Barbecue and football have a lot in common, says Cedric Griffin, the former University of Texas star and NFL veteran who recently opened a trailer joint on Austin's Eastside with partner Jerome Faulkner.
"It's a mental game," Griffin explained, referring to cooking and playing ball. "Getting up and preparing yourself every day to be consistent. We have to be consistently good. We have to do our thing and cook our food to our taste."
J.Leonardi's Barbeque (the J is for Jerome and Leonard is Griffin's middle name) began serving in December and had its grand opening during SXSW in March.
Based on two visits by the Posse over the past couple weeks, Griffin and Faulkner are starting to achieve the consistency they seek. Their brisket still needs more refinement, but the turkey, ribs (baby backs) and chicken are coming along fine.
“Oh my god, the turkey is really good,” my daughter, Libby Gagne, said on our first trip to J.Leonardi’s a couple weeks ago. “It’s super tender, maybe a tiny bit on the dry side. There’s delicious spice, a little bit of heat, lots of flavor, not too salty.”
Libby, an attorney and mother of two, is a veteran Posse member. One of her first tours with us was in 2010 to Aaron Franklin’s original trailer.
When I returned to J.Leonardi’s this week with Posse co-founder Chris Wilkins and my son, Gunnar, Faulkner recognized me and immediately began apologizing.
"I'm so sorry I don't have my turkey ready for you now," he said.
There was some disappointment, but we ordered fatty brisket, ribs, chicken, sausage and two sides, smoked cabbage and potato salad.
The ribs were very good again, and also the chicken. Both were cooked well and had a tasty, pleasing rub.
On our first visit, Faulkner said he used the same rub for most of the meats.
Many of the ingredients are common: black pepper, salt, paprika, lemmon pepper, granulated garlic. But Faulkner said he also adds a few “secret” ingredients, which he wouldn’t identify during either visit.
"Next time," he said. "Next time I'll give you one secret ingredient."
Faulkner, who has known Griffin for several years, said he learned to cook from an uncle and while cooking for his grandmother.
“She wasn’t going to take just anything,” he said. “I had to learn.”
The two side dishes we ate also drew strong positive reviews.
"I'd come back just for that smoked cabbage," Wilkins said. "That's a star."
"And that potato salad was good, too," Gunnar said.
Griffin, a defensive back, played on UT's 2005 national championship team that featured Vince Young at quarterback. After red-shirting as a freshman, he started more than 40 games over four seasons. He was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the second round, playing there and with the Washington Redskins. He injured both knees during his pro career and retired after the 2012 season.
The cut 6-footer looks like he could still put on the pads. Griffin said he weighs about 190 pounds now, a few shy of his playing weight.
"I'm a turkey guy," he said. "I don't eat beef and pork right now."
J.Leonardi’s is located behind a gas station on Airport Road. The smoker is in one trailer, the serving station in another. There are three picnic tables with brightly colored umbrellas and a separate covered area with a big-screen TV. There are plans to offer live music.
Griffin said he is an entrepreneur, with a boat rental business on Lake Travis and a few rental houses on the Eastside.
"I'm just passionate about making money, to be honest with you," he said.
The partners already have plans to move to a different location, but they are being patient.
"It always starts small," Griffin said. "I always refer to what football coaches say, 'Don't rush the process.'"
Editors note: J.Leonardi's Barbeque has closed their original location on Airport Blvd. and now operates from their trailer at 1124 E 11th St in Austin.
J.Leonardi's Barbeque, 1124 E 11th St, Austin, 512-501-2168. Open Tues-Sat 11am-6pm or until sold out, Sun 11am-3pm or until sold out.