Zora Margolis, 63, on crutches from knee surgery, hesitated as she approached the slippery film of grease on the floor around the smoker at Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Company. After a prolonged pause, she hoisted herself up, set the crutches a few inches ahead and soldiered on.
The first-place winner in May’s inaugural Smoke Signals Barbecue Sauce Recipe Contest, Margolis is an accomplished home cook and avid barbecuer. At her Palisades home, she has three Weber kettle grills and a Hasty-Bake, a top-notch smoker/grill.
A possible slip and fall was not going to deter her from experiencing the behind-the-scenes tour of three barbecue restaurants, a prize awarded the contest’s top two winners. “I loved getting the backstage view,” Margolis said later. “It was so much fun going to these different places. Tasting their food. Seeing how they do things.”
The second-place winner, Keith Williams, of Hollywood, Md., was unable to join us, so Smoke Signals invited the third-place winner, native Washingtonian C’pher Gresham, 24, who lives in the Meridian Hill neighborhood. Though a relative barbecue newbie, Gresham has caught the bug. He uses a 22-inch Weber kettle and is saving up from his job as a non-profit fundraiser to buy an offset smoker.
We began at 11 a.m. at Rocklands in Arlington, one of the local chainette’s four outlets. With its blackboard menu of colored chalk, indoor picnic tables and back patio, Rocklands has an easygoing, comfortable vibe. Owner John Snedden, who opened the first Rocklands 20 years ago, laid out a groaning board of spare ribs, baby back ribs, brisket, sausage, pork shoulder, lamb and too many sides to name.
Perhaps the hit of the visit was the smoker. Designed by Snedden, it is a big boxy thing fueled solely by wood — a cord a week at this store alone. Snedden opened its doors wide to reveal shelves of slow-smoking meats.
The tour continued with a sneak preview of the much-anticipated Pork Barrel BBQ in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood. Margolis again had to tread gingerly, this time around electrical cords and a puddle of construction-related water. Margolis and Gresham wore hard hats while getting their peek at the 3-in-1 restaurant concept; the barbecue joint flows into a sushi bar and an Asian eatery, both also under construction.
We hung around a communal table near the wall of front windows and tried to imagine the space when it’s completed. Imported Brazilian sandstone will cover the 40-foot long bar. The floor will be dark stained-and-polished concrete. Soft pendant lighting will hang from the 12-foot midnight-blue ceiling. Not exactly your grandfather’s barbecue joint. Co-owner Mike Anderson assured us that the much-delayed restaurant would open by late August.
Because its giant gas-fired, wood-enhanced Southern Pride smoker is not running, Pork Barrel laid out a spread of spice-rubbed St. Louis-cut ribs and brisket cooked in the same all-wood Lang smoker used in contests. The meats were accompanied by corn pudding and followed by bread pudding.
Our final stop was Hill Country Barbecue Market in Penn Quarter. Operations manager Jim Foss led us on a tour of the restaurant’s three gargantuan gas-fired, Texas post oak-fed Ole Hickory ovens, autographed by the likes of chef Jose Andres, food writer John T. Edge and Albert Haynesworth (Albert Haynesworth?).
With communal wood tables and walls carefully designed to look weathered, the Washington restaurant is the only other outlet of the New York-based, Texas-themed enterprise. Foss served up thick slices of well-marbled brisket from the fatty end, pork spare ribs, beef ribs, sausages from Texas and a veritable mezze of sides. He ended our afternoon with the sweet torture of several desserts, including blackberry-cobbler Blue Bell ice cream from Texas.
Taken together, the three restaurants provided an overview of the growing D.C. barbecue scene. It retains the casualness of homegrown Rocklands, while expanding into the studied nostalgia and regionalism of Hill Country and the ultra-modern, post-competition world of Pork Barrel. And there are more barbecue restaurants on the way, making the once-ludicrous idea of a D.C.-barbecue tour something to take at least semi-seriously.
Got a favorite item at a barbecue restaurant? Or a barbecue tour of your own to suggest? Tell me about it in the comments section or e-mail me directly.
Send tips, information, opinions to Smoke Signals at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jimshahin.