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.
The Canopy Barbecue Restaurant has all the charm of any fast-food place. Located on overdeveloped Baltimore National Pike, The Canopy is part of a Baltimore-area chain that is exclusively takeout. That said, the food is good. The pulled pork ($9.90 a pound) is uniformly brown and separates into thick strands saturated with the equally brown sauce. But it has a good, meaty taste and isn't drowning in the sauce. The baby back ribs ($14.95 a slab) are tender and juicy and swabbed with, rather than drenched in, the same savory sauce. On the other hand, the coleslaw and potato salad are ordinary, with no vinegar bite in either.
The Canopy Barbecue Restaurant, 9319 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, 443-288-1400.
Bar-B-Que House has been serving home-style cooking for 13 years in a cutesy house just north of the Prince George's County line. The pulled pork ($9.50 a pound) is lean, meaty and chunky. The texture and cooking are just about perfect, and the sauce already on the meat is sweet, yet spicy. But the mixture is a little dry and needs more sauce. The ribs ($20.95 a rack), unfortunately, are overcooked. The meat falls off the bone and has a slimy texture. The coleslaw is crisp shreds of cabbage and carrot, but the dressing is bland. But the potato salad is a southern classic, with well-cooked diced potatoes, though I'd add a bit of vinegar or sweet pickle juice. The cornbread is outstanding: light and finely grained with only a touch of sweetness.
Bar-B-Que House, 9990 N. Washington Blvd., Laurel, 301-317-9529.
Ma's Kettle looks as if it should have great barbecue. The small-town cafe is housed in a small shingle-covered building not far from Savage Mill. There are no more than a dozen tables, but at lunch (the only meal served except for Saturday breakfast), the cafe is often filled to standing room only with a diverse array of customers, including construction workers, ambulance drivers and politicians. Ma's Kettle also cooks up the food for many of the performers at Merriweather Post Pavilion.
I'm not a fan of the barbecue ($35 a half-gallon or $5.25 for a sandwich), though it's the house specialty. The pulled pork tastes like old pot roast, cooked until the taste is gone, then dressed up with a too-sweet sauce that can't camouflage the shortcomings. The ribs ($15.95 for a rack) are just as overcooked, drowned in that same sauce.
On the other hand, the potato salad is grand, with chunks of well-cooked potato, augmented by celery pieces large enough to recognize and big pieces of egg in a mayonnaise dressing with just the right amount of vinegar. And the coleslaw is just as good, chopped fine but with a nice sweet-sour bite.
Ma's Kettle, 8949 Baltimore St., Savage, 301-725-8838.
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, 410-056-2995, www.adamsribs.com. Other locations: Severna Park, Eastport, and Calvert and Wicomico counties.
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.
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.
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 eight-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, 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; and 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.
Urban Bar-B-Que Co. 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 Co., 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.
Just down the road, Charlie's Open-Pit Barbeque Grill sits in a strip shopping center in the midst of an industrial center. The pork ($15.99 a pound) is sliced, apparently by a machine, and turns out to be an unappetizing gray color with not a lot of taste, though a hefty application of eastern North Carolina sauce does enhance it. Here, the sauces are key. And there is a broad selection: hot, mild, hickory, regular, honey and eastern North Carolina. The Carolina is fiery and flavorful.
Charlie's is more than redeemed by the ribs ($20.99 a slab): Meaty and juicy and just the right shade of pink, they are perfectly cooked. Basted with the hickory sauce, the ribs don't really need anything else. They are flat-out great.
The coleslaw -- finely shredded with a good vinegar base -- and the potato salad -- chunks of potato with a good egg taste but in need of salt and pepper -- are pleasant accompaniments.
Charlie's Open-Pit Barbeque Grill, 1314 E. Gude Dr., Rockville, 301-340-0584.
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.
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 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.