To Find Open-Pit Barbecue, Follow Your Nose

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 4, 2008

There just aren't many restaurateurs who voluntarily put a fiery open-pit grill in their kitchen, use smoke as advertising, navigate a slew of additional health and fire code regulations, then charge only a few bucks for masterpieces that take hours of sweat.

True open-pit barbecue is rare.

Now, we're not talking about tidy backyard brick kitchens and Fourth of July weenies. We're talking about a big hole dug in the ground, huge clouds of oak- or hickory-scented smoke, giant slabs of meat. We are talking caveman- and cowboy-style. Roadside joints with picnic tables.

We are talking about something so good it had to be regulated: fire rules, health rules, smoke rules and so on. First they chased it out of the holes and into brick pits with metal grates. Then many folks chucked it all, figuring open-pit was not worth the tedious flame tending, fire hazard, high insurance rates and neighbors whining about the smoke.

Yes, open-pit is pretty much cooked.

Except for a few tucked-away spots where quality barbecue is revered above local politics, where neighbors don't mind clouds of smoke and lines of cars.

In Fort Washington, minutes from the Capital Beltway in Prince George's County, smoke from the Smokeshack Ribs BBQ Restaurant drifts over a carwash and driving range, past the laundromat and gas station, and onto Indian Head Highway, luring motorists with its seductive scents.

Back in 1990, a few friends, some of them cousins, started selling barbecue on the side of the highway, right near the gas station. They became known for tender ribs that pull away from the bone but don't fall into your lap and vinegary North Carolina-style chopped pork.

They also became known for causing traffic backups and for clashing with neighbors who worried that their home values were being smoked away. Not to mention that health standards are hard to meet on a service road, said grill master Duwyne Proctor, 43.

Although the barbecuing friends were armed with adoring fans, the neighbors brought in the strength of county officials, and in 1999 the group moved into a carry-out restaurant on Livingston Road. In the kitchen, they constructed a brick pit with an overhead ventilation system to handle the smoke from the oak-fed fire. They added side dishes to the roadside meat lineup, such as gooey mac'n'cheese and peach cobbler.

The place is strictly no-frills -- not even picnic tables or public restrooms -- but on summer weekends the parking lot's dozen spots become gridlocked with two dozen cars.

"The barbecue is what made our name, so we wanted to keep the same method we used on the side of the highway," Proctor said. "We didn't want to deviate from that. This is the old-fashioned way, just like you would make it in your back yard."

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