Willis, 67, went to Palo Alto High School and got his first job at a gas station on El Camino owned by Manuel Lozano Sr. He has been barbecuing in the same corner of the car-wash parking lot since 2000. He also has a catering business.
Memorial Day is the busiest day of the year for orders, hands down, he says. "Anybody who wants anything on Memorial Day usually asks for it the year before, because people come into town, families get together, they go out to the cemetery and when they come back to somebody's house, they don't want to be cooking," he said. "So they hit me for the heavy lifting."
This year, he made an exception and took a last-minute Memorial Day order from a woman whose son recently died in Afghanistan after serving two tours there.
Willis said he plans to wake up at 4 a.m. on Memorial Day morning to start the "heavy lifting," which includes preparing his special dry-rubbed pork ribs, along with his other barbecue specialties: garlic-herb mesquite-smoked chicken and double-marinated tri-tip.
The chicken is soaked in zesty Italian dressing (fat-free to reduce the amount of oil), then marinated with herba stella, rosemary and a mixture of garlic powder and ground-up garbanzo beans. Because chicken cooks fast, Willis uses mesquite charcoal — it burns hotter and cooks food faster than other kinds.
Tri-tip is another specially developed process that begins with a marinade made from red, green and yellow bell peppers; garlic; virgin olive oil; sea salt and "a few other things." Willis soaks the meat thoroughly in the marinade, sears it and then repeats the whole process.
"After about three times of marinating, you sear them and let them sweat," Willis said. "That way, they get a nice skin on them, but they're medium rare inside. Beautiful."
But Willis' pork ribs take center stage at his car-wash grill, stationed at the corner of El Camino and Del Medio Avenue. Chicken dries out too quickly (but he will accept an advance order if you call it in and come pick it up in time) and tri-tip appears only sometimes, on Saturdays.
Willis has a particular rationale for choosing pork over beef or baby-back ribs. Beef ribs are bigger, fattier and "sell like broken glass," he said. Baby-back ribs have a nice cut, but they're dry and require sauce.
And Willis doesn't do sauce. "If you ever got sauce, you never got it from me," is a favorite phrase of his.
"You can get ribs probably anywhere, but usually they have a bunch of sauce on them," he said. "When people that cook ribs like that, they're either raw, burnt or fat. Or they didn't know how to season them, so they put all the sauce on there."
Willis, on the other hand, does know how to season. After soaking the ribs in the zesty Italian, he seasons the meat with a semi-secret dry rub. The known ingredients are brown sugar and paprika, giving the meat some subtle sweetness and a spicy kick. Ask what else is in the rub or how it's prepared, and he'll look down at you scornfully over his glasses.
When he's finished with the rub, the ribs are seared, smoked for a few hours with red oak and then sprinkled with apple juice, which gives the racks a lightly glazed, tantalizing look.
Recently at the rib stand, customer Jeff Stricker, a Los Altos real-estate broker who has been eating Willis' car-wash racks for 10 years, said that these ribs are the best in the area. "They're the best in Santa Clara County, bar none. I'm not just saying that because (Willis) is standing here," he said. "I tell everyone that."
Willis said he first started cooking ribs in the 1960s while he was serving two tours on the 38th parallel in North Korea during the Vietnam War. He continued barbecuing upon his return to the United States while stationed in Virginia. His ribs modus operandi comes not from a family recipe, but instead "trial and error" over the years.
"You eat your mistakes," he said.
Willis eventually returned to Palo Alto and worked at Safeway for many years (where his ribs became locally famous) to support a growing family. He says he did catering for many local notables such as Condoleezza Rice and John Arrillaga.
After retiring from his job as meat manager at Safeway in April 2009, he headed back to Lozano's where he had gotten his first work experience, starting as an 11-year-old window washer and rising to general manager. This September, he will have been involved at the car wash in one form or another for 50 years. Willis also has a shoe-shining station at Lozano's, and claims to have shined the shoes of many Silicon Valley greats, including Steve Jobs.
Though other publications have reported various prices for a half ($11) or full rack ($20) of ribs, Willis said he's flexible on prices. If he caters a benefit or church event, he usually doesn't charge.
And even if it's too late to place a Memorial Day catering order, Willis said many customers swing by the car wash in the late afternoon to pick up some to-go barbecue for dinner. He's at Lozano's every day of the week except Monday from about 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
On a recent afternoon, a Palo Alto resident trying Willis' ribs for the first time launched into praise — in between bites. "This is tremendously good," Steve Tadelis said. "These are rare sights, especially in Palo Alto. We need more of these."
Another Harold's Ribs first-timer, Bryan Macquarrie, echoed Tadelis.
"There are couple of things I love about this. He's located at a car wash — you gotta give him credit for that," said Macquarrie, who recently moved to the Bay Area from Los Angeles and works in Palo Alto. "I came here for the ribs first, the car wash second."
Within minutes, Macquarrie walked away with a steaming brown paper bag, a smile on his face. "He got a half-rack," Willis said. "But he'll be back for more."
Info: Harold Willis and his ribs can be found at 2690 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View, Tuesday through Sunday from about 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. He can be reached at 408-691-0776.