When I was about twelve, Neal and I were sent on a trip to a summer camp on Jekyll Island – it’s where we met Samantha, surprisingly – that included a glamorous stop in the town of Metter, where we were allowed to get off the bus, pick up a brown bag lunch, and return to the bus to eat it. There are, certainly, far smaller towns than Metter out there, but at the age of twelve I was unable to name a one of them. Besides, I was miserable and unhappy and didn’t want to be there, wherever “there” was. I doubt that had I known Jomax Bar-B-Q was right across the street from us that it would have improved things.
Metter is a long, long way from anywhere. There’s an interstate, I-16, that connects Macon and Savannah, and Metter is 2/3 of the way down it. I’m sure there are much more desolate stretches of nothing in Nebraska and the Dakotas, but this drive is inarguably one of the worst in the southeast. Middle Georgia, outside of the cities of Columbus, Macon and Savannah, is sometimes pretty to look at, but there’s certainly not a lot besides trees. 104 miles after leaving Macon, travelers on their way to the coast have been known to pull over and run around their cars screaming, so I figure Metter’s the best place for a small town to grow and take advantage of people’s desperation for anything to do.
It’s the perfect place, in other words, for one of the three or four best barbecue restaurants in Georgia to spring up. It may be 200 miles from my house, give or take, but it’s in the right place to keep drivers from losing their marbles. It is also notable as being, and I’m not kidding, the only restaurant for the 150-mile stretch of I-16 worth visiting. You can certainly exit from that highway and travel to, say, Vidalia or Statesboro and maybe find something to eat, but as far as restaurants by the exit ramp, it is, almost literally, Jomax or nothing. Most of the trip, you can’t even find chain fast food drive-thru places, but you can certainly find plenty of state patrol cars encouraging you to watch your speed.
I first discovered Jomax around 1998, coming back to Athens from a trip to Tybee Island. I was very much in favor of finding new barbecue restaurants for my old Geocities page on the subject. I recall that I found a good entry or two in Savannah, Tybee and Thunderbolt for the page, and just pulled off the highway for a break in the hopes of finding something else. Jomax is seriously worth the stop, and I believe that I did each of the three times I drove to the coast from Athens during those days. Frustratingly, they are closed on Sundays. Since I started accompanying Marie to visit her folks on Saint Simons – about ninety minutes south of Savannah – I’ve been arranging our travel times and route to make sure we get a chance to stop at Jomax frequently. If we must motor down I-16, then the least we can do is stop along the way for some of the state’s best barbecue!
Last month, Jomax’s original owners bought back the restaurant. They opened it in… heck, I am not sure, but they sold it in 2006. I never noticed any change in the food’s quality while the other owners were there, although I believe they did have a more extensive menu, one of those full of ads for area businesses in Candler County. When we got the chance to stop by this past Friday, one of the first things I noticed was a news clipping announcing the return of Joe and Maxine to their old business, effective November 1. I suppose I should have been forward and welcomed them back and told them how much I’ve always loved their place, but three and a bit hours of driving with Marie’s car packed tight with luggage, Christmas presents and restless kids can make a fellow a little antisocial.
Jomax doesn’t do anything really abnormal or odd with their presentation. It’s basic chopped pork, very tasty and smoky, served with a single house sauce. This is a spectacular tomato and vinegar mix which is surely one of the best in the state. The secret here is simply to do the basics and do them really, really well. Their potato-packed Brunswick stew is one of my favorites, and their baked beans a match for Boston’s best. With everybody ordering different sides, we also enjoyed very good sweet potato fries and lima beans this trip.
The simplicity of Jomax’s approach has worked very well for them over the years. I think that my first visit, the place was a little quiet and slow, but every subsequent trip, they’ve had a fairly packed house and a staff of excellent servers positively hopping from table to table. I can’t imagine anybody traveling from Macon to Savannah not knowing about Jomax. It’s just where you get lunch on this road, simple as that.
Also, I’d be remiss if I did not mention that it’s an open secret that most weeks during the football season, Sonny Seiler is known to stop in on his way from Savannah to Athens, with the University of Georgia’s mascot, Uga, in tow. Joe and Maxine are big Bulldog fans and decorate their place accordingly, and while I’ve never been here at the right time for a meeting myself, I hear the Georgia faithful will often see off our puppy with a cheer and a wave. I figure, I got to talk with Coach Richt a couple of times at my favorite restaurant before it closed, so I’ve had my brush with Bulldog greatness. I also once got to confirm a confused tailback’s suspicion that Thanksgiving might be in November, but we won’t talk about that; it’s a bit embarrassing.
Other blog posts about Jomax: