The summer is gone. What summer? It’s always been difficult tracking the seasons in Southern California. This year, however, each day drifts aimlessly into the next, due to the pandemic and stay-at-home orders.
With no social life—and no reason to break out the seersucker—it may as well be winter!
Still as a Midwesterner, I did find myself in the backyard at the grill, tinkering with the barbecue prescriptions of my father (also known as “Captain Hickory”), a former competitive pit master from Chicago. I know and care about great barbecue and great barbecue happens in the summer! With Labor Day weekend looming, let’s celebrate a local stalwart of the form.
For me, pork ribs, preferably baby backs, provide the ultimate challenge and prize. Perfecting ribs with consistency requires practice and, ideally, tutelage from an elder. Much less a science than an intuitive art, great barbecue often tends to be the progeny of a generational legacy.
Bonnie B’s Smokin has been maintaining a well-established family legacy of excellent barbecue since 2009. A popular and perennial favorite with Pasadena Weekly readers, the interest and enthusiasm is well earned. Last year, it was voted Pasadena Weekly Reader Recommended Best BBQ as well as overall Best Soul Food.
The first clue to the regional influence of Bonnie B’s barbecue legacy can be found on its website. Scroll down on the homepage and there is a photo of the large painted mural that dominates the restaurant’s small dining room. The mural depicts a campfire scene on the high plains cast with an ethnically diverse group of cowboys, cowgirls, Native Americans and pioneer types ganged in a semi-circle around a rack of ribs set on a spit over an open fire.
The caption on the website says, “Our Story… coming soon!” OK, now’s the time!
To get that story, an extended chat with the charming and articulate owner and family matriarch Zenobia Ivory is required. As Ivory explains, the menu of smoked delicacies found on North Lake Avenue can be traced to the Henderson family of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Family lore suggests that an elder of the large clan began developing barbecue techniques and recipes that form the spine of the menu.
“Grandma Joyce,” otherwise known as Joyce Henderson-Geller, moved to San Diego with her husband, Dr. Stanley Geller, and opened the Gellerosa Ranch Barbecue restaurant with their trove of family recipes in 1986.
The current pit master, Michael Lawrence “Slim” Henderson Jr., grew up in the kitchen there. By evidence of his ribs alone, clearly he has the family’s barbecue DNA. “Aunt Bonnie” recognized the innate talents of her nephew when she opened up Bonnie B’s in Pasadena and the place has been “smokin’” ever since.
Ivory—Michael’s mother—bought the operation from Aunt Bonnie in 2015 and the family affair continues to our benefit and barbecue satisfaction.
On close inspection, a few items jump off the menu here. Oklahoma-style chopped brisket, which I ordered as a value meal at $12.99 (also available as a “big meal” at $15.99) is evidence of the family’s regional influence. Ever seen that dish on any other local barbecue menu? Not likely. In fact, Oklahoma-style is a fusion of Memphis and Texas styles with beef brisket and pork ribs, smoked in oak, and served with sauce on the side. According to Ivory, the Bonnie B’s smoker is stoked with “red oak and sometimes Cherokee wood,” sourced out of Alpine.
Chunked into bite-size pieces, and doused in the savory house sauce, the brisket was perfectly smoked and utterly tender. That said, the ribs are always the main attraction for me, and Michael will not disappoint. I opted for an indulgent “Full Rack” at $27, which I shared and still had some for lunch the next day. These were faultlessly finished with a well-seasoned crisp “bark” caving away to lushly juicy rib meat lopping off the bone. With the reality of takeout and delivery only, barbecue travels well but don’t let ribs rest too long in a take-out container. Wolf them down as quickly as possible!
Back to the menu. When a name is attached to a dish, as in the case of Slim’s mac and cheese ($4.99/ $9.15) or “Sweet Pea’s double-fried chicken burger ($6.50) something good is usually going on. I’ll be back to try the burger, but I can attest Michael renders an exceptional mac and cheese. Another special is the soul bowl ($6.25). A hearty “snack,” the bowl features black-eyed peas and rice topped with a chicken hot link and one of their popular jalapeno cornbread muffins.
Another dish unique to Bonnie B’s menu is a temporary pandemic victim. Barbecue smoked bologna available as a sandwich ($7.95) or a la carte by the pound or half-pound ($13.50/ $8.25) is not available. As Ivory explains, a combination of supply-chain disruption and price-gouging by their distributor rendered the otherwise popular and unusual dish untenable as a menu item for now. Apparently, yams suffered a similar fate.
Bonnie B’s Smokin has remained open throughout the twists and turns of the lockdown and pandemic’s “reopening” phases. As Ivory tells it, “Some days are better than other days. We have a lot of support (but) we have some slow periods.”
It’s Labor Day weekend! Let’s go get some ‘cue, y’all!