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FOOD

These $26 Hoodoo Barbecue T-shirts benefit a great cause. (The nostalgia is free.)

The dirt-cheap smoked-meat joint that James Ryan ran upstairs at the Rat in the early ‘80s was quickly declared one of the country’s best new restaurants when it opened.

All proceeds of the shirt will go to the local nonprofit Project Restore Us, which aims to save restaurants while feeding families.
All proceeds of the shirt will go to the local nonprofit Project Restore Us, which aims to save restaurants while feeding families.Handout

Henry Santoro says he was one of the lucky few at the Rat when a new British band called the Police played the club in 1978. Santoro, the GBH radio newscaster, was a regular at Kenmore Square’s Rathskeller through the 1980s.

He was also a devoted customer of the Hoodoo Barbecue, the delicious, dirt-cheap smoked-meat joint that James Ryan ran upstairs at the Rat for a half-dozen years, until the mid-1980s. An avid grillmaster — Santoro says he has five grills in his backyard outside Boston — he was one of the first to buy a Hoodoo Barbecue T-shirt when they popped up on the Internet a few weeks ago.

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“Their barbecue sauce was legendary in this town,” says Santoro. In those days, he was doing news for WBCN, where the staff all ate at the Hoodoo.

“The question wasn’t, ‘What are we going to have for lunch?’ ” he says. “It was, ‘What are we gonna order from the Hoodoo?’ ”

The T-shirts are the brainchild of Brian Coleman, the indefatigable curator of underground Boston history and publisher of two volumes of “Buy Me, Boston,” his collections of ephemera from alternative newspapers, defunct rock clubs, and more.

“I’ve always known the legend of the Hoodoo,” Coleman says. “For me, I’m too young to have gone there, so that gives it even more of a mythological status.”

All proceeds from the sale of the T-shirts (available at www.goodroadgoods.com) will benefit Project Restore Us, a Cambridge-based nonprofit founded to assist restaurants and communities in need during the pandemic.

“I was looking for a charity that would fit with James’s general aesthetic of helping people,” Coleman says. “That’s really what he was all about.”

James Ryan in the Hoodoo kitchen.
James Ryan in the Hoodoo kitchen.Wayne Viens

James Ryan came to Boston from his native Ohio in the early 1970s, looking for a job in academia. Instead, he worked on a painting and cleaning crew and eventually opened the Rainbow Rib Room, a short-lived barbecue joint at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Newbury Street.

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That led to an audience with Jim Harold, who owned the Rat. The two men cut a deal for Ryan to take over the club’s unused kitchen space. Within a year, the Hoodoo Barbecue was recognized as one of the country’s best new restaurants in Esquire magazine.

In its short but glorious existence, the Hoodoo employed many of Boston’s musicians and their associates, including Brother Cleve — now known as a celebrity mixologist — and members of the Neats, the Del Fuegos, and Scruffy the Cat.

“James was multi-talented, a master in the kitchen, hysterically funny, and extremely well-read,” says Santoro. “He was one of those guys who just surrounded himself with great people.”

The Hoodoo menu.
The Hoodoo menu.Handout

“A lot of them were talented in their own right. They’d take off their apron, go downstairs, and jump onstage.”

The Del Fuegos often invited Ryan onstage to sing with them. Before they released their debut album, they appeared with Ryan on a local Christmas EP, billed as “Sonny Columbus and His Del Fuegos,” with an original song called “Punchbowl Full of Joy.”

“We wrote it on the bag I brought the cheeseburgers in to the studio,” Ryan says.

But Ryan was most noted for his hospitality and generosity. If a customer couldn’t afford to pay at the Hoodoo, he’d feed them for free. Mr. Butch, the beloved street character familiar to anyone who frequented Kenmore Square in those years, often slept in Ryan’s truck, he says.

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The Hoodoo, Ryan says, was “a social experiment, as it were. I was never a businessman. But what we got in return with the love, care, and friendship was worth its weight in wampum, trust me.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.