Sometime around 9:30 in the morning on Thursday, Dave Rohlfs, assistant manager at Texas Ribs and BBQ in Clinton, noticed that the parking lot behind the restaurant was “filling up with suits and black SUVs.”
“Every once in awhile, one of them would come and ask to use the restroom,” Dave’s brother and general manager Mark Rohlfs recalls. “We’d ask what was going on. At first, they said they were doing a survey. Later on they said, ‘Someone very important will be coming to visit you.’”
Around 11:15, a waitress told Mark that the Secret Service wanted to talk to him. He went to the lobby. “I talked to somebody from the White House, and there was a Secret Service man standing with him, who said, ‘The president of the United States would like to have lunch here if that’s okay.’ I said, ‘That’s fine with me.’ About 10 or 15 minutes later, I was standing at the door and up drives The Beast, the presidential limo.”
Obama bounded out of the car, jacketless, white sleeves rolled up, tie loosened. “What’s up?” Mark remembers Obama saying. “Where can I order some ribs?”
Mark pauses. “It was like a dream,” he says. “It just didn’t seem real.”
POTUS ordered two racks of baby back ribs, which came with sides of beans, coleslaw and Texas toast. “Hot sauce,” Obama added. “Gotta be hot.”
Then he plunged into schmoozing, stopping at each table to shake hands and chat. At every table, he introduced Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who accompanied the president. Cardin, who ordered a smoked brisket sandwich, looked out of place in his suit and tie and stiff politician’s grin, like a little brother watching his charismatic sibling working a party.
Owner Danny Sager, who is opening a second Texas Ribs and BBQ in La Plata, had just returned from Florida and happened by the eatery. His wife, still in Florida, called. “She was on the phone about our credit card and asked the representative where she was located,” Sager says. “‘India,’ the woman said. ‘By the way, I see the president is in your restaurant now.’ And my wife called me, just whoopin’ and hollerin’.”
Texas Ribs and BBQ is a casual joint that opened in 1997. Its knotted pine walls are decorated with Texas longhorn cattle horns and framed photos of military planes. It is located fairly close to Andrews Air Force Base, which may have played a part in the president’s choice.
“We get a lot of activity from Andrews,” Mark Rohlfs says. “ATF. Air Force One. Secret Service. Helicopter pilots. They all eat here. They may have passed on the word about us. I asked the Secret Service the direct question. I got an answer of a head shaking back and forth. But I assume being so close to Andrews has something to do with it.”
Smoke Signals agrees. For all of his local restaurant grazing, Obama had yet to visit an area barbecue house. Of all the places he could have picked, it is interesting that he chose Texas Ribs and BBQ. The choice handed the president a political two-fer.
On the one hand, he played to his base. Blacks, who voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008, comprise 80 percent of the population of Clinton, a hard-scrabble town a few miles southeast of Washington. On the other, he reached out to a more Republican-leaning constituency, the military.
On March 6, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum ate at Corky’s Ribs & BBQ in Memphis. He won the Tennessee primary held the same day. On Monday, March 12, he ate at the original Dreamland BBQ in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The next day, he pulled off a surprise victory in Alabama’s primary.
Nobody is saying that if you eat at a local barbecue joint, you’ll win an election, and Maryland is a Democratic state that went handily for Obama in 2008. But if you’re looking for a photo op, there are few places better than at a joint that serves the people’s food.
Heaven knows, the price is right. Obama’s tab — $50.83. He left a hefty tip.
The restaurant kept the receipt and plans to display it, but the cashier who took Obama’s order, Judy Joseph, knew the total without looking. “I’ve been playing those numbers on Keno, hoping they hit.”
Shahin on the “radio”. I’ll be discussing the state and future of barbecue, from about 9:15 to 9:30 p.m. today, on the Barbecue Central BBQ Show, an Internet radio program. You can catch the live stream at OutdoorCookingChannel.com.