Calvert County

Jethro's Restaurant and Bar is a beach kind of place with walls painted brilliant shades of purple, yellow and orange. It's the kind of place where, even after they are wiped down, the tables have that slightly sticky feel. Keno is the big draw, at least during the afternoon. The barbecue is just passable. The pulled pork ($12.99 a pound), even with a very red tomato-based sauce mixed in, doesn't have a lot of flavor, and the texture is a bit mushy. The baby back ribs ($18.99 a rack) are overcooked, and they don't have much taste, either. The potato salad and coleslaw are okay, but not memorable.

Jethro's Restaurant and Bar, 13880 Solomons Island Rd. north, Solomons, 410-394-6700.

Just up the block, Boomerangs Original Ribs is a much better choice, at least for ribs ($15.95 a rack). The pulled pork ($9.95 a pound) is gray and dry and tastes stringy and gamy. The tomato-based sauce is brown and doesn't add a lot of oomph. The coleslaw is mush: too finely chopped, tasting only of cabbage. The potato salad has nice chunks of potatoes, but needs salt and is a bit watery. But the ribs are good, though a bit overcooked. The slightly sweet sauce is a nice accent, and there's a good meaty flavor underneath.

Boomerangs Original Ribs, 13820 H.G. Trueman Dr., Solomons, 410-326-6050. www.loveribs.com.

A much better option is in Dunkirk at Piggy Wiggy's Barbecue, a rib shack perched in the midst of a strip mall. Piggy Wiggy's may look like a small cafe, with tables covered by red and blue tablecloths (topped with clear plastic), but the tables are just a convenience. You order at the window, as at any good rib shack. And this one is very good.

Piggy Wiggy affords lots of choices when it comes to barbecue. There is pulled pork ($10 a pound), nice long shreds without any sauce; North Carolina barbecue, pulled pork that is chopped and simmered in a traditional vinegar and red pepper sauce; and minced pork, which is chopped and simmered in a mild sauce. Opt for the pulled pork with some incendiary North Carolina sauce. It's the best of both worlds: juicy strands of meat, a great smoky taste and a bit of fire at the end.

The ribs ($16.95 a rack) are good, too. They are meaty and well cooked, with a dry rub that accentuates the smoky flavor. The potato salad is outstanding, a veritable homage to the potato. The chunks of perfectly cooked red potato are bound in a creamy dressing with just a little egg. Don't bother with the coleslaw; it's pretty tasteless. And the deviled eggs are a little rubbery, but the stuffing is good.

Piggy Wiggy's Barbecue, 10092 Southern Maryland Blvd. (Route 4), Dunkirk, 410-257-4477.

Charles County

Charles County is the epicenter of Maryland barbecue and the rib shack. Here, meats are cooked in real wood-fired pits. And because of that, barbecue is typically sold for takeout only, though there may be a few picnic tables nearby.

Randy's, along Route 5 in Hughesville, offers an asphalt parking lot where you can eat in your car and watch the traffic. Don't be surprised if there is a crowd waiting for orders to be filled, even on a rainy Sunday. Smoke is a key flavor of the pulled pork ($9.95 per pound) and the ribs ($17.95 a slab), both of which display the characteristic pink color that smoke produces. Unfortunately, on a recent visit the pulled pork was dry and almost tough, and while the taste of hickory predominated, there was no complexity of flavors to support it. The meaty ribs fared much better, though I thought they needed some of the extra sauce provided.

The potato salad is a little sweet and a little watery and seems to have a hint of Old Bay seasoning. The coleslaw is perfect: long shreds of white and red cabbage and carrot and a good, sweet, vinegary bite.

Randy's Ribs and BBQ, Route 5 near Gallant Green Road, Hughesville, 301-274-3525.

The Rib Shack in Port Tobacco is a simple cinder block building tucked behind Murphy's Store off Route 6. It's the kind of place you can smell before you actually see it. A handwritten menu hangs inside the small vestibule that keeps customers out of the rain, but still outside. Here the minced pork ($3.50 per sandwich) is so infused with the very sweet sauce that it is downright mushy. The ribs ($18 a rack) are meaty but overcooked. Good, but not great. The coleslaw is minced, without a lot of cabbage taste or vinegar punch, and the potato salad is a little soupy but has a good potato taste.

Rib Shack, behind Murphy's Store, 8505 Port Tobacco Rd., Port Tobacco, 301-934-8417.

If you conjured the image of the ultimate rib shack, that place would be Johnny Boy's Ribs. Just off Route 301 (Crain Highway), Johnny Boy's is a squat shack with a gaggle of (uncovered) picnic tables out back. The servers have a bit of attitude (don't even bother to ask what happened to the sit-down restaurant of the same name that was next door. It's closed; has been since January).

But it's worth enduring both a drive and any attitude for the pulled pork and ribs. The pork ($10.95 a pound) is nicely charred with a good meat taste that is only enhanced by the slightly sweet but still fiery hot barbecue sauce. The baby back ribs ($21.50 a slab) are meaty and cooked just to the point at which the meat is pulling back slightly from the bone. The taste of smoke permeates the meat, and the sauce just makes it better.

The coleslaw -- shredded and crunchy but needing a bit of vinegar -- and potato salad -- nice chunks of potato with celery, red pepper and celery seed -- are wonderful accompaniments.

Johnny Boy's Ribs, Route 301 and St. Mary's Avenue, La Plata, 301-870-2526.

St. Mary's County

Sonny's BBQ Pit sits a couple blocks off Route 5, just south of the Charles County line. It's just a white cinder block building with a couple of tables outside.

The minced pork ($9 a pound) is a little tough, and the sauce is sweet with an underlying fire. The meat is a bit stringy and mushy at the same time, but the taste is good. The ribs ($17.85 a rack) are strangely pale but very meaty, served up with the same sweet sauce. The potato salad is fairly chunky, and the potatoes are well cooked so they retain their shape and taste. The dressing is a little soupy and needs a bit more vinegar. The coleslaw comprises crunchy shreds of cabbage and a sweet-sour dressing that could use a bit more vinegar.

Sonny's BBQ Pit, 29144 Thompson Corner Rd., Mechanicsville, 301-290-0035.

Anne Arundel County

The original Adam's, the Place for "Ribs" lists an address in Edgewater, though it's in the hamlet of Mayo, and on a Saturday night at 6:30, the restaurant parking lot is packed. Takeout service is in the back (near the kitchen door) and several portable barbecue rigs are parked nearby. All are good signs.

The signature baby back ribs ($14.95 a rack) are an unappetizing goopy brown, and when you try to separate them, they disintegrate into an overcooked mush. The pulled pork ($9 a pound) is more chunky than shredded, and the tomato-tinged sauce is sweet with just a touch of tang. The coleslaw is shredded, with a nicely balanced, though runny, sauce. Large cubes of perfectly cooked waxy potatoes, gently bound with mayonnaise and accented with pickle relish, form the basis for a potato salad that is all about the taste of the potatoes -- but needs a bit of salt to emphasize the earthiness.

Adam's, the Place for "Ribs," 169 Mayo Rd., Edgewater, 410-956-2995. www.adamsribs.com. Other locations: Severna Park, Eastport Prince Frederick in Calvert County and in Wicomico County.

Uncle Nicky's may be best known as the barbecue place next to the pond where the "Frankenfish" (a northern snakehead) was first discovered two years ago. Under new management for the past couple of months, Uncle Nicky's serves up pulled pork ($10.99 a pound) that really looks pulled: juicy strands of meat that aren't overcooked, but don't have a lot of flavor, either. The dark-hued sauce is too sweet and too timid for my taste. The ribs ($15.99 rack) are mildly smoked, but overcooked, and the same sweet sauce masks much of the meat flavor.

Uncle Nicky's doesn't serve potato salad, and the shredded coleslaw has a bright vinegar taste that is diminished by a somewhat artificial-tasting sweetness. But the cornbread, thrown in as a second side dish, is awesome: grainy and light at the same time, and not too sweet. Try the pulled pork without the sauce and spring for the cornbread.

Uncle Nicky's, 1308 Route 3 south, Crofton, Md. 410-721-3444.

Bayside Bull Open Pit Bar-B-Que is primarily a catering operation that also operates as a carryout. You can't get ribs at the carryout -- just from the catering service -- but the pulled pork barbecue ($9.50 a pound) can make you forget ribs. Slow-cooked for several hours in giant stainless steel smokers, then finished on the indoor pit (really a big wood-fired grill), the pulled pork is chunky and steeped in a savory sauce that gets its red color more from spices than tomatoes. My only objection is the globules of fat that sometimes mar the taste of a single mouthful. But the fat also adds to the flavor. And this pork has plenty of it.

Potato salad and coleslaw are winners, too. The finely chopped slaw is a nice balance of sweet and sour, and the diced potatoes are mixed with eggs and sweet pickles for a good down-home taste.

Bayside Bull Open Pit Bar-B-Que, 108 W. Central Ave., Edgewater, 410-956-6009, www.baysidebull.com.

B&B Southern-Style Bar-B-Q is the year-old location for the barbecue formerly sold across the highway out of a truck in the parking lot of the Utopia Club. B&B describes its barbecue as Memphis-style and has a great sauce to prove it. The pulled pork ($6.95 a pound) is finely minced, with just a few larger shreds of meat to give the mixture texture. The meat is already combined with the sauce; ask for extra and you'll get little packets of Crystal hot sauce. The ribs ($16 a slab) are of a deep pink hue, but the meat is almost dry and its sauce, heavy on spices and pepper, can't make up for the dryness. The coleslaw dressing for shredded and chopped cabbage and carrot is mostly mayonnaise and needs vinegar, and the potato salad is more mild southern style than tart.

B&B Southern-Style Bar-B-Q, 3250 Fort Meade Rd., Laurel, 301-317-7767.

Frederick County

Chubby's reminds me of a barbecue joint where my family used to stop on the way to see my grandmother in Covington, Ga. It is vintage roadside restaurant circa 1950s, with a stack of wood by the front door, a bar with stools, and vinyl booths and tables. There's also a takeout window and a screen door, albeit metal. The pulled pork ($16.99 a pound including two side dishes) -- more chunks than strands -- and the baby back ribs ($18.99 a rack) -- plump and meaty -- have that sweet caramelization that long, slow cooking brings. The barbecue sauce is classic southern style: tomato-based with mustard and brown sugar, though perhaps a bit too thick and sweet for most tastes. Somehow it seems right with the chunky pork. The ribs don't need any embellishment; they are stars.

The coleslaw, though nicely shredded, is surprisingly dry and mostly tasteless. The potato salad aspires to be better, with medium-size chunks of perfectly cooked potato accented with egg and green pepper, but the otherwise good dressing is spiced to the point of being orange and off-putting. The homemade potato chips that come with the sandwiches have the same flavoring but with better results.

Chubby's Southern Style Barbeque, Route 15 north at Old Frederick Road, Emmitsburg, 301-447-3322.

Howard County

My ideal barbecue place has a wooden screen door, a big stack of wood out front, picnic tables and a sweet hickory scent you can smell before you see the joint. Smokey's N Uncle Dave's has most of those. Located not far from Route 100 and U.S. Route 1 in Elkridge, Smokey's N Uncle Dave's is open only for lunch (10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.) on weekdays. The pork is slow-cooked in commercial ovens for several hours before being finished on a wood charcoal- and gas-fired pit. The pork is minced ($8.99 a pound) and mixed with a sweet sauce with the taste of molasses, creating a consistency that is reminiscent of a sloppy Joe. But, oh, is it good. Sliced pork is also available.

The ribs ($15 a rack) share the same sweet sauce, which seems more like a glaze, but on them it obscures the smoky taste. The ribs are meaty but a distant second to the minced pork.

The coleslaw is exemplary: crunchy shreds of carrot and cabbage with a moist, but balanced, mayonnaise dressing accented with celery seeds. In comparison, the potato salad is soupy and the potatoes have a strange texture, as if they had been allowed to cool too much before they were dressed.

Smokey's N Uncle Dave's, 7300 Roosevelt Blvd., Elkridge, 410-796-0024.

Prince George's County

Uncle Sonny's House of BBQ is a family-run operation not far from FedEx Field that tries an unusual health-conscious approach to its pulled pork: Most of the fat is removed, and, unfortunately, a lot of the flavor. Here, the pulled pork is packed into 8-ounce containers ($5.99 a half-pound) and frozen, as are the ribs ($16.99 a slab). I didn't have very much success reheating either: The pulled pork was too dry, and the ribs were a bland gray in color and taste.

But the sauce is another matter. The hot version has heat and taste. And the barbecue reheated for customers at the restaurant seems to fare better than my home attempts.

The potato salad has a nice vinegar bite, but the small pieces of potato are overwhelmed by too much dressing. The coleslaw is finely minced but not memorable.

Uncle Sonny's House of BBQ, 8575 Landover Rd., Landover, 301-322-6520.

Levi's is an institution in the county, with barbecue restaurants -- really cafeterias -- in Oxon Hill and Mitchellville. The pork here ($9.99 a pound) is finely minced, with just a few long strands of meat, but it retains its smoky flavor and moist consistency. The optional sauces are thin, and my choice packed a nice punch akin to straight hot pepper sauce, with a hint of sweetness.

Though served from a cafeteria-style steam table, the ribs ($16.49 a slab) retain their meaty texture but don't have any great depth of flavor, and the sauce in which they are drenched is much too sweet.

The coleslaw is finely minced cabbage with bits of pickle and a well-balanced vinegar-sweet dressing. The potato salad is a winner, too: southern-style with small chunks of potato with sweet pickle and a healthy dose of pickle juice. But don't leave without the hush puppies!

Levi's Restaurant and Catering, 10252 Lake Arbor Way, Mitchellville, 301-336-5000. Another location: 6201 Livingston Rd., Oxon Hill, 301-567-0050.

Clifford King has been feuding with the county over licensing for his mobile rib wagon for nearly two decades. And during that time, C. King's Best Ribs and Mobile Catering has become something of a fixture along Route 1 between Beltsville and Laurel, but not always in the same place. The rib wagon is a Step Van type with a smoker rigged on the back end. Just the smell is intoxicating. King doesn't serve pulled pork, but his meaty ribs ($15 a slab), basted in a sweet but spicy sauce, continue to attract loyal customers. He doesn't serve potato salad, and his baked beans are not exceptional. But even big-rig drivers pull over for his ribs.

C. King's Best Ribs and Mobile Catering, along U.S. 1, Beltsville. 301-773-1644.

Smokeshack Ribs BBQ Restaurant is really just a takeout, just off Indian Head Highway on Livingston Road. The day I visited, the restaurant had run out of its signature pulled pork, and the ribs I ordered ($19.95 a rack) were meaty but with a strange, rubbery texture and a thin, brown barbecue sauce with a bit of a kick but not a lot of depth of flavor.

The coleslaw -- crisp shreds of green cabbage and carrot with a creamy dressing -- is too sweet and needs more vinegar. The potato salad, with well-cooked, medium-dice potatoes, includes scallions and sweet pickles. The only drawback is what seems to be a too-generous dusting of paprika.

Smokeshack Ribs BBQ Restaurant, 9119 Livingston Rd., Fort Washington, 301-248-8200.

The ribs are the thing at Johnny Boy Carry Out in Bradbury Heights (the other side of Southern Avenue across from the District). Order a slab and you can step up to a window and pick out the one you want. Then they are cleaved into individual ribs and packed into a jaunty cardboard box, along with the ubiquitous white bread. The ribs ($17 a slab) are meaty, with a deep, smoky taste tinged with salty undertones, cooked to near perfection so the rib meat pulls away from the bone easily but doesn't fall off. Order the hot sauce on the side, because it is all pepper and little flavor. The ribs are better off without it.

The pulled pork (available only as a sandwich or a sub at $3.75 and $4.75, respectively) shares none of the ribs' admirable characteristics. It's cooked past the point of being dry, it's fatty and gristly at the same time, and the hot sauce slathered on just adds to the insult.

The coleslaw and potato salad are bland. The coleslaw is neither sweet enough nor vinegary enough, and other than just a touch of vinegar, the only apparent seasoning for the potato salad is in the mayonnaise.

Johnny Boy Carry Out, 4125 Southern Ave., Bradbury Heights, 301-736-6300.

Montgomery County

Urban Bar-B-Que Company is the new kid on the block, but it has learned its craft well. Just off Rockville Pike, in a storefront that has seating for fewer than a dozen people, it features a lot of good-old-boy kitsch fronting a modern operation.

There isn't a stack of wood outside; the cooking is done in large stainless steel smokers. But these meats have a good char and a smoky flavor. The pulled pork ($9.50 a pound) is obviously that: long strands of moist meat just waiting for one of the three sauces: red, "yella" and Carolina. I think the Carolina is a little too spare and vinegary, and the yella is too mustardy, but the red is just right: a good balance of vinegar and molasses in a tomato base.

The ribs ($17 a rack), packed to go in plain brown paper, are cooked perfectly. The meat pulls gently away from the bones and is still meaty, not mushy. There is good charring and evidence of a dry rub, and the nasty cartilage that runs down the back of the ribs has been removed, allowing for more elegant eating. These ribs -- which my husband thought had a strong pastrami taste -- don't really need additional sauce, but a touch of the red sauce only makes them better.

The coleslaw mixes long shreds of red cabbage with green and dresses them with just the right combination of sweet and sour. It's slaw to write home about. Unfortunately, the chunky red potato salad has recently acquired a strange color and taste that knock it out of the same league as the rest of the offerings.

Urban Bar-B-Que Company, 2007 Chapman Ave., Rockville, 240-290-4827.

O'Brien's Pit Barbecue is the granddaddy of Rockville barbecue establishments, operating on Gude Drive since 1972. The founder, a retired American Airlines pilot, fashioned the restaurant after the famed Texas standout, Sonny Bryan's of Dallas. The ribs ($15.95 a slab) are baby back size with very thick bones. The meat slips off the bone in chunks and bears what looks like a red glaze. But the taste is good and the texture meaty, and no additional sauce is needed. The pulled pork ($14.50 a pound) has the distinctive red hue of well-smoked meat, but the long strands are dry and the thin tomato-based sauce is no antidote.

On the other hand, the slaw is perfect: finely shredded with the ultimate sweet-sour dressing that isn't soupy. The potato salad, with potatoes cut in slices rather than chunks, is soupy but tasty, with egg and celery seed.

O'Brien's Pit Barbecue, 387 E. Gude Drive., Rockville, 301-340-8596.

Over the years, Burtonsville's Old Hickory Grille has received rave reviews for its ribs ($19.95 a rack). I don't share that view. I found them well cooked and meaty but without much depth of flavor. However, the pulled pork ($9.95 a pound) is another matter. The long shreds of pork are complemented by a dark brown, savory, modestly spicy and not-too-sweet sauce that is classic all-purpose barbecue. The coleslaw -- crisp large shreds of cabbage and carrot -- is more like a cabbage salad, with a dressing that lacks any taste of vinegar.

Old Hickory Grille, 15420 Old Columbia Pike, Burtonsville, 301-421-0204.

Virginia, The District

Red, Hot & Blue hit Washington by storm during Bush 41's tenure in the White House and has picked up the pace since then. Started in Arlington by guys from Tennessee, it has grown into a multistate chain. The lineage shows. The pulled pork ($10.99 a pound), large and succulent chunks without sauce, is simply awesome, even though the nicely caramelized char loses its crispiness to refrigeration. Close your eyes and you could be in Memphis, except in Memphis you could smell the hickory, a distinct sensation that is absent at these high-tech restaurants. The hickory here is all in the mouth. But stay away from the hot sauce unless you want the great taste to be obliterated by the fire. It's nearly a paste of red pepper.

I'm not nearly as impressed with the ribs ($17.99 a slab), which can be ordered sweet, dry (coated with a dry rub) or wet (mopped with sauce). The ribs are fatty and overcooked, and the dry rub doesn't do much to compensate. The coleslaw -- crisp cabbage and carrot shreds -- is bathed in a bland dressing.

But the potato salad is terrific: big chunks of redskin potatoes mixed with scallions and egg, with a great dressing that is more like a cream sauce. There's no good vinegar bite, but the southern classic doesn't really need it.

Red, Hot & Blue, www.redhotandblue.com, 1600 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-276-7427; 3014 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-243-1510. Other locations include 680 Prince Frederick Blvd., Prince Frederick, 410-257-6035; 3350 Crain Hwy., Waldorf, 301-705-7427; 4150 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax, 703-218-6989; 6482 Landsdowne Centre, Alexandria, 703-550-6465; 541 E. Market St., Leesburg, 703-669-4242; 8366 Sudley Rd., Manassas, 703-367-7100; 360 Broadview Ave., Warrenton, 540-349-7100; 200 Old Mill Bottom Rd., Annapolis, 410-626-7427; 16811 Crabbs Branch Way, Rockville, 301-948-7333; 677 Main St., Laurel, 301-953-1943.

Occasionally there are spanking-new places that somehow capture the feel, smell and taste of the Old South. Willard's Real Pit BBQ in Chantilly is one of those places. Open less than a year and in a strip shopping center near the Dulles Expo Center, Willard's somehow captured my heart.

I think it's partly because it's not hokey, with lots of the stupid signs and sayings that too many people think are the proper decor for a food as down-home as barbecue. Willard's is almost industrial in its approach, in a way that I think perhaps the famous Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City might be if it were started today. There is a lot of stainless steel -- and lots of those soda fountain stools I used to spin around on as a kid. There are huge photographs of real people celebrating the rural way of life. One wall is devoted to the names and cities of some of the country's great barbecue joints.

I think mostly what won me over at Willard's, in addition to the food, is the pride that every employee exuded about the barbecue. I asked the guy putting together my order how the meat was cooked, and he went into a long explanation, pointing out equipment and bringing out some of the beef to show the deep pink coloring.

Owner Chris Janowski hails from North Carolina by way of Boston, where he co-owned two similar barbecue places.

The proof is in the barbecue, and Willard's acquits itself well indeed. The big chunks of pork ($10.95 a pint) are meaty, smoky and just about perfectly cooked. It tastes like pork and has the texture of pork. And the hot barbecue sauce blends great fire in the mouth that doesn't overwhelm the meat; it's vinegary and not at all sweet. The meat and sauce are eloquent counterpoints.

The ribs ($19.95 a slab), deep pink and meaty, also have a great smoky pork taste, though mine seemed just a little overcooked. They still had decent texture. That and the great sauce almost made me forget any shortcomings.

The coleslaw is shredded cabbage and carrot in a very mild but pleasant dressing. The potato salad tastes like my mother's, and, man, she could make great potato salad! There are well-cooked chunks of potato, celery, green peppers, sweet pickle, chives, onion and egg bound with mayonnaise with a vinegar undercurrent. Willard's is a keeper.

Willard's Real Pit BBQ, 4300 Chantilly Shopping Ctr. (Willard Road at the Dulles Expo Center), 703-488-9970.

Some people say the real Virginia lies south of the Rappahannock River. Allman's Bar-B-Que, south of the Rappahannock by a few blocks, has been serving barbecue for 50 years. The restaurant, just off Route 1 across from the University of Mary Washington, looks like it hasn't changed since it opened. The brick storefront has a lunch counter complete with chrome soda fountain stools (you can get a homemade milkshake here, too), eight or so plastic laminate tables and sliced pork that is some of the juiciest, meatiest and tastiest I found.

You can buy the meat ($8.95 a pound) sliced, which is more like long shreds, or minced. I prefer the sliced. I'm not a big fan of Allman's sauce -- it's too sweet and fruity. The coleslaw is more like cabbage salad with a very mild dressing. But even these less-than-perfect accompaniments do nothing to affect the great smoky flavor of the meat.

Allman's Bar-B-Que, 1299 Jefferson Davis Hwy., Fredericksburg, 540-373-9881, www.allmansbarbecue.com.

Nelson Head hails from Birmingham and laments that he just can't get his barbecue to taste like what he ate growing up down south. But what he might see as shortcomings have surely been overlooked by the crowds that jam into Dixie Bones in Woodbridge, which recently sold more than 3,200 pounds of pork in one day.

Don't be put off by the fluorescent orange decor. The heart and soul of the place are reflected more in the hundreds of military, fire and law enforcement patches and flags that decorate the walls.

I thought the pulled pork ($9.95 a pound), which is really more like chopped, had a good smoky taste, though it was a little dry. The sauce -- tomatoey, sweet and spicy -- helped a lot. This is one of the best marriages of meat and sauce I found.

The ribs ($20.95 a rack), though smoky and meaty, had spent a little too much time nuzzling up to the hickory with which they were smoked.

The potato salad is pure southern style: red potatoes perfectly cooked and mixed with a lot of mayonnaise, a little mustard and egg. But it is the coleslaw that shines: crunchy shreds of red and green cabbage, carrot, a little onion and celery seeds all bound with a perfectly balanced sweet-sour dressing. My husband, who by then had sampled more than 30 coleslaws over two weeks, claimed the rest of the pint container as his own and promptly finished it off at the same sitting. Now, that's some coleslaw!

Dixie Bones, www.dixiebones.com, 13440 Occoquan Rd., at Route 1, Woodbridge, 703-492-2205.

Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Co. has been a hit since it first opened its doors in Glover Park in 1990. The storefront has about a dozen seats, a wooden screen door and a big bowl of peanuts on the lone table -- a little diversion for the hordes waiting to place or pick up an order. It's got all the hokey signs that people think southern barbecue places are supposed to have and a wall of hot sauces for the truly brave.

Real wood burns behind the grill where the meats get their finishing shot of heat. The pulled pork is chopped into small bits and anointed with the restaurant's own sauce and is worth all the attention it gets. Smokes permeates the meat, enhancing the flavor without drying it out. The sauce has a good, spicy taste. But other items have been a disappointment on recent visits. The ribs were fatty and overcooked, and the Rocklands versions of coleslaw and potato salad were almost inedible. The coleslaw is chunks of cabbage and carrots and peas. Don't bother. Ditto for the potato salad, sliced red potatoes that were bland.

Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Co., 2418 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-333-2558; 4000 Fairfax Dr., Arlington, 703-528-9663; 25 S. Quaker Lane, Alexandria, 703-778-9663; www.rocklands.com.

The Rib Pit is the real thing. A wood-fired smoker built of white glazed brick dominates this tiny carryout on 14th Street NW, in Petworth. The immediate neighborhood looks a bit rough, and a bulletproof partition separates employees from customers. But these are perhaps the best ribs ($16.90 a slab) to be found in the District. The meat is a dark pink from long smoking, but the smoky flavor isn't overwhelming. Still, the meat is dry and overcooked, though not to the mushy stage. The ribs are helped considerably by the great tomato-based sauce that has just enough fire to keep things balanced.

The pulled pork (sold only as sandwiches at $4.65 each) is better, chopped into chunks and moistened with the same tangy sauce, which nicely complements the sweetness of the meat. The coleslaw is finely chopped and very white, with just a bit of carrot and sweet pickle among the pale, pale cabbage. It's dull but not offensive. Much the same can be said about the potato salad. It lacks excitement, the heavy presence of pickle notwithstanding.

The Rib Pit, 3903 14th St. NW (at Randolph Street), 202-829-9747.

In La Plata, cook and assistant manager Tyon Ford removes racks of ribs from a cooker at Johnny Boy's, described as "the ultimate rib shack." Besides the pulled pork and ribs, Johnny Boy's coleslaw and potato salad also earned high recommendations. In Dunkirk, Wyatt Oswald, above, shows off Piggy Wiggy Barbecue's North Carolina-style barbecue sandwich. At right, Karen Oswald chops potatoes for Piggy Wiggy's potato salad, which was rated "outstanding." Some barbecue establishments have little or no seating, thus the barbecue for this sampling was carried out and eaten at home. Johnny Boy's in La Plata, above, has several outdoor picnic tables.