Watch out, Texas and Tennessee. There's another entrant in the barbecue hall of fame that could give your ribs a rival. Maryland. Yes, Maryland.

Charles County, Md., that is, the land of the open-pit grill, the smoke-filled back room and the best barbecue this side of the Potomac.

Located on the southern edge of the state, Charles County is a slab of land populated by tobacco farms, shopping centers and gas stations. But wedged in between are the rib shacks, ramshackle joints that are the pit stops for locals, race track regulars and fishermen, or the folks just passing through.

What differentiates the kitchens of these barbecue restaurants from those in the metropolitan area are the open-pit grills. The floors of these grills are concrete, the walls are built with fire brick, and an elevated grate is placed over an open fire of oak or hickory wood. The grill takes up most of the kitchen space, and an exhaust fan above it releases aromatic puffs of smoke -- a powerful lure for those in passing cars.

Essentially, though, open-pit cooking is a controlled fire within a building, said Chuck Doucette, who helps his wife Sally run Dutch's barbecue on Route 5. For that reason as well as others, most local jurisdictions view open-pit cooking as a safety hazard and prohibit it under most circumstances.

Yet every few years, said Mike Meissner, co-owner of Murphy's barbecue in Port Tobacco, at least one pit catches fire. Meissner said Murphy's had such a blaze about five years ago.

Bill Mitchell, deputy chief investigator with the Maryland State Fire Marshall's Office in Waldorf, said that the county does not view the rib shacks as a "life safety" fire hazard because patrons order from a take-out window. Mitchell said the structures are so small and the exits so readily accessible that the likelihood of employes getting trapped inside is remote. The fires are generally caused by a grease build-up on the hood and duct system, Mitchell said.

Such considerations aside, the open-pit helps create a mood that is hard to come by at any rib chain or fern bar. Each small shack kitchen is staffed with a cook flipping huge slabs of ribs, pork roasts or chicken halves as the meat turns crusty and brown from the heat beneath it. For patrons, picnic tables or plastic chairs are about as fancy as it gets.

While the ribs do not differ markedly in terms of taste, each open-pit cook has his or her own techniques. Cooking times differ as does the heat of the fire; some chefs season the meat before it cooks, others don't; some baste the meat as it cooks with a mustard-based sauce or barbecue sauce, other cooks prefer to douse it with sauce after it comes off the grill. Whatever the nuances, the average Charles County's rib is clearly superior to what most Washington-area restaurants have to offer.

So grab your dental floss and come along for a preview Memorial Day marathon. First stop, Penny's.

On the Trail

Penny's provides the first clue that Charles County is not only the barbecue capital of Maryland, but the Wonderbread capital as well. Loaves and loaves of the bread line shelves and racks in the Waldorf rib shack kitchen, and practically half a loaf is dispensed with an order of Penny's ribs. (Only a precursor for more to come down the road.)

It also provides the first indication that rib shack portions are generous, and prices are a bargain. A rib sandwich for $3 contains enough ribs for a hearty meal, a pork chop sandwich for $2 is a meaty chop flanked by what else? -- Wonderbread -- and a whole slab of ribs for $10.50 could easily feed four amateurs, three hungry pros or two famished ones.

Grill chef Harold Fenwick thaws the slabs in a huge sink, then seasons them with salt, pepper, cayenne and tenderizer before throwing them on the hot grill. After orders are placed, kitchen staffers hack the finished slabs with sharp butcher knives, separating them into ribs, and pack them into sandwiches or plain rib orders. Then, Penny's "secret sauce" is poured onto the ribs.

*Pat and Gigi Penny have been in the restaurant business on and off for some 34 years, explained their daughter, Sandra Penny, in the shack kitchen adjacent to the family's residence. And for the most part, it shows.

These are flavorful ribs, with a wonderful outdoor smoky taste that has made Penny's one of the most popular shacks in the county. Regulars may protest, but at least according to this group of rib hunters, Penny's secret sauce, a thin and sweet rendition, could use some body and oomph.

Next stop, Randy's. A carryout with picnic tables with a close-up view of busy Route 5 and the propane tanks of the Empire Gas company next door, Randy's has a unique dining ambiance, to say the least.

Randy's has an extensive menu, which besides ribs and minced pork sandwiches and platters, includes fried chicken, burgers and ice cream. And like many other rib shacks, Randy's offers homemade slaw and potato salad, baked beans and french fries, and does catering for parties. (The restaurant recently supplied ribs for a black tie affair in Potomac, Md.)

Its' namessake, Randy Keeton, 28, runs the place with the supervisory help of his father, Don. Like Sandra Penny, Keeton is cagey about the ingredients in his sauce, only dropping the fact that he spikes it with orange and lemon peel.

Unlike Penny, Keeton sauces his ribs in the last five or 10 minutes of cooking so that it can pick up the flavor of the hickory wood, he says. And also unlike many of the other rib joints, which are open only on weekends, Randy's is open seven days a week, all year round.

Keeton cooks his ribs slowly -- about two hours per slab, so that the meat gets more tender and falls easily off the bone, he explains. On a busy weekend, Randy's can sell 80 slabs of ribs, and put a hefty dent in the approximately 70 gallons of sauce that is prepared every two weeks.

Randy's ribs were by far the meatiest of the ribs on our marathon, the huge bones chock full of tender pork. In fact, these ribs are a field day for those who like to gnaw on bones, finding hidden pockets of meat and crispy skin. Unfortunately, this particular batch of Randy's barbecue sauce was quite salty, although a splattering of hot sauce helped camouflage it.

The minced pork sandwich was an enormous portion of good-quality meat topped with homemade slaw, both of which oozed out from the sides of the roll. Hot sauce was a help here too, in perking up this somewhat bland (but beautiful) sandwich.

Keeton explained that the competition gets rough during the summer months, and that his closest rival is Dutch's. So even though that restaurant is in St. Mary's County, just over the Charles County line, we headed south.

Chuck Doucette, who works at the Department of Transportation in Washington, bought the place in April with his wife Sally. Beef knuckles and pork butts crowd the grill at Dutch's, which sells minced or sliced beef or pork sandwiches and baby back ribs. Manning the grill over the oak wood fire is John Williams, 23, who has been cooking barbecue since he was a teen-ager, starting his career at Johnny Boy's in La Plata.

Doucette says that Randy's is known more for his ribs and that Dutch's does a brisk business with its sandwiches. On a good Saturday, Doucette says, Dutch's can gross about $500 just on beef sandwiches. At $2.50 apiece, that's 200 orders.

It's easy to see why Dutch's isn't known for its ribs. Even for baby backs, the meat was skimpy at best. And they were dried out, too. The minced pork sandwich had a steamy, almost canned taste. But the savior for them all was the spicy, clay-colored hot sauce, a rich and peppery mixture that was probably the best sauce in the group.

Back into Charles County, heading towards La Plata, and we're at Johnny Boy's the same time that the Wonderbread truck arrives. Just what we need.

Johnny Boy's is the quintessential joint, looking as if it might topple on a particularly windy day. An untidy mass of wood sitting on the front lawn only adds to the scene. The squat shack is crowded with staffers fixing rib and sandwich orders as two cooks man the grill, basting the ribs as they cook.

Johnny Boy's clearly makes the best minced pork sandwich on this barbecue trek. Crusty pieces of minced meat, thinly sliced and topped with creamy cole slaw result in a sandwich that is remarkably tender and juicy. Johnny Boy's does a respectable job with baby back ribs, too. And the restaurant's hot sauce is similiar to the stuff at Dutch's . . .

Heading a few miles west on Route 6, we come to Murphy's, a shack wedged behind Murphy's grocery and a bunch of tobacco farms. Inside the shack are Vincent Jameson and Numa Sylvie, the lively cooks who both worked in the kitchen at St. Elizabeth's Hospital for a combined total of 53 years.

The two use a combination of hickory and oak to cook their ribs and chicken, although Jameson says hickory wood is often hard to find. (Barbecue places must use wood that doesn't create a lot of ash; for that reason, poplar is no good, Jameson explains.) And the cooks do not place the meat directly above the fire; it is situated down the grill where it cooks over less intense heat for two-and-a-half hours.

In his chef's toque and white apron in the smoky kitchen, Jameson bastes the ribs with a chartreuse-colored sauce. The liquid, which contains mustard (the only ingredient he will divulge), helps form a flavorful, crusty coating that seeps into meat.

A commercially prepared barbecue sauce finishes off the ribs after they are cooked, although in this case, the ribs are better off left alone. (Depending on whom you ask, the most important thing about good barbecue is either good-quality meat or a knockout sauce.)

About a 10-minute drive from Murphy's, we find not one, but two barbecue joints across the street from one another on Route 225 -- Penny's Tavern (no relation to the previously visited Penny's) and Mattawoman Barbecue. This marathon is harder than jogging.

Penny's Tavern just opened in April, explains owner Paul Gray, as cook Bill Brown brushes the meats on the grill with a sponge coated in a sauce that looks similar to the chartreuse stuff at Murphy's. And another barbecue pit directly adjacent to Penny's Tavern, Coby's Tavern, is due to open shortly, Gray explains.

Penny's serves a pigs' feet dinner, as well as the usual rib and chicken dinners. These are decent ribs, although perhaps a little on the fatty side.

Across the street at Mattawoman Barbecue, owner James Hart explains his secret: slow cooking (3 1/2 hours to be exact) over low heat. Like those at Penny's Tavern, these are good-enough ribs, although after tasting seven other orders, the powers of discrimination are wearing about as thin as a sliver of Johnny Boy's sliced pork.

So we add another carryout carton to the pile on the back seat and head home to the land of French cafes and cloth napkins.

Here are the places (directions, addresses, phone numbers and regular hours; holiday schedules may vary, so call ahead) on our belly-bulging barbecue tour:

Penny's, Route 925, Waldorf, 1 1/2 miles south of the Waldorf State Police Barracks. No telephone. Open Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday, Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday, 11 a.m. to midnight. Closed Monday (except Memorial Day, when hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.) Rib or chicken sandwiches, $3; pork chop sandwiches, $2, whole slabs, $10.50.

Randy's, Route 5 south, adjacent to the Hughesville Izaak Walton League building on the northbound side of Route 5, approximately six miles south of Waldorf's main traffic intersection at Routes 301 and 5. 301/274-3525. Open daily 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. (or until people stop coming). Full slabs, $11.95; half slabs, $7.50; pork or sliced beef sandwiches, $2.50; minced beef, $2.75.

Dutch's, just south of the Charles County line in St. Mary's county on Route 5's southbound lanes. Roughly three miles south of Randy's. 301/274-4171. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Monday. Minced pork sandwich, $2.50; slab baby back ribs, $6; sliced beef or pork sandwiches, $2.50; half chicken, $3.

Johnny Boy's, one mile south of La Plata on the northbound side of Route 301. 301/736-6300. Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., Friday, Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 a.m. Full slab, $12.50; half slab, $7.50; minced or sliced pork or beef sandwiches, $2.50 to 2.75; rib sandwich, $3.75.

Murphy's Barbecue, Route 6, west of La Plata, about three miles from the the La Plata intersection. Behind Murphy's country store. 301/932-0635. Open Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Memorial Day from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Full slab, $10.50; half slab, $6; chicken, $3.25; pork chop or minced beef sandwich, $2.50.

Penny's Tavern, route 225, west of Route 301 at first La Plata traffic light. From Murphy's, take a right on Rose Hill Road (immediately after the bridge), and a left on Route 225. Continue about six miles. Penny's is on the left side of the road. 301/743-2241. Open Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Pigs feet dinner with potato salad and greens, $3.50; chicken dinner, $4.50; rib dinner, $5.50; full slab, $11; rib sandwich, $4; chicken sandwich, $3.50.

Mattawoman Barbecue, across the street from Penny's Tavern, on the right side of Route 225. 301/743-5331. Open Saturday and Sunday, hours variable. Full slabs, $11.50; half slabs, $5.50; minced pork sandwich, $1.50 (without slaw, $1.75 with slaw); barbecued chicken, $3.75.