WITH THE "ayes" of Texas clearly still upon Washington, it may be risky to bring up Texas-style barbecue -- or barbecue at all, as it's one of those foods that tend to polarize its fans by state, by sauce, by meat, by texture and even by wood chips. And all that's before you get to the ribs.
Besides, it's not as if this region were short on barbecue joints. Nearly a decade ago, I rolled my eyes at an acquaintance who said her brother was thinking of opening another one, and told her with great conviction that the market was saturated, the craze had peaked, and so on. (Of course, I said that about steakhouses, too.) Even so -- and even though it's only a "restaurant" by courtesy, being more a part-time carryout for an Internet-shipping and wholesale operation -- the counter stand at Texacan BBQ in Ashburn has a couple of notable virtues. For one thing, the meat is good, relatively lean and conveniently packaged (a rare and kindly thing in the barbecue world). It's fairly inexpensive, $8 or $9 a pound ready to serve. It's flavorful but not swaggering -- a unifier, so to speak, with a family-values style. And for another, Texacan is donating all the profits from both in-store and online retail sales through the end of February to tsunami relief. Ssssssmokin'!
The barbecue pork sandwich with beans and cole slaw at Texacan's carryout establishment in Ashburn.
(Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
Texacan Beef & Pork Co., to be formal about it, is a far cry from most of those other barbecue kitchens. It isn't into decor or swing music or smoke-blackened barrels; the phrase "Texacan ambiance" is an oxymoron, unless you're fascinated by stainless steel. And the fact that it's located in a light-industrial warehouse complex just across from the huge MCI campus, nearly invisible in a strip of identical storefronts, is a little strange in itself. But that's one of Texacan's selling points: its attention to hygiene, frequent USDA inspections and its state-of-the-art oven, which smokes more than 3,000 pounds of meat a day for up to 16 hours over Georgia pecan wood. The oven gets steam-cleaned in between rounds, and the meats, unless you're carrying out at lunchtime, are vacuum-sealed in one- or five-pound bags. A couple of minutes in the microwave and you're good to go.
And it's good to go, too, surprisingly so, although it will not erase memories of pulling pork belly by hand if you're a serious addict. The beef and pork and the baby back ribs are dry-rubbed and marinated before smoking and occasionally basted during cooking, but they are neither drippy nor gritty. Despite the names (beef brisket with Cussin' Diablo Sauce or pulled pork with Swearin' BBQ Sauce), the prepared meats are only mildly hot, but they are tangy and not too sweet. Besides, the counter has several bottles of pepper sauce for upgrading, or you can buy the house sauces bottled.
The texture of the meat is fairly uniform, which is also good for those with kids, perhaps, and easy to deal with as sandwiches, but again, some may miss the chunkiness of pit barbecue. The chicken seems the sweetest, though even then in a reasonable fashion. It's even fairly low-fat.
(Another advantage to the vacuum carryout packs: They have nutritional information and even ingredients. Among the sweets: brown sugar, corn syrup and molasses; among the tangs: vinegar, cayenne, paprika, cumin, dry mustard, and white and black peppers. Get into the parenthetical breakdowns and you'll discover that Worcestershire sauce has anchovies and steak sauce has raisin paste. Who knew?)
If you get to Texacan before 3:30, the meats are hot and come out in four-ounce ladles on "rustic buns" that are not all that countrified, but definitely a step up from hamburger softies. The lunch special is a hot deal: three baby back ribs, your choice of sandwich and beans or slaw, and a soft drink for $6. The high-end ticket is the full rack of ribs at $17.
And one last bit of generosity: Texacan's eponymous Web site has recipe ideas, including spring rolls with pulled pork, chorizo cassoulet and a pretty intriguing-sounding adobo. Who said Texans never travel?
The closing of Gaithersburg's longtime family favorite, Bare Bones, grieved many, but they rarely regretted the gloomy rooms and worn-looking booths. The restaurant's reopening at the Hampton Inn in Germantown (first as Best Bones and now under its old moniker) has definitely solved the gloom and wear problems, but it has to be said that the volume level from the numerous ceiling-mounted televisions is somewhat daunting. There appears to be only one little alcove of maybe three tables where you wouldn't have to see fourth and goal.
Nevertheless, Bare Bones is clearly putting the BB in BBQ for a lot of family groups, in a seriously hearty way. Ribs come in three flavors -- baby back, St. Louis-style spare ribs and Texas beef ribs, prime rib trimmings the size of hatchet handles -- as well as pulled pork, quartered chickens and various combinations thereof. The ribs can be fatty, especially the Texans, but you know what prime ribs look like (and for those who prefer beef to pork, these are identifiably bovine). The spare ribs, for those who like that underrated treat, are equally rich but have more flavor. The chicken is pretty moist, despite the drying effect that smoking inevitably has.
Although the barbecue entrees are obviously the most popular, Bare Bones has a longish list of alternatives: chicken or beef chili, chili-stuffed potato skins, nachos, grilled or teriyaki chicken breast (the teriyaki version has Cajun spices for some reason), skewered shrimp, rib-eye and strip, and trout, plus a half-dozen salads.
A personal Post Script: It's nice thing to see so many Washington area restaurants pitching in for tsunami relief. Guess the stomach really is the way to the heart.