By Frier McCollister
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
On a recent Sunday afternoon, on the northwest corner of North Lake Avenue and Mountain Street, a quiet buzz of activity in the CVS parking lot told another local culinary success story.
It’s a story of the challenges of success.
Pitmaster Rodney Jenkins of Rodney’s Ribs hustled mightily to keep up with the demand for his luscious racks of smoked pork ribs and slabs of brisket at his Pasadena trailer.
“I’m selling out extremely fast,” Jenkins said. “People love it. They’re coming right back. I already have repeat customers. It (the press attention) did catch me off-guard, but it’s nothing that we’re not adjusting to as we go along.”
By about 3:30 p.m. on this Sunday afternoon, Jenkins’ claim was fully supported. The ribs were all but sold out and Jenkins was encouraging a stream of prospective guests to return around 5 p.m. for the next batch of racks finishing on the rotating smoker, inside the trailer.
Meanwhile, Mike Eing from Sierra Madre returned for his second visit of the day to sample the smoked brisket. He polished off a half rack of ribs, a few hours earlier.
According to Eing, it’s not all about the ribs and brisket though.
“The baked beans are the best in town,” Eing said.
“The ribs were great too. They fell right off the bone, all in one piece. It was great.”
The beans are one of five side dishes on the menu, which also includes green beans, potato salad, cole slaw and mac and cheese. They’re all made fresh daily by Jenkins’ mother, Johnnie Jenkins. Those beans do have a rarified provenance.
“She learned how to make the beans from her auntie, who used to cook for Ginger Rogers,” Jenkins said, referring to the late film star and dancing partner of Fred Astaire.
Jenkins is a second-generation Pasadena native, having grown up in the northwest side of town, where he still lives, and is a proud graduate of Marshall High School.
That said, his grandparents on both sides were from Texas. Any family influence on his barbecue?
“Texas is a center point of barbecue,” Jenkins said. “That’s where we learned how to do brisket, from people in Texas. They have it down pat, melts in your mouth. It’s always been there on (the menu). It was originally going to be pulled pork, instead of brisket, but I have friends, who don’t eat pork. They persuaded me to change to brisket.”
Jenkins’ path to becoming the most celebrated pit master in Pasadena was circuitous and largely unplanned.
“I didn’t see this coming. I’ve got to tell you. I’ve always barbecued, my whole life. That part I knew was always there. But where it was leading to? No, I didn’t know,” Jenkins said.
After graduating from Pasadena City College, Jenkins worked as a payroll administrator for various entertainment companies.
“I was in the office one day,” Jenkins said. “My boss came up to me and reprimanded me about some paperwork that I thought was just so petty. With that, I started gazing out the window (and thought) ‘I got to get out of here.’ I was staring out the window and a big rig drove by.”
He took it as a sign to leave the conventions of office life and pivoted to a brief career as an interstate truck driver.
“I drove big rigs for about three or four years. I think that gave the training I needed to drive this rib truck around. I didn’t even know I would need it at the time, but absolutely it helped,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins returned to Pasadena and continued to develop his barbecue at informal family gatherings. The spark of a larger ambition was ignited at one such event.
“All of a sudden, my sister-in-law told me, ‘I think you need to barbecue. Your barbecue is amazing,’” Jenkins said.
“I heard her, but I didn’t hear her. I didn’t know if it was just talk. I didn’t know if she was serious or just (being friendly). I guess the third time she had it, she kept telling me that. I heard her that third or fourth time. I started looking into it, (to) see how to make it happen.
“I always felt like I wanted to put my barbecue on wheels because if it doesn’t work one place, I can get it to work another. Sometimes barbecue is hard to catch on. I just wanted to be able to move to keep her alive, just in case something did happen. I thought of a trailer and found that in my search and just put it all together.”
Jenkins had the trailer custom-built to his specifications in Pennsylvania and then drove it back to Los Angeles, where the kitchen was designed and installed to conform to county health regulations.
“I had them put the kitchen in and then we rolled it out,” she said.
Two years later, in 2014, Rodney’s Ribs’ trailer hit the streets. The hunt for viable locations took some time as well.
“I was at Lincoln and Woodbury because I live around the corner from there,” he said. “For a year and a half, I was looking for spots to go to.
“With that, I went to Tujunga on Foothill, off and on for about a year. When I left, they damn near begged me to come back.”
The intersection of North Lake Avenue and Mountain Street in Pasadena proved to be the charm. Initially, Jenkins planted his trailer in the parking alcove next to O’Reilly’s Auto Parts. Before long, he landed across the street, in the corner of the CVS parking lot.
The arrangement has been successful.
“CVS has been amazing. Shout out to CVS,” he said. “The management is great, the employees are great. They’re a good company and nice people.”
The trailer format and location also proved to be fairly pandemic proof. Unlike his worthy brick and mortar competitors in the area — Bonnie B’s and Clifton’s — Jenkins had innate advantages.
“Fortunately, because of the pandemic and because how they wanted us as a community to operate, I fit perfectly,” Jenkins said.
“I’m outside, outdoors. I’m by myself. It worked perfectly for me. Also, they advertised to support your local small business and I’m out there on the corner in their face. People really did help and support me. It was just because of how I was set up already. It was a perfect little set-up.”
Given the location, parking for Rodney’s Ribs is never a problem.
It’s difficult for guests to time their arrival around the current demand. Jenkins doesn’t have a website for online ordering, and he disabled ordering via Instagram.
Placing advance orders by phone is possible but not always fully reliable. Arriving on-site to place advance orders is another option. Hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. — or until it sells out — Wednesday to Sunday.
“I’m constantly cooking. If we’re there, we’re cooking. The smoker is rotating constantly,” Jenkins said.
He’s assisted in the trailer by Andre Beggram, Dwight Reed and David Egan.
The menu at Rodney’s Ribs is straightforward and fairly simple.
Larger catering portions are also available. The “special” has three ribs and one side (13.50), or a plate with four to five ribs, depending on cut, with two sides ($21.60).
Rib tips with a single side ($12) is a lighter option or go for a full rack ($33.75). The brisket is available as a sandwich ($13.50) or plate ($21.60). The aforementioned side dishes, including auntie’s legendary baked beans are available separately at $3.25.
Jenkins uses a dry rub of his own to treat the ribs and brisket and smokes them for several hours at a temperature just topping 200 degrees. Jenkins’ father, the late Arthur Jenkins Jr., was an original mentor on technique.
“When I started, my dad showed me how to set the coals and get the fire, let it get hot, let it calm down and then put your meat on,” Jenkins recalled. “There is hot and fast but you got to know what you’re doing. But low and slow is the way to go.”
With local acclaim continuing to build, what might the future hold?
“We’re in the process of looking at buying more smokers for more volume,” he said. “Eventually, I hope to move into a brick and mortar. It’s handled itself up until this point. I’m just going to keep working, keep making the best plates, the best ribs and let it fall where it may. We love Pasadena.”