With restaurants pouring big bucks into making their fancy digs seem downhome, Charles Smith’s recently opened Chuck’s Wagon BBQ is the real thing.
Relocated from its short-lived home on H Street NE, Chuck’s Wagon recently reincarnated in a white clapboard house on Main Street in Upper Marlboro.
Talk about a mom-and-pop operation. Owner Charles Smith smokes the meats while his wife, Stephanie, makes the sides, various sauces and some desserts. A cousin, Joy Boddie, makes the banana pudding, cupcakes and peach and apple cobblers. The Smiths’s daughter, Ashley, works the cash register.
Although the Wagon is primarily take-out, patrons can dine at plastic outdoor tables that resemble wrought iron or at one of the two high-tops inside. The Saturday afternoon I visited, Stephanie was prepping potato salad. “It’ll be ready in just a minute,” she says. “I am just in the middle of making it.”
Charles and Stephanie continue to work their full-time jobs, he at the Treasury Department and she at the Government Printing Office.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing. They relocated to Upper Marlboro following a dispute with the H Street property owner last November. They opened in Upper Marlboro in February.
Charles dry-rubs the meat 24 hours in advance of cooking it. His moist pork shoulder — chopped then sprinkled with a housemade vinegar-based sauce just before serving — is slow-cooked over applewood for about 12 hours. He babysits the brisket for the same length of time but uses pecan wood. His meaty ribs come unsauced, yet are slick with a sheen of melted sugar. The juicy, lightly smoked chicken is enlivened with a zippy rub.
The only item he sauces while cooking are his delectable rib tips, which come slathered in Stephanie’s well-balanced honey-and-brown-sugar sweetened and cayenne-spirited barbecue sauce. Otherwise, meats are served unsauced.
“We don’t sauce our meats because we don’t have anything to hide,” he says. “Sauce is a condiment. You don’t cook a hot dog with ketchup on it.”
The perfectly cooked, skin-on red-potato salad, a mayo-based side with chopped boiled eggs and diced celery, is flat-out great, as is the kernel-studded cornbread muffin baked with a honey-butter that they call “honey bees.”
Leave room for the delicious mini-sweet potato pie, which has a soft cakelike crust and/or a slice of the rich-yet-light pound cake.
Despite an aversion to sauce, Chuck’s Wagon makes a credible homemade ketchup-based mumbo sauce: a great insider’s touch.
The ‘CueHour: So what would PBS Newshour anchor, novelist and frequent presidential debate moderator Jim Lehrer choose as his last meal? Barbecue.
In its April issue, Texas Monthly asked famous Texans “what their last Texas meal would be.” Although Lehrer has lived in Washington for years and was born in Kansas, the magazine considers him one of the Lone Star State’s own apparently because he worked in Texas for a time. Whatever Lehrer’s geographic loyalty, his answer was, “A platter of barbecue beef ribs and sausage…”
He added beans, grits, beanless two-alarm chili, jalapeno cornbread, buttermilk biscuits, chile con queso and Fritos.
Yee-haw, and pass the Pepto-Bismol! (Well, not that one worries about an upset stomach during a last meal, but hey, you want to go out with some dignity!)