Prince William County
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.
Red, Hot & Blue hit the area 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, 8366 Sudley Rd., Manassas, 703-367-7100; 1600 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-276-7427; 3014 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-243-1510; 4150 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax, 703-218-6989; 6482 Landsdowne Centre, Alexandria, 703-550-6465; 541 E. Market St., Leesburg, 703-669-4242; 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; 680 Prince Frederick Blvd., Prince Frederick, 410-257-6035; 3350 Crain Hwy., Waldorf, 301-705-7427.
The Mighty Midget Kitchen has been a Leesburg institution since 1947, most recently on Harrison Street across from Tuscarora Mill. At first glance, it looks like a kid's fantasy: a tiny restaurant jammed into the fuselage of a World War II bomber. But the pleasant woody aroma tells you there is some serious cooking going on in this diminutive space, barely large enough for a deep fryer, a small grill and a refrigerator. The real cooking is done outside, on the custom 10-foot mobile pit that looks like an old-time locomotive.
Owner Brian DeVaux cooks ribs only on Fridays and Saturdays. It's a matter of space, DeVaux said. With only one refrigerator, he has no place to store the ribs and keeps them packed in ice in a cooler. He cooks about 40 racks on Fridays, and about half that on Saturdays. When he runs out, choose something else.
The ribs ($23.95 a rack) look gorgeous -- a deep mahogany hue on the outside and vivid deep pink on the inside. Cooked over cherry wood, the ribs are given a dry rub and then basted with the Mighty Midget's special sauce. The ribs are meaty and good, but they fall apart too easily, indicating they were overcooked.
The pulled pork ($16.99 a pound), available daily, rises to a new level. The deep pink strands have an incredibly smoky, meaty pork taste that is enhanced by the Mighty Midget's hottest sauce. This is real barbecue and tastes like it.
The coleslaw -- crisp shreds of cabbage and carrot -- has a mild dressing without a lot of vinegar, and it seems to work with the pork.
The Mighty Midget Kitchen doesn't serve potato salad, but its boardwalk-style fries are great.
The Mighty Midget Kitchen, 202 Harrison St. SE, Leesburg, 703-777-6406.
The Aldie Country Store is a haven for bikers on a Saturday excursion to the mountains and a mainstay for residents nearby. This is not a romanticized version of a country store, such as the Cracker Barrel chain. This is an authentic country store, complete with uneven wood floors and a small takeout in the rear that features barbecue from Doc's BBQ in Clarke County. The pulled pork ($7.99 a pound) is more minced than pulled and has the texture of a sloppy Joe, but the spicy, tomato-based sauce more than compensates for the bland meat. You'll find the cyclists sitting on the front porch chairs licking the sauce off their fingers. The ribs ($17.99 a slab) have a nice pink color and are meaty. But they are overcooked and need more than their glaze of sauce. The coleslaw and potato salad are bland and need seasoning.
Aldie Country Store, 39285 John Mosby Hwy. (Route 50), Aldie, 703-327-6347; Doc's BBQ, 1316 John Mosby Hwy., Paris, 540-837-9188.
There is no doubt that Jammin' Joe's BBQ cooks over a real wood fire: A steel pit is on the back end (or maybe that's the front end) of the mobile unit that is parked along Route 29 in the wide spot known as New Baltimore. On the other end of the trailer is a woodshed where a Jammin' Joe's "hooptie" girl takes your order. You can dine at the picnic tables at the adjacent Amish market. The pulled pork ($14.50 a pound) has a deep, smoky flavor and the characteristic pink color. It's good, but not great, though the sauce is. It manages to be sweet, hot and mild. The ribs have the same distinctive pink hue, are very meaty and have a nice, crusty outside. But they have been cooked too long. The coleslaw and potato salad are passable.
Jammin' Joe's BBQ, www.jamminjoesbbq.com, 5282 Lee Hwy., New Baltimore, 540-347-9700.
I hadn't intended to stop at BBQ Country in Opal, but who can resist a barbecue joint at a major truck stop along Routes 29 and 17 south of Warrenton? Was I glad I did. I'd sampled more than 30 barbecue places, but this was the first that pulled out a pork shoulder and cut my pork ($11.99 a pound) to order, with owner Dennis Hoffman deftly scraping away bits of bone and char he thought too tough to handle. And the taste of the meat reflected the same care: smoky pork flavor with just the right amount of nearly burnt zest. The sauce, one of only a few my fellow samplers called delicious, is just that: sweet, tangy and spicy.
I learned that what is now a small chain was started in Centreville about 15 years ago. The son of the founders, George and Mary Hoffman, runs the Opal location.
The ribs ($18.99 a full rack) have the same wonderful sauce, a great pink hue and a beautiful dark crust. Mine were meaty but, sadly, overcooked. The coleslaw -- crisp cabbage shreds with a sweet dressing -- is okay. The potato salad lacks complexity.
BBQ Country, 9719 James Madison Hwy, Opal, 540-439-6904; 21025 Southbank St., Sterling, 703-450-9239; 14215-X Centreville Square., Centreville, 703-968-5896; 118 Branch Rd. SE, Vienna, 703-319-8746.
King Street Blues might be better known for its bar and its music than for its food, but the barbecue is surprising good. The pulled pork ($9.95 a pound) is long shreds with a great meaty taste that isn't drowned by the mild, sweet sauce in which it is simmered. The ribs ($18.50 a slab) are cooked a bit too long for my taste -- the meat falls off the bone -- and the sauce seems almost fruity, but the baby backs are meaty and savory. The coleslaw is crisp shreds of green cabbage, carrot and just a touch of red cabbage, with a dressing that isn't tart or sweet enough for me. The restaurant doesn't offer potato salad.
King Street Blues, www.kingstreetblues.com, 112 N. St. Asaph St., Alexandria, 703-836-8800; 5810 Kingstowne Center, Kingstowne, 703-313-0400; Aquia Towne Center, 2866 Jefferson Davis Hwy., Stafford, 540-288-1100; 1648 Crystal Square Arcade, Arlington, 703-415-2583; 545 N. Solomons Island Rd., Prince Frederick, 410-535-2323.
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.
Three Pigs Barbecue in McLean was once one of the region's best, at least for pulled pork, Carolina style. Today the strip mall restaurant looks tired and the staff seems uninterested. The day I was in, dirty dishes sat on several tables long after lunch, though there were at least three employees on hand.
There was no distinct smoky smell, and the pulled pork ($9.75 a pound) -- sliced and then chopped -- was uniformly gray in color. But it was meaty and juicy, with a strong pork flavor. It needed a sauce with some zing, but what passed for Carolina sauce was mild vinegar with scant red pepper.
The ribs ($12.99 a slab) were stringy, mushy and tough at the same time. The potato salad was mushy and bland. But the coleslaw! Someone here remembers how to make it! Finely chopped cabbage and carrot had just the right zing of vinegar and sweetness.
Three Pigs Barbecue, 1394 Chain Bridge Rd., McLean, 301-356-1700.
Memphis Bar-B-Q Co. is another local chain. The home location in Reston has a warehouse decor and, obviously, a Memphis theme.
The pulled pork ($8.99 a pound) has long, dark shreds of dark meat, topped with a mahogany sauce. The meat is dry, stringy and includes too much gristle. The sauce, packing a lot of Worcestershire sauce, is more hot than savory.
The ribs ($20.99 a slab) are a smoky pink and have a smoky taste, but mine were overcooked, dry, stringy and too peppery.
The potato salad is forgettable, with very small bits of potato and a sour dressing.
Memphis Bar-B-Q Co., 11804 Baron Cameron Ave., Reston, 703-435-5118; 4449 Mitchellville Rd., Bowie, 301-809-9441.
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, www.allmansbarbecue.com, 1299 Jefferson Davis Hwy., Fredericksburg, 540-373-9881.