No Twitter, no Facebook, not even a press release, all of which the savvy Pork Barrel team of former Senate staffers Heath Hall and Brett Thompson relentlessly utilize to promote their Washington-based sauce company and competition team.
The charmingly old school move reinforced the image of Pork Barrel — the developers of a barbecue cologne — as both playful and unpredictable. “We just wanted the neighbors and passersby to know,” Thompson told Smoke Signals with an audible shrug.
In August 2009, Hall and Thompson announced a partnership with local restaurateur Mike Anderson and Bill Blackburn to open the first of what they hope will be several Pork Barrel BBQ restaurants. Since then, the fires of anticipation have been stoked by Pork Barrel’s strong showings at competitions around the country, including a grand championship at the Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle last June, and their fast-growing line of sauces, now in 38 states.
The restaurant received its certificate of occupancy last Wednesday. Last night, the partners hosted a soft opening for friends and family. It will open to the public for dinner tonight, from 5 to 10.
Openings are commonly delayed in the restaurant business, but this one was epic. It was more than two years in the making, far longer than the initial estimate of about eight months. Anderson, who oversaw the project, is an experienced restaurateur who has run and overhauled several operations and is the chairman of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. The reasons, then, go beyond the usual demands of construction and permitting.
The reasons for the length of this delay are many: protracted negotiations with neighbors over anticipated smoke and increased traffic; construction of a building from the ground-up on the site of a former Exxon station; a building and permitting process complicated by the fact that Pork Barrel is just one of three restaurants under a single roof; an unfamiliarity with the special requirements of a barbecue restaurant (fitting the massive smoker properly into a high-dollar ventilation system proved more vexing than anticipated); and the owners’ proclivity for specialty materials, such as custom-made faux limestone.
When the go-ahead finally came, it even seemed to surprise the owners. Hall was enjoying a romantic getaway with his fiancee in South Carolina when he learned of the permitting green-light. He cut his vacation short and flew back Saturday morning to tinker with recipes and test the Southern Pride wood-enhanced oven.
The other two restaurants on site are a sushi and sake bar called Dragon and an Asian fusion eatery called Chop Chop; they will open in the coming months. Each restaurant will have its own entrance, but all will be connected to one another by hallways.
From its sleek, broad-windowed, two-toned stone facade to its 40-foot maroon- and yellow-veined soapstone bar imported from Brazil, the Pork Barrel operation is a stylistic departure from other barbecue restaurants, even high-end ones. Chic pendant lighting hangs from a 12-foot, duct-exposed midnight-blue ceiling, misting soft light on the tables and the gleaming blue-stained concrete floor. The airy, 70-seat restaurant was designed by Walter Gagliano, whose visual imprint includes Cafe Atlantico and the three Jaleo spots.
Patrons order at the counter. The hickory- and oak-smoked meats won’t be the stuff judges taste at competitions. Contest-style barbecue is labor-intensive and, many argue, too rich to enjoy over the course of a full meal. The meats, instead, will get a coating of olive oil and Pork Barrel’s All-American Spice Rub, with sauces served on the side. Meats include St. Louis-cut spare ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket and chicken. At press time, the owners were still perfecting their all-brisket sausage produced for them by Alexandria’s Logan Sausage.
Hot sides, reportedly tweaked by former Evening Star Cafe chef Will Artley who was hired as a consultant, will include such unconventional dishes as chipotle- and adobo-spiked mac ’n’ cheese with a panko and Ritz cracker crust and smoked vegetable ratatouille, along with more traditional fare like baked beans, creamy cole slaw and skin-on potato salad.
The restaurant will carry 16 types of sodas, including Big Red from Texas and Moxie from Maine. The full bar will feature beers such as Buffalo Sweat, Fat Tire and Porkslap Pale Ale.
The restaurant, which will serve lunch and dinner, will be open seven days a week.
The restaurant has been a long time coming. After you check it out, let Smoke Signals know what you think in the comments below or by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tofurky, Texas update. As reported last week, Tracy Reiman, PETA executive vice president, wrote a letter to Turkey, Texas, mayor Pat Carson, offering to cook a vegan Thanksgiving feast for residents if the town changed its name for the day to Tofurky.
Pork Barrel BBQ countered with an offer of its own: Change the name of the town to Barbecue, Texas, and the company would donate $1,000 to three local charities.
The mayor made the Solomonesque decision to decline both offers and up the ante: Would Pork Barrel change its name to Tofurky Barrel BBQ for Thanksgiving if PETA matched the barbecue company’s offer to provide $1,000 to local charities?
Pork Barrel immediately agreed.
Turkey, Texas, has only about 500 residents, more than a third of whom live beneath the poverty level. “Turkey is one of the poorest communities within one of the poorest counties in the state of Texas,” Carson told Amarillo.com reporter Chip Chandler .
The town traces its name to the large number of wild Rio Grande turkeys found in the area by settlers in the 1890s. If it is thought of at all, Turkey is known as the home of the seminal western-swing musician, Bob Wills. The town has a Bob Wills Museum and sponsors an annual Bob Wills Day Festival in April that draws thousands of visitors.
After getting familiar with the town’s plight and chatting with Carson, Pork Barrel decided to donate $400 to each of the three charities regardless of whether PETA also donates.
Lindsay Rajt, associate director of campaigns for PETA, told Smoke Signals that the organization was “open to discussing” the mayor’s proposal.