The smoke has cleared over Pennsylvania Avenue NW from the Washington barbecue event of the year, last weekend’s 19th annual Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle, and the results were punctuated with both an exclamation and a question mark.
The exclamation is the victory by Alexandria’s Pork Barrel BBQ team, which was crowned the grand champion. The triumph caps a remarkable rise by the team, captained by two former Senate staffers, Heath Hall and Brett Thompson, who entered their first barbecue competition just two years ago — at the Safeway battle, no less.
“To win here in our home after starting here, it’s just beyond words,” Hall said.
The victory further heightens the already sky-high interest in the brick-and-mortar Pork Barrel BBQ restaurant, slated to open later this summer in Del Ray. It also marks yet another major milestone for a company that already has its spice rubs and sauces in stores from coast to coast and has, just a few weeks ago, released a tongue-in-check, barbecue-scented cologne. With more plans in the works, the guys are living the old Timbuk3 song — the future’s so bright, they gotta wear shades.
Just as important, winning establishes Pork Barrel as a clear leader among its Washington-area restaurant rivals. Out of 41 teams, Old Glory Bar-B-Que placed 29th overall, and Hill Country came in 35th (though, it should be noted, Hill Country did not enter the pork category, meaning it scored zero for that category). The food truck BBQ Bus placed 40th but did not enter two of the four categories and was plagued by a timing foul-up that prevented it from getting its brisket on the smoker until hours later than needed; the Bus did place a respectable 5th in the sauce category.
The battle has so many awards, it’s hard to keep track of them all. The most significant contests are those counted by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, which provides official rules and judges for the event. Winners in the KCBS-related categories were Pork Barrel for chicken; Yorktown, Va.’s Serial Griller for pork ribs; Brimfield, Ill.’s Bar-B-Quau for pork; and Richmond’s Cool Smoke for brisket. For complete results, go the Safeway battle Web site.
The question emerging from the contest runs along Smoke Signals’s favorite lines, which is to say, speculative.
With Pork Barrel taking first and a New Jersey team, Jacked Up BBQ, placing second overall in an event historically dominated by established teams, such as celebrity smokeman Myron Mixon’s Jack’s Old South, which placed fourth, could we be seeing a changing of the guard? It’s too early to make that prediction, but it’s nonetheless intriguing that Mixon, the self-described “winningest man in barbecue,” star of TV shows, cookbook author and winner of past Safeway battles, came up short this year.
Maybe it says less about a new guard than it does about Mixon’s barbecue empire, with its many responsibilities, forcing him to take his eye off the smoker. Or maybe it’s just an anomaly. Again, it is but one contest. Still…
Another notch on Myron’s tongs. Can Washington handle yet another high-dollar barbecue restaurant? Mixon thinks so. He told Smoke Signals that he’s scouting a location in the District. “I’d like to be near Art and Soul,” he said, referring to the Southern-themed restaurant run by fellow “BBQ Pitmasters” judge Art Smith.
Goin’ back to Memphis? Battle spokesperson Suzanne Tubis told Smoke Signals that, although a final decision hasn’t been made, the Memphis in May barbecue contest rules will likely be back next year.
In past years, the battle included both Kansas City Barbeque Society and MIM-style contests, making it a unique event. The primary difference? Memphis in May has on-site judging, which results in lots of drama and team flamboyance. KCBS relies totally on blind judging.
This year, the battle did away with MIM-style rules. Smoke Signals heard some grumbling from teams about the decision. Is that the reason the battle is reconsidering MIM’s participation? “Memphis in May just adds a lot of excitement,” Tubis says.
The Fourth and ‘cue. Smoke Signals asked some of the battle’s pros what they do on the Fourth of July, the day with the highest number of cookouts.
* Myron Mixon: “I’ll be at Lake Placid for a contest and book signing for my new cookbook ‘Smokin with Myron Mixon’ for the Fourth of July.”
* Carolyn Wells, co-founder of the Kansas City Barbeque Society: “Going to my in-laws. They’ll treat me to barbecue. My guess, it will be barbecue ribs and grilled salmon. I know, grilled, not barbecue. But we are open to all the fiery arts.”
* Jim Foss, Hill Country’s director of operations: “I’ll probably go out to eat with my wife. Probably get Asian or Italian.”
* Mike Wozniak, captain of Bar-B-Quau, a perennial top barbecue team: “I guarantee it will not be barbecue. Pizza? Chicken? Fried. Something like that. ABB. Anything but barbecue.”
* Doug Halo, co-coordinator of the Safeway battle: “I’m going to prop my feet up and drink beer.”
Red, white and blue (tamales) for the Fourth. Want to add a touch of patriotic colors to your Fourth of July picnic table? Check out Arizona’s Tucson Tamale Company, which makes big, fat tamales made from smoked pork in red-pepper masa (red), smoked chicken in white-corn masa (white) and cheese in blue-corn (need I say?) tamales.
They come three to a package and are somewhere between the slender Texas tamale and the ginormous Salvadoran version. It’s not too late to order and have them shipped to you by the big day.