People stand on the southwest corner of North Capitol Street and Florida Avenue NW almost any time of day, waiting for a bus or just killing time outside Walter Johnson Liquors, a package store with a “no loitering” sign in the front window.
Odds are good someone here will hit you up for a handout as you wander over to DCity Smokehouse, a door down from the bustling intersection. You might think about making a donation and consider it the price you pay to gain access to the District’s best barbecue joint.
Words like “best” don’t roll off my tongue easily, particularly when it concerns barbecue, which ranks among the most difficult cuisines to master in the city. Many urban operations employ set-’em-and-forget-’em smokers, designed to minimize the vagaries of wood-burning pits by relying on backup heat sources, such as gas or electric, to maintain consistent cooking temperatures. Other joints take a conservative approach to restocking the smoker, preferring to hold previously smoked meats for hours, the briskets and ribs losing moisture and texture with each passing minute.
DCity’s pitmaster and co-owner, Robert Sonderman, practically takes a made-to- order approach to barbecue at his tiny, wood-heavy treehouse of a place: His smokers are running 24/7, an endless procession of meats timed to match customer demand. He doesn’t always hit it, but the pitmaster aims to have every slice of brisket, every pork spare rib and every chicken drumette (whatever you do, don’t overlook his sweet-and-spicy pit wings) on the plate within an hour after its long, smoldering stay in the smoker.
Those who have carved brisket straight off the smoker understand the importance of freshness; the beef, smoked low-and-slow for hours, begins to lose moisture the moment you slide a knife against its grain. When I popped open the to-go box for my Smokehouse Meat Platter, the first thing I spotted was the lip-smacking succulence of the brisket, each glistening slice outlined in a bark formed by this slow melding of fat, smoke, salt, pepper, garlic powder and chipotle powder. The meaty ribbons, a thin layer of fat still clinging to each, expanded and contracted like an accordion, a sure sign of freshness. This was master’s level brisket.
The platter’s spare ribs looked lacquered, a shimmer no doubt due to the brown sugar that Sonderman includes in his rub, and yet they were not sweet. The bones were saturated with smoke, which tickled my nostrils with the acrid, caramelized aromas of hickory and cherry wood. Like the brisket, the ribs required no sauce, and I’d argue they’d lose their essential, economical flavor profile with an application of Sonderman’s otherwise excellent house-made sauce, at once peppery and tangy.
This sauceless orthodoxy might lead you to believe that Sonderman bows before the altar of Lone Star barbecue, a perspective seemingly confirmed by this District native’s previous gig as pitmaster at Hill Country in Penn Quarter. What’s more, the chef received early exposure to the smokehouses of central Texas, courtesy of his mother, Debra, a native of Galveston. Yet Sonderman takes a more ecumenical approach to smoked meats, and I suspect that’s because he is, at heart, a chef, not a pitmaster. He’s a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, with stints at such well-heeled establishments as Bistro Bis and Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Mass.
The evidence of Sonderman’s open-minded approach can be found all over his menu of sandwiches, sides and specials. Start with his chopped pork sandwich, an east Carolina staple that Sonderman has re-engineered to bring the vinegar and black pepper into better balance. The dense tangle of smoky shoulder meat is more pulled than chopped, and it’s topped with a small scoop of red chili cole slaw that never threatens to overwhelm the pork with a pucker-inducing amount of vinegar. Likewise, the sliced brisket sandwich on Texas toast offers a clever variation on the Lone Star classic: Sonderman replaces the standard slices of raw onion with crispy fried ringlets, which elevate the richness while still providing crunch.
From here, Sonderman lets his imagination run free, piling up influences near (a half-smoke covered with brisket chili, which doesn’t fight for attention as much as that thin, tongue-scorching topping at Ben’s Chili Bowl) and far (an elegant Mexican chicken torta, its chipotle aioli balanced by cinnamon and cilantro). Sonderman’s most discussed creation is actually a collaboration with sous chef Shawn McWhirter: a fat-tastic sandwich on Texas toast called the Meaty Palmer, in which smoked turkey gets flavor bombed with slabs of pork belly, smashed avocado and jalapeno aioli. Part of the Palmer’s charm? You can tell everyone you had turkey for lunch.
Sonderman even tries to inject energy into tired smokehouse sides — with mixed results. He prepares his spicy collards so they combine heat with a pleasing toothsomeness. His green chile cheddar grits, by contrast, arrive soupy and swimming in cracked black pepper (at least mine did), and I would have preferred more acid to elevate his eggy, skin-on new potato salad. His most daring addition to the pantheon of pit-barbecue sides, however, is his fried Brussels sprouts, a collection of shaved and spiced leaves that wouldn’t feel out of place at a trendy small-plates emporium. As a stand-alone item, I love the Brussels sprouts; with Sonderman’s barbecue, I find them too much, piling on fat when I’m craving acidity.
If Sonderman’s sides require additional tinkering to match his superior barbecue, so be it. It just gives me more reason to return to this congested corner. I’m already saving my small change to pass out on future trips.
8 Florida Ave. NW.
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday noon to 9 p.m.; Sunday noon to 6 p.m.
Nearest Metro: NoMa-Gallaudet, with a 0.5-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Sandwiches and combos, $7-$27.