very good to start with. And I don't have any cups for you to drink out of."
Pausing, he looked us over again and said, "So deal with it."
We grinned and took our seats in a booth. There were vintage magazines strewn about. I let my fingers graze one of the covers and found that the dust had calcified into a sticky, rough layer, as if it hadn't been moved from its spot on the shelf for years.
He busied himself with preparing the sandwiches.
To emphasize that he had meant in the nicest way possible for us to deal with his reduced circumstances, he added happily. "Now folks, I'm going to take a dollar off of everyone's tab because it's just so f***ed up today!"
I sensed from the minute I saw the pork shoulder that this was going to be a good sandwich. Kern pulled out a hunk of shoulder from a warmer, where it had been sitting in a pool of its own juices and fat. He placed the meat onto the counter and as soon as he cut into the shoulder the flesh began to fall apart, its juices spreading onto the cutting board. Kern deftly portioned the pork onto slices of plain white bread. Next to each of our identical sandwiches he placed servings of cucumbers (sweet and pickled with mustard seeds) that he'd grown in his own garden.
There have been few culinary experiences in my life that have quieted, humbled, and thrilled me with its utter perfection, but Jinx's pork did all of those things. Like true love, the experience of the sandwich left me quite certain that it would be a long time before I could feel anything tantamount to the pleasure I experienced on that summer afternoon.
The pork was juicy, tender, and moist, though such words do not express the degree to which the meat fulfilled all of those qualities. A gush of porky juice—concentrated and rich, yet not fatty—flowed from each bite of the sandwich. The flavor was unadorned but for a quick brush of barbecue sauce on the bread and the haunting smokiness of the pork itself. And for once, the law of diminishing returns did not apply. Each bite presented a different facet of Kern's art: the way the meat seemed almost flaky, like confit, or the wetness of the flesh, which was impossibly juicy without being the least bit soggy.
I left my friends at the booth and chatted with Kern at the bar, hoping to discover something of what made his pork so astoundingly good. He could confirm for me that he used only Boston butt, the fattier cut of the shoulder, and that his pork was smoked for 16 hours. Later as we left I caught a glimpse of his smokers: They looked like upright lockers, propped just outside the barbecue shack. Beyond that, he intimated that he'd learned his craft by peeking into the shack of a pit master in Kentucky.
Jinx Kern's brain is something that you would like to rifle through; it is brimming with stories and pithy observations. We talked not only of pork and barbecue, but of articles we'd read by Ian Frazier and of art history, for which he took a degree at the University of Virginia prior to entering the food industry.
I made the daring claim that North Carolina barbecue suffered from the unfortunate fate of being both wet and dry at the same time. Did he agree? He did. His face broke out into the largest of smiles, perhaps recognizing in me a fellow lover of fatty and moist meat.
I left Jinx's already scheming to get myself back to Charlottesville on a day when Kern would have ribs, his other main offering on the menu. As we left we handed him our wads of crumpled up dollar bills. With his impromptu discount, each platter of pork sandwiches had amounted to something like five dollars each. Kern barely glanced at the money we handed him; he took it with a smile and saw us out of the shack. He was closing shop for the day. Later in the afternoon he was due to cater a Little League baseball game.