Savoring the American Dream
Saturday, July 8, 2006
Just before 1 p.m. on a recent weekday, 17 people were standing in line at Bubba's Bar-B-Q in Falls Church waiting for their turn to stand under the "Please Order Here" sign and declare their barbecue wants and desires.
Stuffed potato with pulled pork was the No. 1 special on the board, which listed a couple of other features, including an Atkins diet special: pulled pork and either collard greens or green beans (no bread!).
Bubba was behind the counter. "Hello, young man, how are you. What can I get you?" he asked.
"Pulled pork," Bubba and the customer said at the same time.
"How did I know that?" Bubba said. "I must have ESPN." His customers laughed as if they were hearing the joke for the first time, which the regulars certainly were not. Bubba has a shtick to go with his Tennessee-style barbecue. He patted the counter. "This is my stage," he said. "I feel like Jerry Seinfeld."
Bubba, though, has little in common with Seinfeld. He is Hassan Khalili, 58, and was born in Iran. He served for four years as a lieutenant in the Iranian Air Force, where he first got the nickname Bubba as a term of endearment (the word for "father" is "baba" in Farsi).
He moved to the United States in 1970 after leaving the Air Force and attended the University of Tennessee, where he worked in an off-campus hole-in-the-wall restaurant and learned the fine art of barbecue. He never got his master's degree and never became a teacher, as he had planned to do when he came to the United States. Instead, he went into the restaurant business, first with a snack bar in downtown Washington. Later, he and his brother opened a few other restaurants, including a smorgasbord eatery in Alexandria and a supper club with a house band in Tysons Corner.
Some of his restaurants were successful, and a few lost him a bundle.
In 1996, he bought Bubba's with his business partner, Joyce Hoffman, who is at the counter most days and often shoos Khalili away to cut down on the jokes and get the line moving. It may taste like your grandma's barbecue, but this ain't the South. It's Northern Virginia, where strip malls dominate the Main Street-less landscape and diversity means an Iranian serves the pulled-pork-and-slaw sandwiches with a side of one-liners.
Bubba's Bar-B-Q is in an L-shaped shopping center on Lee Highway along with a store called 7-Market -- which is like a 7-Eleven, only it's not -- a dry cleaner, a pizza joint with kabob as one of its specialties, a crab house, a hair salon, Myanmar Restaurant (which serves Burmese cuisine) and a video rental store.
Bubba's is full of pigs. Stuffed pigs, bronze pigs, ceramic pigs, pigs with signs such as "Bubba on Board," talking pigs, dancing pigs. Pigs, pigs, pigs, all around the restaurant, 813 when last counted, which was Jan. 1, but a few more have come in since then. Khalili has bought only one, a weather vane pig. His wife gave him a bronze one for his birthday, and the rest have come from customers.
Each time one was brought in, Khalili logged it into a notebook with a description of the pig and the name, address and phone number of the donor.