Look at any map of development along light rail, including the one associated with this blog, and there’s a pretty big gap. It begins around 16th Street, where the Eastlake neighborhood with its historic churches gives away to a light industrial area that continues for two miles or so until the tracks reach Gateway Community College and Sky Harbor Airport. Businesses can struggle in this zone, but one recent arrival, MJ’s Barbecue Chicken & Fish (no commas), is not only worth the trip, but also drawing increasing numbers of customers despite its somewhat isolated location.
MJ’s, named for its owners Michael and Jason, is located along one of the single-lane frontage roads providing access to businesses isolated by the rail tracks. Anyone arriving via car should make sure to be in that lane to avoid a needless trip around the block. Customers arriving by train will find MJ’s easy to reach. From the eastbound Jefferson / 24th Street platform, simply walk across the street at the east end of the platform. From the westbound Washington / 24th Street platform, add a block. There are no bike racks, but a few signposts near the entrance will suffice.
The restaurant looks as though it was once a fast food franchise complete with a drive-thru that’s no longer in use. Whichever chain originally built the structure has long since moved on. The immediate past tenant was a fish-and-chips shop, and the grounds show signs of wear. Still, the restaurant is clean on the inside with the only decor being a few large screens on the wall showing news or sports. Order at the counter, visit the beverage station to the left, and then choose any seat in the house. The food comes quickly to the table, usually delivered by either “M” or “J.”
If there’s any doubt about the restaurant’s specialties, first-time visitors often receive an enthusiastic greeting, similar to a shout of “irasshaimase!” from a sushi bar, to remind novices of everything MJ’s does to “put the South in your mouth.” Any deep fryers left over from the prior restaurant there are no doubt seeing plenty of use, but the barbecue in MJ’s name also means that smoking has been added to repertoire. The resulting barbecue output is a typical spectrum of options: brisket, pulled pork, ribs (both beef and pork), rib tips, chicken, and hot links.
While the chicken and hot links are served with a generous coating of MJ’s mustard-tinged, not-too-sweet sauce, the brisket and pork are generally adorned only with a bit of fried onion, a nice crisp topping over the yielding meat below. The rich brisket comes in both a standard presentation and in a Philly brisket sandwich, which does include some sauce along with grilled bell peppers and onions in a hoagie roll rather than the usual barbecue bun. The pulled pork has its own smoky, deep flavor that works well in either a sandwich or a barbecue plate.
The fish side of MJ’s involves cod, whiting, or catfish. The last one, offered either as fillets or nuggets, is often the best choice due to its flaky texture matched to a crisp coating. Fried shrimp are also on the menu. Like the fish, they’re presented in a basket with a choice of side dish and two hush puppies. MJ’s puppies are treats about the size of golf balls with slightly crunchy exteriors, yielding cores, and a bit of pepper flavor. For the full seafood experience, the fisherman’s basket combines a single piece of catfish with half a dozen prawns.
A good barbecue experience, as well as any fish fry, is characterized as much by its side dishes as it is by the meaty main dish. MJ’s offers a complete spectrum of typical sides such as tangy baked beans, creamy coleslaw, and eggy potato salad. Among the green vegetables, the green beans can be a bit mushy, but the collard greens benefit from extended cooking. Corn on the cob and cornbread add to the assortment. What’s most impressive, however, are the fries. Whether it’s as a barbecue side or the chips in fish-and-chips, these skin-on fries are more than an afterthought.
Beyond the basic menu items in the categories in the restaurant’s name, MJ’s offers a welcome bit of cross-cultural fusion with its brisket tacos, a treat offered only on — no surprise — taco Tuesday. The menu also offers nachos with most of the barbecued meats as possible toppings and an assortment of fried appetizers. For younger diners, the restaurant offers a small selection of children’s meals, including chicken strips with a flavorful breading similar to that used on the fish. There’s no liquor license, so beverages are limited to iced tea and the soda fountain.
MJ’s offers two dessert choices: one completely expected and the other a pleasant surprise. The appearance of peach cobbler on the menu is completely within tradition, and the version here is a quintessential slice full of supple peaches and buttery crust. Less familiar but equally effective is the fried brownie. A slab of chocolate indulgence is deep-fried, creating a firm outer layer over a tender interior, a textural contrast like the hush puppies, but much sweeter. The brownie is cut into pieces that are then placed around a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with caramel glaze.
With generous servings of everything on the menu, it’s hard to walk out of MJ’s hungry, but saving room for these desserts is recommended, especially if dining with someone willing to share the bounty. The area around 24th Street and the Washington / Jefferson couplet still has a long way to go in terms of development with many vacant or blighted properties awaiting new life. Maybe one day this segment of light rail track will feel less empty as trains pass between the downtowns of Phoenix and Tempe. Until then, MJ’s helps in its own way to fill in the gap on the map.
2426 E. Jefferson St., Phoenix AZ 85034
24th Street / Washington (westbound) and 24th Street / Jefferson (eastbound) stations