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Out of the Fire

The Harris family resurrects Pack Jack's Bar-B-Que

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NEW LIFE It's all smiles for Martin, Donnie and Robert Harris since their beloved landmark restaurant reopened. - SUZANNE DALY
  • Suzanne Daly
  • NEW LIFE It's all smiles for Martin, Donnie and Robert Harris since their beloved landmark restaurant reopened.

The old cowboy, Jack, and his little donkey, Pack Jack, set up camp along the trail, cooking up pots of beans and barbecuing meat. When hungry cowboys rode by, tired of eating hard biscuits and jerky on long cattle drives, they eagerly found Pack Jack, ready to serve his delicious, long-smoked Texas barbecue cooked just right.

Now Pack Jack is back on the trail. The Sebastopol barbecue restaurant named after the little donkey has finally reopened eight years after fire gutted the front of the building and closed the family business. Out of the fire and back into the Texas-style smoker, flavorful chicken, brisket and ribs are once more on the menu, the 100-year-old recipes a closely guarded family secret. "My grandfather, Poppa, died a month to the day before his one hundredth birthday, and only then did he call me to his bedside to give me the recipes," says owner Donnie Harris.

Originally Jesse's restaurant, a barbecue joint rented out by another restaurateur on the family property, Harris and his wife, Marie, took it over and reopened as Pack Jack's in 1981. Fronting a rural stretch of Gravenstein Highway South, the restaurant is part of a family compound including patriarch Donnie's home, a small golf course, a man cave, Marie's garden and collard patch, and free-range chickens.

Pack Jack's gained popularity throughout the 1980s, twice appearing on San Francisco's KRON TV series Bay Area Backroads and garnering fans such as Huey Lewis and the News. The restaurant was open for nearly 25 years when disaster occurred. While the family was away on vacation, a fire started in the smoker's chimney, housed inside the restaurant. The slow-starting fire soon spread to the roof, which ultimately collapsed into the kitchen. Almost everything in the kitchen and dining area was lost, including memorabilia, antiques and photographs of celebrities.

Because the Harrises had already retired from previous careers and ran Pack Jack's as a hobby, they did not pursue reopening the restaurant. After five years of encouragement from fans who yearned for Pack Jack's barbecue, the family agreed to rebuild, with sons Robert and Martin Harris spearheading the project. Because so much time had elapsed between the fire and the renovation, the family lost the permit status that would have eased reestablishing the restaurant; they were required to reconfigure the size of the kitchen and establish handicap parking and bathrooms.

"We finally got serious about it in 2008," says Robert, who commuted back and forth from Vallejo to Sebastopol while the renovation took place. "A little bit of everything held up the process, and there were problems up until the last minute."

Though in their late 70s, Donnie and Marie did much of the renovating themselves. Now creamy yellow walls wait to be filled with cowboy memorabilia, and an outdoor seating area is in the works. During the summer, the heat, smoke and flies are kept under control by fans placed strategically around the room. All that remains of the original building are the rusty orange Naugahyde booths and their faux brick bases, salvaged from the dining room and cleaned of smoke damage, a small reminder to patrons of the old place.

Pack Jack's finally reopened in June, and according to Robert, the response has been "fantastic." "We did a soft opening without any advertisement, because we wanted time to get our act together. Opening day was ridiculous, it was wild, almost more than we could handle. Now we've got it under control."

Two visits to the restaurant prove that pit master Martin and the family cooks haven't lost their chops. The menu is exactly the same as before, featuring Texas-style, slow-smoked barbecue pork, beef or lamb ribs, beef brisket, house-made hot links and chicken. Both full portions ($15) and half ($10) include two side dishes: tender, smoky flavored beans with meat, creamy potato salad and crispy, vinegar-dressed coleslaw.

The pork ribs werre tender and easily pulled off the bone, while the lamb ribs, though chewier and layered with a tough membrane, were richly flavored. The hot links combined both ground beef and pork with a hot spiciness, and can be ordered as a sandwich ($6.95, no sides included). The beef brisket, also ordered as a sandwich ($6.95), came heaped on a hamburger bun moistened by the natural meat juices.

Only the chicken was a bit dry, but the barbecue sauce helped juice it up. Meals can also be ordered for takeout. "We are not allowed to change anything on the menu," says Robert. "Dad's rules. All the recipes are secret, and not one thing can be changed or added." Adds father Donnie, "If you're successful with what you have, why change it?"

A blooming century plant out front pays tribute to Marie, who passed away in December. The family legacy lives on through the sons, daughters, nieces and nephews who work all aspects of the business. "We love the food, we love the people, we love this town and we've been very welcomed," gushes Robert. "We are very happy that Pack Jack is back."

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