Larry Jimerson is a maverick. He’s a kid from South Central L.A. who grew up to specialize in Texas-style barbecue in Massachusetts. He’s a Black business owner in the largely white Seaport area. And in the middle of that glossy, expensive neighborhood, dominated by chains, he runs a small, independent takeout and catering operation with a relatively affordable menu. Larry J’s BBQ Cafe is located in a low-slung building nestled in the middle of verdant South Boston Maritime Park.
Larry J’s is reminiscent of the original Shake Shack kiosk in Madison Square Park, but for barbecue: Customers order at the window, then sit and eat at one of the plentiful outdoor tables. It’s a pleasant spot, peaceful and sun-dappled, a breeze blowing in from the water then across Northern Avenue and down D Street. It’s also alee from the busier main streets of the Seaport, where returning workers grab lunch and those coming in from elsewhere pay to park and head toward nightlife. But Larry J’s BBQ Cafe — “Where it’s fresh food – not fast food,” the sign will tell you — is busy as it is.
“My life is out of control right now. The phone just will not stop ringing,” Jimerson says. With Juneteenth just past, July 4 is fast approaching. It’s barbecue season. It’s 10 p.m. and he still needs to make the sauces, take a shower, then get up and do it all over again. He’s often in the Seaport before dawn. “To be there early in the morning before everybody gets up and starts moving around, it’s quiet, it’s nice, especially in the warmer months. I sit out at the table, get a coffee, take in the quietness. And then I get up and go. I’m nonstop.”
Here, in a space the size of a walk-in closet that he runs with wife Linda, a Malden native, Jimerson smokes brisket, ribs, chicken — the usual suspects. But if Larry J’s has a signature item, it is variety itself. “I guess if I have a specialty, it’s that I have a very extensive menu. It’s probably too big,” Jimerson says. “I just try to do better than everybody else, and for me to do better than everybody else, I figure I have to have quality, quantity, and consistency.” Alongside pulled pork sandwiches and burnt ends platters, you’ll find smoked bologna, smoked turkey legs, smoked potatoes. Under a section titled “Texas Man Bites” (watch out for that guy!), there is a genius creation called the Texas Saddlebag, the potato split open, stuffed with your choice of meat, and drizzled with sauce. The potato is a treat and a small, delightful jolt of cognitive dissonance, with its creamy white flesh that tastes like embers.
Then you’ve got your fireballs (spicy meatballs), your fried pickles, your chicken wings (smoked or fried) and your hawg wings (pork shanks), a bunch of salads, fried catfish, assorted burgers, hot dogs, sausages. For sides, joining mac and cheese, baked beans, and collards are cilantro yellow rice, cowboy beans, pasta salad, sweet potato fries, BBQ spaghetti. As for sauce, there are seven formulations, from the big, bold Texas and mustard-inflected South Carolina to the spicy Arkansas Red and Jamaican Jerk. Cali Fire, a nod to the Mexican food Jimerson grew up with, is described on the menu simply as “Hot Hot Hot.”
Jimerson, 63, opened the Seaport spot in 2012. Before the pandemic, the couple had another place in Revere. “Then COVID came and took that away. That and the greedy landlord,” he says. It was a blow, because the business had been thriving. But the PPP loan they got wasn’t nearly enough to sustain them. “Even to this day it burns me, the idea that restaurants and bars can open up and make back all that money they lost. It’s called a profit loss for a reason. You’re not going to get it back,” he says. “The sad thing is that institutions have closed. Iconic restaurants are gone. They are related to our memories — a date, anniversary, engagement, whatever the case may be. They’re gone. We are just fortunate to still be in business, and since we closed the other place, we said we aren’t going to look back.”
So they’re putting their all into the Seaport location, although corporate business isn’t yet what it was pre-COVID. Jimerson doesn’t expect things to really return to a new normal until spring 2022. In the meantime, they’ve revamped the menu, focusing on individual packaging. “It is so hard. An individual box lunch, it takes three times the work,” he says. “We’re still here. How we are I have no idea. I need a vacation like nobody’s business.”
As it happens, it was a vacation that set him on this path. Although he taught himself to cook as a young man, he worked for decades as a painter and for companies like Delta Air Lines and FedEx. “I worked in corporate America, but I get tired of people telling me what to do. I’d always go back to painting. That was my go-to thing.” Then painting started to take a physical toll. On a trip to Jamaica, while sitting on the beach, he decided to figure out what he would do with the rest of his life. “I asked myself the question: What do I do that people don’t complain about? They don’t complain about my painting, and they don’t complain about my food. I said, well, I think I’m going to open a barbecue place. I’m going to think about that when I get home.”
And so he did. In 2010, the Jimersons opened Larry J’s House of Q in Chelsea. A few years later, they closed it and moved into the Seaport space.
“I love the Seaport,” he says. “One of these [luxury condo] places should offer us a two-bedroom place to live to help with the diversity. They should just be like: Here you go, come stay in our luxury building. Shoot, I’d move to the city in a heartbeat. We could cater parties for the residents that cover the rent.” He’s kidding, but he isn’t; in 2017, a Globe Spotlight story about the overwhelming whiteness of the Seaport found that the population was 3 percent Black and 89 percent white at the time.
The story mentioned since-closed Venezuelan restaurant La Casa de Pedro and a Black-owned barbershop. Jimerson was surprised it didn’t mention him. After all, he’s not just a rare Black business owner in the Seaport. Larry J’s BBQ Cafe is one of just a few Black-owned barbecue spots in the city.
“It is so difficult for African American entrepreneurs to have brick-and-mortar spots,” says Adrian Miller, author of the recent book “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue,” which chronicles the development and perseverance of Black barbecue culture. “It speaks to lack of capital. There are purposeful hurdles to keep African Americans from spaces where they could succeed.”
Then, too, Black barbecue specialists haven’t been celebrated in food media the way their white counterparts have. In the late ’80s and ’90s, “foodie” culture was becoming a thing, Miller says. “There was a commensurate rise in food media to cater to this emerging audience. Unfortunately, most people who decide what stories get told were either white and then just talking to other white people, or just fundamentally uninterested in diversity. At the very time when foodies were looking for an expert to curate barbecue experiences, food media was putting forward white dude after white dude after white dude as experts.”
When fine-dining chefs began to take an interest, barbecue got redefined as a craft, where before it was seen more as a folk art: “It was appreciated, but [practitioners] weren’t getting rich off it. Now that it’s a craft, with a more intellectual vibe, there’s this sense that people need to be professionals to do it. What this leads to is higher prices and moving barbecue away from a Black aesthetic,” Miller says. That means seasoning — the use of rubs, not just salt and pepper. “And there’s definitely sauce. It drives me nuts when people say real barbecue shouldn’t have any sauce. Says who?”
Not Jimerson, he of the seven sauces, whose perseverance is worth celebrating this barbecue season. It’s easy to imagine this barbecue kiosk in the park getting serious buzz with a well-known, likely white chef at the helm — as happened with Shake Shack when restaurateur Danny Meyer launched it as a hot dog cart in 2001. But buzz isn’t the only measure of success. Larry J’s BBQ Cafe is still here, phone ringing off the hook.
“We get the job done. It’s our only livelihood. We’re good at it. People like our food,” Jimerson says. “The landlord and the government made me close my Revere location. PPP loans don’t work; they’re Band-Aids over a cut artery. But they’re going to have to dynamite me out of the Seaport.” Then he laughs.
Larry J’s BBQ Cafe, 600 D St., Seaport District, Boston, 617-348-9800, www.larryjsbbqcafe.com