A Perfect Pigout
The pulled pork takes the prize at a Chantilly barbecue joint
By Candy Sagon
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, July 29, 2007
** (out of four)
It's lunchtime at Willard's Real Pit BBQ in Chantilly, and the place is wall-to-wall men. Men in polos and khakis. Men in tees and jeans. Men wearing shirts with their names stitched over the pocket. I spot one guy in Army fatigues and another in an Air Force uniform. About the only thing I don't see is a tie. Oh wait, three guys in ties just walked in. Never mind.
This homey, busy, noisy restaurant, which can seat about 50 people, anchors the corner of a strip shopping center near the Dulles Expo Center. It does a slamming lunch business and tons of catering. Dinner is about the only time you can actually hear the country music playing over the speakers, because not every table and counter seat is filled with men (okay, a few women, too) talking as they tackle a plate of one of the restaurant's four styles of barbecue.
Owner Chris Janowski opened Willard's four years ago, after moving here from Boston, where he ran two barbecue joints with his brother. He named his place after the street that runs in front of the restaurant, but customers kept asking him, "Who's Mr. Willard?" Now there's a framed photo of the fictional Mr. Willard on the wall near the counter; it's a flea market find that makes patrons happy, says Janowski.
The photo is not the only thing that gives the restaurant character. One wall is painted as a giant American flag and hung with large, iconic photos of '40s-era barbecues: a kid spitting watermelon seeds; men tending a huge pit; a group gathered at a long picnic table. A buff-colored wall above the front door is painted with the names and locations of the country's most renowned barbecue joints, including Rosedale in Kansas City, Kan.; Pierce's Pitt near Williamsburg, Va.; and Louie Mueller in Taylor, Tex. (If there was any doubt about which state is the barbecue capital of the United States, it's Texas, with by far the most eateries on the wall.)
Willard's has a surprisingly big menu: It takes six blackboards to list everything, from the sandwich combos and platters, to the daily specials, to the desserts. You line up, give your order to the cashier, then wait for your number to be called. Groups sit in booths at pale green or red Formica-topped tables; singles sit at one of the 11 stools at the counter facing the front windows.
Barbecue is a contentious subject, especially when it comes to which region's is best. Willard's offers Texas, North Carolina, Kansas City and St. Louis styles. To simplify things, the differences can be explained like this: If it moos, it's Texas. If it oinks, it's North Carolina. For Kansas City, "if it moves, we cook it," the executive director of the Kansas City Barbeque Society once explained. St. Louis-style is synonymous with a particular cut of pork spareribs. Willard's also serves Jamaican jerk chicken -- not strictly barbecue, although it is grilled.
So which style does Willard's do best? Oink is tops, then cluck. Moo -- not so hot. Despite the prevalence of Texas on the barbecue wall of honor, Texas brisket here fails to reach the level of the real thing I used to eat when I lived there. I gave it four tries -- twice at dinner, twice at lunch -- and only once would I deem it pretty good. Too often, the beef didn't have the tender, smoky quality of top-flight 'cue. Twice, it was too dry. Once, it was tough. Yes, you can douse it with sauce to obscure these failings, but true barbecue is all about the meat, not the condiment.
Given the just-okay quality of the brisket, it's not surprising that the Kansas City burnt ends were a big "eh" as well. Some people love these dark, crusty bits of beef for their chewy, intensely smoky flavor, but these dry ends had too much chew and not enough smoke and seasoning.
What did blow my socks off was the North Carolina pulled pork -- a perfect marriage of smoke with a subtle tang from a vinegar-based North Carolina barbecue sauce. Janowski used to live in North Carolina, and it shows. You can get the pulled pork in a sandwich, with slaw and baked beans on the side; as a platter with a thick chunk of sweet cornbread and two sides of your choice; in an overstuffed burrito the size of a Prius; or by the pint or quart. It's all good.
In fact, if you stay with the pig at Willard's, you won't be disappointed. The St. Louis ribs were also meaty and tender, although I would have liked a spice rub with a little more zip.
If pork's not your thing, chicken here fares almost as well. The pulled chicken, mixed with the house's sweet, red barbecue sauce, makes a great sandwich. But I also saw one man order it on top of a green salad, then proceed to douse the entire dish with the restaurant's mustard-based gold sauce, the barbecue sauce of choice in South Carolina. The Jamaican jerk chicken, on the other hand, needs no sauce to spice it up -- it's fiery hot, moist, tender and terrific. A jerk chicken half is always on the menu, but even better is the jerk chicken sandwich with curried mayo that frequently shows up among the daily specials.
Side dishes include the usual Southern retinue -- baked beans, slaw, potato salad, collards, green beans, mashed potatoes, plus a Willard's concoction called "black-eyed corn," a combo of black-eyed peas and corn. My favorites are the mashed potatoes (chunky and buttery) and the peppery collard greens made with bits of pork. The slaw and potato salad would do any picnic proud, but the baked beans were blah. "Like they came out of a can," one of my companions said, as he added some hot sauce.
Desserts also need work. There are always a couple of cobblers of the day, as well as a selection of pies. I had a delicious peach cobbler one day -- sweet biscuit topping and fresh-tasting peaches -- but the blueberry cobbler at another lunch came stone-cold from the refrigerator and tasted a bit old. The creamy, mild Key lime pie was fine, but the peanut butter pie we tried at dinner had such a strong off-flavor that no one in the group could be persuaded to take even a tiny second bite. In general, I found the food at lunch was fresher; by dinnertime, things tasted a little dry and tired.
The key to Willard's, I've decided, is twofold: Be ready to pig out -- literally and figuratively, because the pig is best and the portions are big. Also, if you can, go at lunch when the place is hopping and the food is freshest. "Mr. Willard," I'm sure, would agree.