Chuck's Wagon BBQ

Barbecue
$$$$ ($14 and under)
Chuck's Wagon BBQ photo
Mark Gail/The Washington Post
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Editorial Review

As more people migrate to the slowly percolating Atlas District for its burgeoning bar scene and still-reasonable rents, Charles Smith hopes his pulled pork, ribs, brisket and chicken will give them further reason to come.

He owns the newly opened Chuck's Wagon BBQ on H Street NE, and his meats are all dry-rubbed 24 hours before he smokes them. The smell alone will lure you in.

Smith is one friendly guy, but don't even try to ask about his recipes, which he holds close. He and his wife, Stephanie, both born and raised in Maryland by mothers who encouraged them to cook, were known among their friends for their barbecue and were often told they should start a catering business. They did so in 2005 in their home town of Bowie, still maintaining their full-time jobs at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving and at the Goverment Printing Office, respectively.

Smith found the H Street location through a friend. For the first few weeks, it was open on Fridays and Saturdays only, but now it runs six days a week, with plans to let the neighborhood rhythm ultimately dictate the hours.

Lunch is definitely on, and that is a good time to order the pulled pork, either as a sandwich with coleslaw ($6) or by the pound ($11). The meat is full of intense flavor and not fatty. Ditto for the chopped brisket ($7 as a sandwich; $9 as a dinner with two sides; $14 per pound), which is slightly drier than the pork.

Even the breast on the smoked chicken is moist, but we preferred the legs and thighs for their richness ($6 as a sandwich; $8 as a two-piece dinner with two sides; $10 for a whole bird).

The mantra here is "we don't sauce our ribs, because we don't have anything to hide." And those ribs are good, if a little sparse on the meat ($8 as a dinner with two sides; $19 for a full rack). As for the accompanying sauce, we appreciated the not-too-sweet, straightforward barbecue and wished we had also tried the North Carolina-style and spicy variations.

Our favorite sides were the creamy, crisp-edged macaroni and cheese and the collard greens flavored with smoked turkey instead of ham hock. The potato salad tasted pleasantly of vinegar, and the spuds were soft yet not mushy (each side is $2 for eight ounces; $4 per pound).

Smith's cousin, Joy Boddie, makes the sweets. We gobbled up her chewy oatmeal raisin cookies ($2 each), which were the only desserts available on our visit. Other popular treats in her rotation: red velvet cupcakes ($3 each) and pound cake ($2 per slice).

Also on offer are chili ($5 for eight ounces) and Honeybees: individual loaf-shaped pieces of kernel-studded corn bread baked with honey butter (two pieces come with one bowl of chili; extras cost 50 cents apiece). We came on an off-day for those items, too. But when Smith enticingly declared, "I believe we have the best chili in Washington!," we were wholly persuaded to return.

-Catherine Zuckerman (Good to Go, Nov. 10, 2010)