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.