What makes you happy? Is it thick wedges of made-from-scratch pies? Ribs so meltingly good you want to suck the bones? Tender, smoky chopped brisket sopping up barbecue sauce on a pillowy bun? Collard greens and coleslaw and potato salad like your blessed mama would have made if only you had grown up in Alabama? Garth Brooks singing in the background and a friendly waitress pouring you sweetened iced tea?
Are you pounding on the table and screaming "YES! YES! YES!" yet?
Good. Get in the car and drive to Woodbridge. That's where Nelson Head--once the owner of Head's barbecue joint on Capitol Hill--runs Dixie Bones, a bare-bones but congenial place full of very happy people.
Head, 52, makes real hickory-smoked barbecue--beef, pork and chicken. His briskets cook over wood for 12 to 14 hours. His spice-rubbed pork ribs cook for four to five hours. His chickens cook just enough to give them a hint of smoky flavor without drying them out.
He uses his mama's recipes for the red- skinned potato salad and the vinegary barbecue sauce for the pork ribs. His pie guy, Richard Parrott, makes 150 to 175 pies a week from scratch, crusts included, in homey flavors like coconut cream, chocolate cream, cherry, apple, lemon chess and pecan. And, most important, the iced tea comes the two ways Southerners expect it: sweetened and unsweetened.
Head should know from Southern. He's a native of Birmingham. He grew up eating and cooking barbecue, but he never suspected his career lay in that direction.
Instead, he started out in the commercial development business. "When things tanked in Birmingham in the '80s, I moved to Washington," Head says. When the economy took a nose dive again in the early '90s, Head decided he had had enough.
"I realized I needed to do something where I could still eat when things got slow," he says in his Alabama drawl. He loved barbecue so he and a friend opened a tiny carryout place in Georgetown. When that drew crowds, he decided to try someplace larger. In 1992 he opened Head's at 1st and D streets SE.
Although Head's did well, its namesake admits "it wasn't a real barbecue restaurant. We had to offer lots of salads to appeal to Hill staffers, and at night it was more of a bar than a restaurant." He laughs when he remembers some of those wild Thursday nights. "We sold more beer on a Thursday to those Hill guys than I sell all week in Woodbridge."
When his lease in the District expired, Head and some of his most experienced employees went looking for a location in Virginia. He was just about to sign on a place when the building at Route 1 and Occoquan Road became available. It had been a church, then a gun shop, then a clothing store and, finally, a rotisserie- chicken place that had opened and closed within weeks. "In other words, it was perfect," says Head.
They opened Dixie Bones on a bone-chilling day in January 1996. The next day it snowed four feet and the restaurant had to close. A day later they opened again, only to close again when another snowstorm hit. "My staff told me, 'Really brilliant idea you had here, Nelson,' " recalls Head, laughing.
Today, the bright, airy restaurant is decorated with old radios and typewriters from his grandparents' Alabama farm. Colorful Fiestaware plates found by his partner, Chris Wolfe, are mounted on the wall. A 50-year-old hulking red Coke machine (it doesn't work, but it looks cheery) anchors the back of the seating area. Country music plays over the speakers.
On each table are three small pitchers of barbecue sauce: a red Texas-style, tomato-based sauce recommended for the beef; a clear Carolina-style, vinegar-based sauce for the pork; and his mom's rib sauce, which is mostly vinegar, sugar and spices with a little tomato. None of the sauces is very spicy, but hot peppers or Tabasco sauce are available for the asking.
Although the restaurant has built up a loyal clientele from neighboring families and Marines with hearty appetites from nearby Quantico Marine Corps Base, Head also does a hefty catering business--much of it back in his old stomping grounds on Capitol Hill.
Oh, and here's something else to make you happy: Dixie Bones sells specially smoked turkeys and hams, and any of Richard Parrott's pies, for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The turkeys ($24.95 for a 10-pound bird) are cooked covered for two hours, then smoked for an hour "so they have a mild smoky flavor, but they're not dry," says Head. The smoked hams ($6.25 per pound) have a honey and clove coating. The deadline for orders is Nov. 23.
Dixie Bones, 13440 Occoquan Rd., Woodbridge, Va. Call 703-492-2205. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Monday-Saturday; noon-8 p.m., Sunday. CAPTION: Scherrie Penn serves barbecue at Dixie Bones Restaurant in Woodbridge. ec