The name came as a vision from God. Pastor C. D. Bennett had been searching in Hayward for a church building, not a restaurant. What he wanted was a place where he could set up his ministry after he'd relocated to the East Bay from East Palo Alto. But he wasn't having any luck. Instead, Bennett recalled, "The Lord said, 'We're not going that route.'"
Bennett said that, while he was praying, God put in his mind both the name and idea for Just Potato Salad, the four-month-old barbecue restaurant in Hayward that he runs with his wife, Tammy Bennett. The name references the roughly 29 years that he had spent cooking at fundraisers and various other church events, Bennett explained. "What can I get for you?" he'd ask the stream of happy, already-stuffed congregants who came back up for seconds.
"Just potato salad," they would inevitably respond.
So it was that Pastor Bennett decided to put his church-planting plans on hold to open a barbecue restaurant — and to name it, tongue-in-cheek, after what had become his signature dish. The subtitle on the sign out front reads, "And much much more," which is your first clue that this isn't a restaurant that literally serves nothing other than what is typically a barbecue joint's most overlooked side dish, as charmingly quixotic as that might be.
No, this is your standard, no-frills barbecue restaurant, with a ketchup-and-mustard color scheme (including a matching gumball machine) and, in back, two double-grill smoker pits that Bennett starts tending to as early as 5 a.m. each morning.
These have been lean times for East Bay barbecue lovers, as nearly every exemplary spot to open in the past several years wound up dying a quick death — in Oakland alone, casualties included B-Side, Double D, and BBQ Hut. And if the slow-smoking of meats is your new ministry, then you had better make sure your 'cue is up to snuff.
At Just Potato Salad, the ribs alone are worth a visit. Bennett favors the fattier St. Louis cut, and while he was reluctant to divulge any specifics, he explained that the key is that he has figured out a way to "put juices back into the meats" over the course of the cooking process. The result is ribs that are significantly more tender, and less dry, than what you'll find at your run-of-the-mill barbecue chain. The ribs had a nice smoke to them and were pleasantly salty, to the point that the meat almost tasted like it had been lightly cured.
Bennett doesn't adhere to any particular regional approach but said that, if anything, his barbecue is probably most similar to the Kansas City style — by which he means, at least in part, that the meats come drenched in a sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce by default. If you want to be able to really taste the meat, ask for the sauce on the side. (A nice touch is that the little tub of sauce they gave me had been heated up; it wasn't just a prepacked thing they grabbed out of the fridge.)
Barbecue-wise, I'm more of a brisket guy, so I was disappointed to see that wasn't an option. Instead, beef eaters can opt for slices of tri-tip, which I found a lot less flavorful than the ribs, though I did appreciate the ring of lush, soft fat around the edge of each slice. This was the kind of thing that's meant to be drenched in sauce and piled onto a sandwich — which, happily, is an option.
Rounding out the meat options were snappy Louisiana-style links (available in both mild and decently spicy versions) and chicken that picked up hardly any smoke flavor whatsoever, but was about as tender as any chicken I've eaten at a barbecue restaurant — the dark meat, in particular.
Ultimately, though, the side dishes are what set the restaurant apart from the ranks of East Bay barbecue joints. "The potato salad was the most delicious thing on the menu" is not a sentence that I ever expected to write, but it turns out that Just Potato Salad really does live up to its moniker. Again, Bennett belongs to the secret-recipe school of barbecue cookery, so it proved impossible to wrangle much information about what made his potato salad so good. A lot of it was the flavor, of course, which skewed sweet without going overboard, almost like a Hawaiian or Japanese potato salad, and was less harshly vinegary than a lot of American-style potato salads. Part of it was textural — a mix of larger chunks and parts that were finely mashed. There were pieces of hard-boiled egg, too, and the yolk served as a thickening agent and gave the potato salad its richness and its yellow hue. There was all kinds of other stuff in there, too — bits of olive, carrot, scallion, and probably a few more things I couldn't identify. All in all, it was probably the best potato salad I've ever eaten.
The other sides were solid, too. The mac 'n' cheese was the baked variety, topped with browned cheese, and, crucially, arrived at the table hot. The green beans were cooked soul-food style: very soft and very savory.
Now I've heard it said that the Lord works in mysterious ways, but I wouldn't imagine that He makes a habit of telling preachers, willy-nilly, to leave the pulpit to go off and open a restaurant. Indeed, Bennett explained that he never left the ministry but is instead channeling it through this new outlet, and he doesn't just mean that in some touchy-feely way: He said two decades of working with at-risk youth have instilled in him a sense of the importance of bringing missing fathers back into the family fold — particularly men who have done time in prison and, despite the best of intentions, often go back to a life of crime because they can't find employment once they get out. His real hope for Just Potato Salad, then, is that it can serve as a training center and a source of employment for the formerly incarcerated.
That's more of a long-term goal, though. For now, the restaurant operates on too small a scale for the Bennetts to hire much of anyone, apart from a handful of part-time odd jobs. More often than not, the husband and wife are the only two working — Tammy taking orders at the counter, and C. D. in back cooking. For now, it's enough that they've created a warm and welcoming space, and a menu where everything is prepared with more care than you might expect, down to the homemade desserts, including a better-than-respectable German chocolate cake — actually the contribution of a church mother, Bennett said.
For now, it's enough that in addition to barbecue, Just Potato Salad actually serves some of the best straight-up soul food in the area. There are thin strips of fried catfish, perfectly moist under a thick cornmeal batter. Best of all, on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays only, the restaurant serves some of the best smothered oxtails I've ever had. Bennett calls them "Caribbean jerk" oxtails, though they didn't have the kick I might have expected with that description. But the oxtails were jiggly and gelatinous in all the best ways, drenched in gravy, and served over rice on a plate that came with all the fixins: black-eyed peas, potato salad, mac 'n' cheese, collard greens infused with the savoriness of smoked turkey necks, sweet potatoes cooked until they were oozy and well-caramelized, and a thick square of cornbread sliced in half and spread with a generous dollop of butter.
For those of us who don't consider ourselves to be particularly religious, this was a plate of food — a form of ministry — we can all get behind.