First Look: Original J's Tex-Mex & Barbecue in University City

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Pulled pork nachos and the brisket taco with burnt-end-style brisket points,  smoked tomato jam, onion, queso, cilantro and J's Sauce. - LIZ MILLER
  • Liz Miller
  • Pulled pork nachos and the brisket taco with burnt-end-style brisket points,  smoked tomato jam, onion, queso, cilantro and J's Sauce.

St. Louisans have a lot to be thankful for this week, and now, restaurateurs Mike and Liz Randolph have given us all another reason to be grateful.

On Monday, the couple behind Half & Half and the late, great Privado, Randolfi's and Público opened Original J's Tex-Mex & Barbecue (7359 Forsyth Boulevard, University City). The restaurant is currently serving lunch service only from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; the hours are abbreviated for now, according to posts on the restaurant's social media pages. (Update: Original J’s is now open for dinner service as well from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.)

As the Riverfront Times reported earlier this year, Original J's specializes in Tex-Mex-style barbecue in a casual, family-friendly atmosphere. Located in University City inside a former Fortel's Pizza Den, Original J's gives James Beard Best Chef: Midwest semifinalist Mike Randolph the chance to explore a different kind of 'cue in town.

"I don't think that this is just another barbecue restaurant in St. Louis, but I also don't think a city that loves its barbecue like St. Louis has reached critical mass," Randolph told the RFT in August. "Look at places like Kansas City or Memphis or Nashville — there's nothing wrong with having a lot of barbecue in your town."



The counter-service restaurant draws some inspiration from James Beard-nominated Público but with a vibe and price points that are more casual and approachable. The Original J's menu was also influenced by the Randolphs' travels throughout Texas and is divided into six sections: Grub, Tacos!, Meats, Platos, sides and sweets.

The dining room features wood paneling, retro framed artwork and vintage stained glass light fixtures. - LIZ MILLER
  • Liz Miller
  • The dining room features wood paneling, retro framed artwork and vintage stained glass light fixtures.

Shareable plates of grub include a pound of smoked wings with lime, agave and arbol pepper; pulled pork nachos; and tortilla chips with J's Famous chili con queso. Eight tacos are on offer, including one filled with hot links, pickled vegetables, tomato peppers and mustard and another featuring vegan chorizo, guacamole, tortilla strips, cilantro, onion and J's Sauce. Don't skip the brisket taco, though, a house signature packed with burnt-end-style brisket points,  smoked tomato jam, onion, queso, cilantro and J's Sauce.

Moving on to the meats portion of the menu, diners will find brisket, barbacoa, hot links, "mixed hog," pulled chicken and a two-heat combo, plus spicy spareribs. You can also opt for the barbacoa on a platter, or plato; other platters include chicken enchiladas, dark chicken mole and carnitas. Like any good barbecue joint worth its salt, J's doesn't skimp on the sides, either, offering crispy fries, cilantro rice, Esther's Beans, Madura plantains, dressed salad, cheesy hominy and more. For dessert, Original J's offers three fun and nostalgic options: fried ice cream with Mexican chocolate, an ice cream sundae and a root beer float.

"This is what Liz and I want to eat and what we are excited about at this point in our lives," Randolph said. "Liz isn't a huge fan of having a big platter of smoked meat, and she had a huge role in developing the half of the menu that we hope will appeal to a broader range of people."

The brisket taco with burnt end-style brisket points,  smoked tomato jam, onion, queso, cilantro and J's Sauce. - LIZ MILLER
  • Liz Miller
  • The brisket taco with burnt end-style brisket points,  smoked tomato jam, onion, queso, cilantro and J's Sauce.

A separate kid's menu with lower prices and portions offers the same tacos, platters and bowls, plus a quesadilla — and a coloring page featuring a cowboy riding a bucking bronco on the reverse side.

In reverence to the Texas-style barbecue that inspired Original J's, Randolph is taking a low-and-slow approach to smoking meat, letting it go for sixteen hours over Missouri oak in Myron Mixon smokers with just a simple salt-and-pepper seasoning.

"The most important thing for us is to have reverence and respect for Texas barbecue," Randolph said. "We're not setting out to say we have the best Texas barbecue. The thing that is instilled in us is that we are dedicating ourselves to the ideal."

When you order at the counter, a cashier hands you a marker card instead of an order number, with each card depicting caricatures of different country music stars (think Hank Williams, Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton). Country music pulses out of the speakers here, as well; on our visit, we may or may not have hummed along to "Here for a Good Time" by George Strait, a personal anthem.

From there, grab a seat in the time-warp of a dining room, which features wood paneling, retro framed artwork and vintage stained glass light fixtures that would feel just as at home in Sam Malone's bar or your grandma's basement rec room. There's even an old-school Catch a Duck claw game for kids or just the young at heart — although the squeaky toys inside are shaped like pigs, not waterfowl. Seated beside the claw machine is a retro Ms. Pac-Man game and two chairs, beckoning you and a friend to sit down, stay a while and kick some ghost butt.

Sitting in the old-school dining room and snacking on perfectly smoked wings, colorful tacos and spicy queso and chips, you're overcome by how fun and playful it is at Original J's. The restaurant is good fun, channeling its playful tagline, "J's For Jolly Good Food!"

Original J's is located in University City near the Clayton border. - LIZ MILLER
  • Liz Miller
  • Original J's is located in University City near the Clayton border.

Pulled pork nachos topped with queso, sour cream, Esther's beans, black olives and green onions. - LIZ MILLER
  • Liz Miller
  • Pulled pork nachos topped with queso, sour cream, Esther's beans, black olives and green onions.


The dining room is straight out of your grandma's basement rec room. - LIZ MILLER
  • Liz Miller
  • The dining room is straight out of your grandma's basement rec room.

There's an old-school Catch a Duck claw game and retro Ms. Pac-Man game in the back of the dining room. - LIZ MILLER
  • Liz Miller
  • There's an old-school Catch a Duck claw game and retro Ms. Pac-Man game in the back of the dining room.


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Another view of the Original J's dining room. - LIZ MILLER
  • Liz Miller
  • Another view of the Original J's dining room.

Follow Liz Miller on Twitter at @lizzaymillah. We are always hungry for tips and feedback. Email the author at liz@riverfronttimes.com.
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