The newbie is Memphis Barbeque in Crystal City, which is owned by former Memphian Chris George.
There are a lot of contrasts between Memphis Barbeque and Pork Barrel. For one, the former is likely to be up and running within weeks; its opening date is scheduled for Nov. 25, George let slip to Smoke Signals recently. Meanwhile, Pork Barrel still hasn’t announced when the restaurant, partly owned by two teammates on a championship barbecue team, will open its doors, even though it’s been more than two years since the owners broke ground.
But the bigger differences are in approach. Unlike Pork Barrel, which builds hype through social media, Memphis Barbeque at this writing doesn’t even have a Web site. Pork Barrel has kept its windows bare during construction to show the world its progress. Memphis Barbeque, on the other hand, is under wraps, both literally and metaphorically.
During its makeover of the former Mackey’s Public House, the windows have been covered in brown paper, preventing so much as a peek, and when I first talked to George last summer, he was lips were sealed tighter than the chamber of a high-end smoker.
George, who has worked at the Occidental and Capital Grille, did allow that he will serve wet and dry ribs, which, this being a Memphis-style barbecue restaurant, is a little like the owner of a burger joint saying he will sell burgers.
He was mum on pretty much everything else.
What can you say about your rub ingredients? Nothing. Sauce ingredients? Nada. Will the restaurant serve pork shoulder? No comment. What will be on the menu? “I want to make you come back to find out.”
Smoke Signals has tried repeatedly through personal visits, e-mails and phone calls since then to get more information — to no avail.
Even by the comparatively secretive standards of barbecue guys, George’s silent schtick is something to behold. Usually, you’ll get some spices — salt, pepper, garlic powder, ancho powder, whatever — from a pitmaster, who will then not divulge his amounts or all of his ingredients. But nothing?
Could it be that George is worried that any hint would send readers scurrying to their pantries to copy his recipes? Is it possible that George isn’t quite sure what he’s doing and doesn’t want to let on?
Whatever the case, it has been Smoke Signals’s experience that the best in the business find value in promoting their product. You can find videos online of Wayne Mueller of the legendary Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas, talking about his famous brisket. Aaron Franklin freely reveals in detail how he makes his barbecue, which Bon Appetit calls the best in America.
Locally, Hill Country, Rocklands, Pork Barrel and others have told Smoke Signals everything from spices they use to cooking methods. I’ve read countless cookbooks from innumerable champions who divulge their secrets. The barbecue masters who divulge the most seem to be the ones with the highest level of confidence.
George wasn’t quite so buttoned-up with the Washington Business Journal. In a July story by Missy Frederick, George said he would use hickory wood, take “influences from Texas or Kansas City” and serve barbecued egg rolls and enchiladas.
Recently, Memphis Barbeque posted a help wanted ad on Craigslist seeking bartenders, servers, cooks and hostesses. It said, “We are Metropolitan Washington’s first upscale-casual BBQ restaurant featuring authentic hickory-pit smoked barbeque and live hickory grilled meats, fish and seafood.”
Before he started pulling his even-torture-won’t-get-me-to-talk act, George did allow that he grew up in Memphis, attended Morehouse College in Atlanta. He said, too, that the restaurant has a Southern Pride 300 and a Southern Pride 500, the latter a behemoth. By comparison, Pork Barrel has one Southern Pride 500. Hill Country has three Ole Hickory (same sort of thing, just a different manufacturer). What all that means is this: George is pretty confident because he has bought himself a lot of oven.
“Memphis barbecue is the best, so I’m bringing the best to the area,” he told Smokes Signals.
When reminded that Red, Hot & Blue is Memphis-style, he smiled and said, “Like I said, I’m bringing the best.”
That much, George will say.
Memphis Barbeque, 320 S. 23rd St., Crystal City.