A Few Good Teeth
Flavor for Your Soul at Gert's Barbecue Truck
To get to Gert's from downtown Seattle, drive south on Rainier Avenue past the Oh Boy! Oberto Factory Outlet, past Emmanuel's Rug and Upholstery Cleaners, past the Iglesia La Luz Del Mundo church with the woman loitering out front wearing a T-shirt that says "Broke Is the New Black." Look for a pay lot with a silver truck with a heart-shaped logo that reads "Gert's: Flavor for Your Soul." Don't park there, or you'll risk a ticket. Park for free at the Bank of America next door.
Last Saturday was Gert's official opening, after a few weeks of tweaking recipes and getting used to the truck. (On the day of their unofficial opening, they had a grease fire.) "None of us claim we're fluent in the restaurant business," says Rodney Jones, Gert's business manager, sweating lightly in the midday heat. "That'd be a joke. We just love serving great food to good people."
Jones is tall, bald, and bespectacled. He opened the business with his two nephews, Walter and Donnell Jackson, who named the business after their mother. "She could really cook," Jones says. "My nephew Donnell was the second-biggest music producer in the day, after Mix-A-Lot. He had a hiphop group called PD2." When Donnell came home from touring, the family would reunite around Gertrude's table. "We joked about buying her a restaurant," Jones says. "But in early 2002, she passed away." After years of prodding from friends, Jones and his nephews decided to open shop, first with a catering business and now the truck on Rainier Avenue.
Most barbecue lovers are picky and fiercely partisan. (And if they aren't, what's wrong with them?) Some prefer Kansas City–style, with its tangy sauces and burnt ends. Some swear by Memphis-style, with its dry rubs and sweet red sauces. I grew up on the vinegary barbecue around Tidewater, Virginia, where tomato sauces are scarce and the coleslaw is finely chopped and mandatory. The obligatory first question: What style of barbecue does Gert's serve?
"Seattle-style!" Jones proclaims. "Everybody says, 'I got Memphis-style, I got Texas-style.' We're from here, we're proud of being from here, and our barbecue is from here. Some like the dry rubs; we like the wet marinade. We never boil the meat—that's blasphemy. We assume people have a few good teeth or good dentures to chew the food."
Everybody in line on opening day has good teeth. The first official customer is Nick Feldman, a journalism student at the University of Washington. He orders a "soul bowl" ($7)—layers of potato salad, meat, and green bean casserole. Jones pushes the steaming paper carton toward him, calling out, "Enjoy, homie!" The second official customer is Loren, a bearded man in a T-shirt and flip-flops who (a) had a paper route for the Seattle P-I as a kid, (b) had a paper route for the Seattle Times as an adult, (c) recently took a barbecue tour of the United States, and (d) ordered three pork sliders with a side of green bean casserole ($9). "They're really good," he says. "Smoky sweet."
The third customer is me. "Let me recommend the soul bowl," Jones says. "Maybe you're watching your carbs." He pauses, reconsiders. "You really need to get a sampler—that's what time it is." For the next hour, Jones and Donnell take over my stomach and refuse to let me pay.
The feast begins with the pork soul bowl: a layer of creamy, pickley potato salad atop a steaming layer of succulent, perfectly smoked pork atop a layer of the almost-already- famous green bean casserole. All of the early reviews on Yelp give Gert's a full five-star rating, and all of them call out the "GBC" (listed on the original Gert's menu as "green bean crack"). Each bean is a wonderwork of structural integrity and flavor. They hold their shape, but explode between your teeth in a burst of beany essence: not crunchy, not mushy, not mealy. The GBC is to the mouth what velvet is to the fingers.
After a few forkfuls, the layers fuse into a rich porridge. "When my mom served food, I mixed it all together," Donnell explains. "That was the inspiration for the soul bowl."
Next up: smoky rice with shrimp, tilapia, and a blend of at least four cheeses ($6). The gentlemen of Gert's have divined a perfect spice ratio: just enough to tickle the tongue without burning it. But the smokiness is overpowering, smothering the flavor of the fish.
Round three: ribs. While I wait, Donnell tells a story about being 11 and repeatedly abandoning his friends for his mother's kitchen and its good smells. Donnell wanted to learn how to cook like Gertrude, but his mother was having none of it. "Donny, everybody else is outside playing," she admonished him. "Mama," he answered, "your food is so good, and I want to learn how to make it so if my wife ever gets mad and tells me, 'I'm not cooking for you anymore,' I can say, 'Fine! I cook better for myself!'" He claps his hands and laughs. "So she started teaching me."
Brian Larkins, the burly chef in the truck, slides me a container of short-chopped ribs ($8 with a side). (He and Donnell met while working as longshoremen, and they've got the biceps to prove it.) "You still eating?" Larkins smiles. Barely. The ribs are bone-gnawingly tasty—nothing fancy, just exactly the way ribs should taste—but I've hit the wall.
"There's two types of fulls," Donnell observes. "There's normal full and Thanksgiving full. You know you should stop, but the food tastes so good you just have to keep on going. You eat here, you get the second kind of full. It's the unhealthiest, but it's the best! Because you feel good!"
He's bragging, but he's earned it. I am Thanksgiving full.