A shiny spin on down-home barbecue
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012
Where other barbecue spots might try to distinguish themselves with proprietary rubs or mile-long beer lists, the new Pork Barrel BBQ is taking a different tack.
"We wanted to be a little more cosmopolitan than the traditional barbecue joints," says Bill Blackburn, a co-owner of the tidy, window-wrapped restaurant in the Del Ray section of Alexandria. Hence the full-service soapstone bar, flanked by a stack of wood that is ornamental rather than a source of fuel, and a roster of 20 sodas that celebrates the "old" and the "weird," as the restaurateur puts it. The drinks, kept cool in ice troughs next to the booth-filled dining area, include such regional treasures as Moxie, a cola from New England; Dang!, a root beer from Milwaukee; and Big Red, the popular cream soda chaser for barbecue in Texas.
Customers place their orders at a counter in the rear and wait for their meals to be assembled on big sheet pans lined with butcher paper. The meat - pulled pork, brisket, beef sausage and more - emerges from a Southern Pride smoker that relies on a combination of oak, hickory and gas.
The sides, including baked beans, cucumber salad and collard greens, evolved from recipes tweaked by chef Will Artley, late of the nearby Evening Star Cafe. The sauces originated from local barbecue mavens Heath Hall and Brett Thompson, former U.S. Senate staffers and co-owners of Pork Barrel BBQ along with Mike Anderson of Mango Mike's, also in Alexandria.
Go for the St. Louis pork ribs, admirable for their well-seasoned meat that falls off the bone at the touch of your teeth. The slab is best eaten in the company of the terrific coleslaw, punched up with bell pepper, and creamy macaroni and cheese that comes with a kick from chipotle and jalapeno.
Other meats have been less consistent, particularly the arid brisket that goes down like over-cooked roast beef and needs a flavor infusion from one of the squirt bottles on the table. Make mine the zesty, root beer-colored "original" sauce. An unfortunate sweetness accompanies both the collard greens and soupy baked beans.
My preferred roost here is the big communal table made from reclaimed maple, which Blackburn says has received "more comments than anything in the restaurant."
Having eaten here twice, I can taste why.