Rodney Jenkins wishes he had a taller tale to tell about how he became his family’s official pitmaster at the age of 10. But the truth is that after having spent his formative years being served burnt meat, undercooked meat, and, worst of all, burnt and undercooked meat, he was fed up and took matters into his own hands. Even though he was just a kid at the time, Jenkins was observant enough to watch and learn from others. He saw that properly cooked meat required some attention. So rather than let the chicken thighs, hot links, and hamburger patties sit idly atop the searing hot grates as he’d noticed some family members doing, he moved the wares evenly and often.
“I figured if you keep turning it and turning it and turning it, it won’t burn. And it’d get done before it burned,” he says. From then on out, Jenkins took his spot next to the converted oil barrel turned drum smoker at every family gathering, always taking great care to keep the meat moving.
These days Jenkins can be found inside of his smoker-on-wheels on Pasadena’s North Lake Avenue, a well-trafficked corridor where local legends like Roma Market (home of “the Sandwich”) and Roscoe’s (home of fried chicken and waffles) operate among national chains like Starbucks and Popeye’s. The irresistible scent of smoke follows the trailer wherever it goes, beckoning pedestrians and commuters to pull over for a taste of Rodney’s Ribs. On board the trailer, a custom-built rotating rack does the work of keeping the meat moving.
With his formidable cooking skills and affable personality, Jenkins has garnered a devoted following among his hometown crowd and made Rodney’s Ribs a dependable destination for barbecue done right since it opened in 2014. Jenkins is a part of a larger movement of independent barbecue cooks who cater to specific neighborhoods within the Southland. These self-funded entrepreneurs, like the roving Ribs in LA trailer in central Los Angeles and the pop-up Bootsy’s BBQ in View Park-Windsor Hills, exist to feed a hyperlocal crowd. While some of these small ventures are content serving their immediate community, others, like Jenkins, hope to eventually gain the financial footing needed to expand to brick-and-mortar locations.
While Jenkins got an early start learning how to hone the power of heat and smoke, his path to Rodney’s Ribs was three decades in the making. After graduating from Marshall Fundamental Secondary School in Pasadena, he followed in his mother’s footsteps as a payroll accountant for 20-some-odd years. That led to a series of accounting gigs with a temp agency that offered just the right pace and pressure for Jenkins. If the personalities at a particular job didn’t quite mesh with his, Jenkins simply dialed up the agency and requested a new placement. This freedom to do his work without having to tolerate unnecessary stress appealed to his easygoing nature.
Jenkins eventually traded in pressed slacks and office politics for a big rig and spent the next three years as a trucker, driving professionally through the Lower 48. He was taken aback by Seattle’s majestic landscapes, while Dallas felt the most like home, given his family’s Texas roots. A short-lived home improvement company came after that, but Jenkins quickly realized that toiling on other people’s homes didn’t provide the same satisfaction as beautifying his own house. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, each of those jobs prepared Jenkins in some way for his ultimate calling. Over the course of three decades, Jenkins developed a strong sense for numbers and accounting, along with a deep comfort behind the wheel of even the bulkiest of vehicles. Now he just had to find a way to combine them. “Without even knowing, Mother Nature just puts it together for you,” he says.
Jenkins was a bundle of nerves the first day he pulled up in his smoker-on-wheels to the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Woodbury Road in northeast Pasadena. After spending an entire year getting the business off the ground — securing a custom-built trailer in Pennsylvania and driving it back to Los Angeles, having a kitchen and smoker installed in it, procuring the proper permits that allow smoking meat on the vehicle — it was finally time to open Rodney’s Ribs. “I felt like I had the skills, and I know how to barbecue,” he says. “But stepping out on faith, I was nervous.” Rodney’s Ribs made just $100 on its first day of business. The meager sum wasn’t enough to cover the fuel needed to run the generator, let alone the cost of food, but Jenkins’s unflappable belief in himself and his cooking kept him going. Though the first few years of business were slow going for Rodney’s Ribs, customers began to line up regularly as word got around. “I have what it takes, at least that’s the way I felt. I still feel that way,” he says. “I like my quality of barbecue. I hadn’t had any that I liked better than mine.” Jenkins emphasizes that his confidence isn’t rooted in any sort of ego or cockiness, but rather a self-assuredness in his abilities.
Most days, Rodney’s Ribs can be found in the CVS parking lot on North Lake, a busier and more accessible location than where Jenkins first launched the business. He starts the day at 8:30 a.m., hitching the trailer into place before getting the pork ribs and beef brisket ready for lunch service. “There is no fast barbecue,” Jenkins says. “Maybe fast steaks, fast hamburgers, but real barbecue? There’s no fast way.” His cooks begin with feeding chopped oak logs into the smoker to gently raise the temperature. The gradual, mellow burn of oak is perfect for Jenkins’s purposes; through trial and error, he’s deemed almond and pecan woods unsuitable because they burn too hot and too quickly.
While waiting for the smoker to come up to temperature — the sweet spot is around 200 degrees — Jenkins dusts the ribs and brisket with a bit of seasoning. His signature rub has granulated garlic and onion, a touch of Lawry’s seasoned salt, some black pepper, and paprika. Though Jenkins always knew that pork ribs would be on the menu, the decision to serve beef brisket in place of pulled pork was inspired by a friend who doesn’t eat pork due to religious restrictions. “Not too much seasoning, just lightly,” he says. “Less is more because we have smoke — that’s a seasoning. Then we have a seasoning that I’m putting on the actual meat. And then it’s barbecue, so you have barbecue sauce. So that’s a whole bunch of seasoning in there by the time it hits your tongue. Less is more. Or, less blends together more.”
With his smoker fired up and the prized proteins seasoned just so, Jenkins loads everything onto the rotating racks for a smoke-filled cook that takes about three and a half hours for the ribs and six to eight hours for the brisket. “I consider us upscale, a fancy barbecue, more or less,” says Jenkins. “We take pride in each plate, each rib. If it’s not showroom quality, then we don’t put it on the plate. That’s just the rule.” Accompanying the ribs and brisket are side dishes prepared by Jenkins’s mother, Jonnie. The string beans get their oomph from plenty of onions and bacon, while the baked beans come syrupy but are balanced by the slight bite of fresh scallions.
Jenkins has the details dialed in when it comes to making tremendous barbecue. He knows the seasonings, techniques, and cook times by heart — an expertise first developed at those casual family cookouts and then mastered years later working in the trailer. “No matter how many mistakes I kept making, and I can make some good mistakes … what keeps me going, even right now … the food is just incredible,” he says. “If it wasn’t mine I would be like, ‘Wow, this guy has something here. Man, keep going. You got something here.’”
Jenkins’s signature ribs are tender and smoky as all get-out, each one charred and caramelized with meat that peels satisfyingly clean off the bone. The brisket, which is served straight up or between plush Hawaiian buns, is always generously piled on with a drizzle of tangy-sweet sauce. Jenkins says he isn’t much of a sauce guy, so his meat never leans on it for flavor or interest. A mouthful of delicate brisket hits differently but just as convincingly as a bone-in rib. Both are worthy of a trip across town, and Jenkins’s customers know to arrive before 8 p.m. when he packs up for the day.
While Rodney’s Ribs has provided Jenkins with a comfortable living and some security, he still sees room for growth in the years ahead. “It hasn’t put me where I want to be yet,” he says. “I feel it will; that’s the part that keeps me going. I believe it will catch. It will grow to that level where I need it to grow. That’s the part that keeps me moving.” Beyond financial security, Jenkins wants to continue building his brand and eventually expand into brick-and-mortar locations.
“If you want good quality meats, you don’t think twice, ‘Let’s go to Rodney’s,’” he says. “So when you say that name, you think of quality and great food. When you think of Rodney, you think of a whole different meaning than a name.”
He envisions a future with a dozen or so Rodney’s Ribs restaurants dotting the Southland and the original trailer still running around town and doing its smoky thing. Jenkins knows that the path from here to there is a work in progress, but that same self-possessed spirit that got him through the slower times in the early days continues to propel him forward. “I didn’t think I could be a part of something that could change my life. I’m right smack in the middle of an adventure, a blessing.”
Find Rodney’s Ribs parked in the CVS parking lot at 900 North Lake Avenue in Pasadena, Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday.