J Wolf Catering & BBQ
2271 N. Ventura Ave., Ventura
The ladies at the counter were more than welcoming — friendly, quietly proud of their offerings — sharing some side dish samples with me. House-made organic five-bean chili, barbecued baked beans, potato salad, mac and cheese. Even a shot of sweet Tahitian vanilla bean lemonade. The food here speaks volumes. And, first, it says, “made with love.”
Tucked deep on the Avenue, past the heart of the 805’s Mexican food Mecca, J Wolf’s modest new space at the Shoshone cross-street strip mall adds anomalous barbecue feats to the area’s culinary lineup. And people are really eating it up. A steady stream of regulars come in and out, chatting with owners Ernest and Misty Romero, sitting down for well-earned lunch breaks and picking up orders for the crew. Laughs, smiles and favorable nods aplenty.
But this ain’t your father’s barbecue joint. Or, well, maybe it is. It’s modern-day farm-to-table, headlined by responsibly chosen meats. All the beef is pasture-fed, grain-free, non-GMO, hormone-free, steroid-free and antibiotic-free — grown in California and finished in Ojai, then butchered and aged in Santa Paula. The pork has no artificial or added ingredients, no fillers, preservatives or added hormones. The chickens are non-GMO and organic. Even the buns, breads and hoagie rolls are organic and non-GMO. Quality lives here, and it’s worth the extra cost if ya’ got it — just count on a couple of extra bucks per order.
My first pick was the charbroiled pesto chicken sandwich. Carefully tended, juicy breast slices host strips of fire-roasted red bell peppers, crisp organic mixed greens and, by request, fresh tomato. That, alone, would be a delicious sandwich; the kicker here, though, is how the bright pesto spread and creamy goat cheese blend with the bird — giving each bite a smooth balance of lightly nutty and tart notes. And bonus points for the very fluffy, organic ciabatta bread.
On the side, the homemade Yukon gold potato chips that come free with every entree are thin and crispy with just a hint of salt. Quite nice. And if you’re into sweet drinks, the Tahitian vanilla bean lemonade is a unique, fresh-squeezed treat, though not cheap considering its size.
A couple of weeks later, I bellied up for a basket of organic, non-GMO chicken wings. Torn between Thai- and Buffalo-style, I was offered a half-and-half split. The dozen drummettes were all sizzling and crispy, the classics coated healthily with a quite-spicy-yet-still-flavorful sauce. But it was the Thai taking the prize. Swimming in a piquant pool of savory delight — likely lime juice, sriracha, soy sauce, salt, cilantro, garlic and a surprise or two — these are some seriously mouthwatering wings. I literally wanted to take the leftover juices home to dip something in later.
Before leaving, I grabbed a side of the signature mac and cheese to go. Perfect timing, too, as a piping hot tray had just been pulled from the oven. Topped with toasty garlic herbed breadcrumbs, this ooey-gooey five-cheese pasta dish is simply sinfully delicious. My wife wholeheartedly agrees.
The final leg was all about the main fare, straight from the barbecue smoker—the half tri-tip + half pulled pork sandwich. Plated on a cross-grilled hoagie roll, the meaty beast probably weighed in close to a pound. Layers of beef cuts to the left, a mound of pulled pork to the right.
The tri-tip was quite flavorful, seasoned well, with that distinctive oaky smoke taste. It came apart easily with each bite — not at all chewy — which is key and not easy to do with this cut. Unfortunately, the beef was maybe room temperature, borderline cold. Not so for the pulled pork, though. Hot and tender — oh, so very tender — dry-rubbed the right way, not greasy or saucy. It truly is superb pulled pork. Good odds, it’s Ventura’s finest. And for those who like their barbecue wet, J Wolf’s homemade sauce on the side is thick and tangy with just a hint of spice. Smother liberally.
The chalkboard with daily specials is always changing and impressing, reason enough to visit again. Racks of St. Louis ribs, a shrimp po’ boy, BLAT, duck confit sandwich, organic apple and blueberry/peach pies, triple chocolate brownies, giant cookies, and rumors of a freshly-smoked turkey sandwich upcoming. J Wolf is always adding something new. The passion to make great food runs deep here.