Smoke Signals: On the brink of a new barbecue era


Pork Barrel co-founders Heath Hall and Brett Thompson with trophies at the Safeway BBQ Battle. (Rex Hall)
August 23, 2011

Sometime late into the night before the judging at one of the country’s biggest barbecue competitions, Tuffy Stone of the Cool Smoke barbecue team snapped a picture of exhausted friend and rival Heath Hall, snoozing in a lawn chair. In short order, the photo appeared on Facebook.

“Tuffy caught us sleeping on the job,” said Hall’s team partner, Brett Thompson, laughing at Stone’s mischief. The respite was brief.

Hall and Thompson co-founded and captain the Washington-based team Pork Barrel BBQ. Like a lot of competitors at the National Capital Barbecue Battle, which shuts down blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue, the two men would rather sit all night by their smoker than catch comfortable z’s elsewhere.

That way, they can keep a watchful eye on what’s slow-roasting in their offset smoker. Competition meats explode with multiple layers of flavor. Contestants carefully build their sweet or spicy or smoky rubs and marinades. They inject the meats with apple juice or bourbon. They mist the meats every so often with a painstakingly developed concoction of spices and liquid. It’s all meant to wow the judges with a single, carefully balanced flavor explosion.

The next day, when the smoke cleared and the winners were announced, Pork Barrel’s nighttime vigil paid off. The team took first place, called grand champion, at the 19th annual event.

Not bad for a couple of guys who lost their jobs as U.S. Senate aides three years ago, then started a barbecue sauce company. The win automatically qualified the team to compete in two of the most prestigious events on the national barbecue circuit, but more than that, it reinforced the notion that Hall and Thompson are real barbecue contenders.

It comes as no surprise that the win also has bolstered keen interest in the partners’ much-delayed Pork Barrel BBQ restaurant, now set to open in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood in mid-September.

From the outside, the two-tone brick edifice is so sleek and broad-windowed, it could almost be mistaken for an Apple store. On the inside, things are just as chic and gleaming — unusual for a barbecue joint.

“We wanted it to stand out a little bit,” says co-owner Hall.

The restaurant stands out, all right. Not only for how it looks, but for what it represents: that most American of traditions, which is to say, the reinvention of tradition.

This particular reinvention began in the Russell Senate Office Building on a winter night in early 2006. Hall and Thompson, then both 31-year-old aides to Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), were in their office watching yet another debate on C-SPAN about pork-barrel spending and eating yet another late-night pizza. They reminisced about the slow-smoked meats of Missouri, where they both had lived. It occurred to them that “pork barrel” would make a good name for a barbecue business.

The idea languished until after Talent lost his 2006 re-election bid and Hall and Thompson landed new jobs. Hall, round-faced and talkative, went to work for the Heritage Foundation, where he serves these days as director of strategic operations. He lives in Northeast with his girlfriend and cooks dinner on most nights. He is the mastermind behind Pork Barrel’s recipes, having picked up barbecuing from his dad, a longtime barbecuer who sometimes helps out at competitions.

Thompson, affable with a laid-back sense of humor, joined Mercury Public Affairs, a political consulting and lobbying firm, where he is managing director of public affairs. He lives in Del Ray with his wife and young son and tends Pork Barrel’s business side, perhaps a natural fit for the son of a banker.

Together, Hall and Thompson constantly riff on new ideas. Not long ago, they came out with a barbecue cologne called Que, and they developed a line of barbecue peanuts with the specialty nut company Feridies.

In the spring of 2008, Hall and Thompson convened a group of friends they called their Kitchen Cabinet to test six spice rubs Hall had concocted. After some tinkering to create a mildly spicy version, the Pork Barrel BBQ All-American Spice Rub was born. They sold it in tins to relatives and friends around Christmastime. The blend has a distinctive smoky flavor from chipotle powder and a hint of dusky fruitiness from ancho chili powder. What it doesn’t contain is sugar or salt.

In May of the next year, Hall and Thompson entered the National Capital Barbecue Battle. Included in the entry fee was the opportunity to compete in the sauce category. “So we decided to make one,” Hall says. His tomato-based sauce, like the rub, was created with a palate geared toward city dwellers who might not have a smoker. He used purees of chipotle and ancho peppers instead.

Pork Barrel now produces three sauces (original, sweet, mustard) that are carried in 1,500 stores across 40 states, including Costco and Whole Foods Market. Two more sauces, a Carolina-style vinegar-based sauce and a spicy version of their original sauce, are planned to hit shelves this fall.

The sauces launched the remarkable success of Pork Barrel BBQ, which has ’cue hounds buzzing about the restaurant. Mike Anderson, 62, is the majority owner. A longtime restaurateur and owner of Mango Mike’s in Alexandria and Bethany Beach, he was working on opening a barbecue restaurant with his then-general manager and current partner Bill Blackburn, 33, when he heard about the Pork Barrel barbecue team and sauce company.

“I loved the name,” he said. “Just loved it. So I Googled them and contacted them the next day. They got back in touch immediately.”

They entered into a licensing agreement for the name and co-ownership.

It will have been two years in September since the owners broke ground. Neighborhood opposition to anticipated smoke emanating from the building caused a delay. Erecting an entirely new building on the location of a former Exxon gas station took more time than expected, as did creating three restaurants under one roof. In addition to Pork Barrel BBQ, there will be a sushi bar and an Asian-fusion eatery.

The restaurant’s menu is still being worked out. Hall says that its primary inspiration is Kansas City but that it will represent the four barbecue capitals: There’ll be a Texas-style beef sausage made to their specifications by a local company; Memphis-style (albeit cut St. Louis-style) dry ribs; North Carolina-style pulled pork; and, from time to time, Kansas City-style brisket and “burnt ends,” the juicy, crusty nuggets cut from a beef brisket’s perimeter. Chicken, the back-bench meat of barbecue everywhere, also will be offered.

Blackburn will be the pit boss day in and day out. Hall is collaborating on the recipes and will consult on the cooking. Side dishes are still being tweaked but might include potato salad, coleslaw, baked beans (possibly with burnt ends), black-eyed pea salad, corn pudding, and a mac ’n’ cheese with possibly a hint of chipotle.

The meats won’t be the stuff judges taste at competitions. Contest-style barbecue is labor-intensive and, many argue, too rich to enjoy over the course of a full meal. The meats, instead, will get a coating of olive oil and Pork Barrel’s All-American Spice Rub, with sauces served on the side.

The meats will be cooked not on a totally charcoal-and-wood smoker, as the Pork Barrel team uses in competition, but in a Southern Pride wood-burning oven; the wood, however, will be the same: hickory and oak.

At the grill, Hall, who is working with Blackburn on recipes, is like a mad scientist. While tinkering with smoked cocktails, he came up with a grilled lemonade sweetened with a rosemary -lemon simple syrup.

“You can make it lots of different ways,” Hall says. “Grill pineapple, then toss it in the food processor. Change the rosemary to mint or basil. . . . Be imaginative.”

He also likes making ratatouille on the grill and plans to serve a version as an entree as well as a side dish at the restaurant. Desserts “are a lot of fun,” Hall says. “The fire is dying by that point, and you can have your guests make their own.” His take on grilled peaches is topped with a mash of raspberry and mint; the fruit stays just warm enough to meld the whipped cream with the sprinkle of milk chocolate shavings on top.

“Barbecue is more than just the food,” Hall says. “It’s about community, about fellowship. We want Pork Barrel [restaurant] to be a gathering place for the neighborhood.”

And Pork Barrel’s neighborhood is ever-expanding. Hall and Thompson are working on a cookbook and an idea for six-packs of little barbecue sauces to tuck into a lunchbox. “Reward lives in the house of risk,” says Thompson, quoting the Pork Barrel motto. “We want to be barbecue innovators.”

As if to emphasize the point, Hall is already talking about serving prized Iberico pork shoulder and buffalo brisket on occasion.

Thompson is looking ahead as well. He says they’re already planning to open five Pork Barrel BBQ restaurants in the next two years.

“As much fun as we’re having,” Thompson says, “we’re doing this to build a national brand.”

RECIPES:

Grilled Peaches With Whipped Cream and Raspberry Mint Mash

All-American Spice Rub Grilled Vegetable Ratatouille

Grilled Rosemary Lemonade

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