The quest for high-quality wood-fired barbecue is a major obsession for Bay Area food lovers — and because the good stuff is so hard to come by, it’s not uncommon to see people lining up for hours to snag a plate from a new, trendy barbecue spot. But in the rush to find the “new new,” it’s easy to forget about old-school spots that have been quietly making good food for years, without fanfare or social media buzz.
That’s the story at Pack Jack Barbecue, a Black family–owned restaurant off a busy stretch of Gravenstein Highway in Sebastopol. Donnie Harris Sr. and his family have been making barbecue there, just like they did in Texas, since 1981. While the pandemic has been devastating to all restaurants, it’s been especially brutal to Black-owned businesses like Pack Jack’s, which historically have had far less access to capital when compared to restaurants owned by white people, according to an Eater analysis. Still, Pack Jack’s has done a big takeout business for years, which has given them an advantage during the pandemic.
The promise of pork and beef ribs, pulled pork, homemade hot links, and smoky-sweet baked beans from a 100-year-old family recipe are the main attractions. But the first thing you notice about Pack Jack is the cowboy and gunslinger cutouts that line the property. It feels a little like you’ve wandered onto an old movie set.
Because the Harris family left Texas for Oakland in the 1940s, the cowboy theme came naturally. Today, at age 89, Harris glides around on a red Rascal scooter, but he grew up in a little Gulf Coast town called Egypt, Texas, where they kicked back after work by riding broncos, roping steers, and talking about Black cowboy heroes like Nat Love, Bill Pickett, and Bass Reeves, whom many believe was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. “We were cowboys,” Harris says. “That’s what we were.”
And barbecuing was part of life in that part of Texas. “Everybody had a barbecue under the pecan trees,” Harris says. “Anybody can cook a steak. Not everybody can do barbecue. It’s an art.” The defining feature of Texas-style barbecue is cooking with wood over indirect heat, low and slow, he says.
The Sebastopol property has been in the family for about 80 years, says son Donnie Harris Jr. When their mother’s aunt and uncle owned it, another Black man (whose name the Harrises have since forgotten) ran a barbecue restaurant there. When Donnie Sr. retired from General Motors in Fremont, where he worked his way up from tool and die maker to the president of the auto workers union, he and his wife, Marie, opened their own barbecue place in the same location.
They named it Pack Jack, after his pet mule. “There’s no such thing as a dumb mule,” says the elder Harris. Kids loved coming to ride Pack Jack, and look at his ornery goat sidekick, son Robert Harris says. Pack Jack has gone to that big corral in the sky, but he lives on in the rainbow of coloring pages hung around the entryway. Kids who came back and found their drawing got a free piece of homemade sweet potato or pecan pie.
“My mother and Dad there really made it social, and everybody felt like they were part of the family,” says Robert Harris. “It was a happy place, and the food was so good. It’s the old recipes, and they did it with so much love.”
The old recipes include their grandmother’s baked beans, the seasoning mix for the meat, and the pies, which came from another grandmother in New Orleans. The barbecue sauce is homemade too; you can see bits of tomato and onion in it.
After a 2004 fire in the indoor barbecue pit destroyed the restaurant, the site sat vacant for several years. But customers kept dropping by to ask when they’d reopen. And the mother, Marie, longed to see Pack Jack open again, so the Harrises reopened the business in 2012, before she passed away. They redecorated with family artwork, old photos, and Western memorabilia donated by fans.
This time, they put the brick barbecue pit outside, surrounded by a kitschy wooden flame cutout so people can watch the meat cook. The elder Harris can’t operate the pit anymore due to Parkinson’s, but his sons Martin and Robert, plus grandson Brendan, do the cooking and take the orders, along with longtime employee Tommy Ruano. Loyal fans, who have included singer Huey Lewis and Wilt Chamberlain (who once tried to get the secret bean recipe), kept Pack Jack going over the years. But the restaurant lacks the flashy Instagram feed that’s a must for attracting new customers in 2020, and not as many people have been stopping by since spring when quarantine and shelter at home began.
The restaurant has the air of a sleepy Western town of late, with COVID-19 making dining in a don’t. Most people call in catering or individual orders and drop by to pick up, though some get comfortable in the covered patio known as the “corral.”
But every day besides Monday, a Harris man is there, tending the fire and making Texas barbecue the way the family has for nearly 40 years. “Come on by,” says Robert Harris. “You going to the casino, the redwoods, the ocean? You gotta come by here. We’re on the way to everywhere.”