The theme of this year’s guide to the best barbecue in the Washington area is inconsistency, which seems to be the one constant of the scene.
Case in point: My two most recent visits to Liberty Barbecue, the Falls Church establishment under the watch of Matt Hill, the classically trained chef-cum-pitmaster. During my first trip in September, I restlessly picked at a tray of tired meats. Whatever smoke and succulence the brisket and pulled pork once possessed, they had been surrendered to the gods (or, more likely, the holding unit) long before I walked into the place. The spare ribs, meaty and superbly seasoned, were the only saving grace.
My next meal, almost two months later, was so much better that I half-wondered if Liberty had hired a whole new pit crew. But I knew better. I knew that, on some deeper level, this is merely the Faustian bargain we, as Washingtonians, have made for demanding smoked meats at any hour of the day: We have sold out quality barbecue for the sake of convenient barbecue. Every day, pitmasters struggle to calculate how much meat to smoke, and how long to hold it, just so folks like me can enjoy barbecue at 11 a.m. or 9 p.m., virtually any day of the week.
Some days, pitmasters will guess wrong (or hold meats too long) because they’re human, and they’re not about to waste the stuff that they can’t turn into chili or hamburgers for the next day’s menu.
Which is why Washingtonians suffer through so many mediocre barbecue platters: The meats, dry and virtually smoke-free, are served well past their prime. Their essential character has evaporated in the holding unit.
“Frankly, I want to run out of things because that’s how you know [the barbecue] is going to be good,” said Hill when I explained my tale of two platters. “It’s just a battle we face.”
Despite these pressures, or maybe because of them, owners and pitmasters continue to find ways to improve their smoked meats. The restaurants that fared best this year — or moved up the most — actively worked to confront their weaknesses or tighten procedures that may have slipped into complacency over the months or years. Owners may have hired an outside consultant to review their systems or even parted ways with employees who were not sufficiently dedicated to the cause.
You will notice some familiar names missing from this year’s guide, such as Fat Pete’s Barbecue, Pork Barrel BBQ and, for the second straight year, Myron Mixon’s Pitmaster Barbeque. These places are not performing to their expected standards, even on multiple visits. Lack of seasoning. Lack of smoke penetration. Lack of moisture. Too much salt. Too little seasoning. These are a few of the problems dogging these operations.
The 10 restaurants below were the top performers this year. Does it mean that they’ll be 100 percent consistent? Not likely. Remember the bargain we’ve made.
10. Hammerdown Barbeque
No. 11 on last year’s expanded list.
It’s easy to like Hammerdown. The very decision to pile into your car and drive to Aldie, Va., begins the process of deceleration. Your body becomes attuned to the low-and-slow rhythms of founder Ken Soohoo’s rural operation, still only two years old. Speaking of low and slow, pitmaster Soohoo has switched up his method for smoking ribs. He now cooks the bones over higher heat, which has eliminated the rendered-fat flavor that tainted his ribs last year. The hot-and-fast approach, says Soohoo, “renders the fat quicker, so it doesn’t get absorbed” in the ribs. Soohoo also has improved his brisket over last year’s slices. Soft and buttery, with a light black-pepper bite, the brisket ranks among the finest around these parts. The pulled pork is too oily for me, but still: The growth here from one year to another is impressive.
41153 John Mosby Hwy., Aldie, Va. 703-542-8692. hammerdownbbq.com.
9. Liberty Barbecue
No. 5 on last year’s list.
Liberty’s inconsistency cost it four spots on the list. To me, its mood swings were more dramatic than those at Sloppy Mama’s, which is why I’ve assessed a larger penalty. I sampled meats here — I’m thinking about those wizened strands of pulled pork during my September visit — that were essentially unpalatable without a long squeeze of sauce. But when the place is clicking on all cylinders, the pit crew produces supple barbecue, its smoke level moderate and its seasoning delicate. I count the ribs among my favorite bones in the Washington area. I also appreciate that Liberty allows you to purchase smoked meats by the half pound. I wish more smokehouses would follow its lead.
370 West Broad St., Falls Church. 703-237-8227. libertyfallschurch.com.
8. Garden District
Returns to the list after a three-year absence.
When he died suddenly, shockingly, at the age of 38 last year, co-owner Tad Curtz left behind detailed instructions on how to smoke the meats at this outdoor garden better known for its beer and burgers. Actually, the instructions were more like notes made with a “Sharpie on butcher paper and jammed into a dirty plastic white folder,” says general manager James Waterhouse. Waterhouse took it upon himself to organize those notes — supplemented with an education via Aaron Franklin videos — into formal recipes. Waterhouse, in short, has inherited the title of pitmaster from Curtz, and he’s producing mouthwateringly good barbecue from a small Southern Pride unit that burns only mesquite and apple chips. His sauced brisket is smokier, and more succulent, than the stuff found at much larger joints. His ropy strands of pulled pork, at once sweet and tangy, are just as good. Even better, Waterhouse expands the menu on the weekends to include beef short ribs. If you’re lucky, you might even be around when Garden District smokes a whole pig’s head.
1801 14th St. NW. gardendistrictdc.com.
7. Monk’s BBQ
No. 9 on last year’s list.
Brian Monk Jenkins has six smokers on site at his ambitious restaurant in Purcellville, Va. One is a Meadow Creek TS250 reverse-flow smoker affixed to a trailer. Jenkins uses it for more delicate meats, such as chicken and ribs. He also has three large Heartland rotisserie smokers that he reserves for larger cuts, such as brisket and pork butts. Then he has two Humphrey’s smokers dedicated to cooking whole hogs. If you can’t tell already, Jenkins is a true believer in wood-smoked barbecue. Want further evidence? The pitmaster and his team have been endlessly tinkering, searching for the right combination of smoking, wrapping and holding techniques that will result in superb barbecue. These days, his brisket is magazine-cover gorgeous, its pink smoke ring tracing the outer edge of each slice like a racing stripe. A certain dryness still creeps into Jenkins’s meats, particularly his pulled pork, but his barbecue is trending in the right direction. I can’t wait to see what happens in the next 12 months.
251 N. 21st St., Purcellville, Va. 540-751-9425. monksq.com.
6. Rolling Rib Part II
No. 7 on last year’s list.
During the summer, pitmasters Ivory Davis Jr. and Ivory Davis III bought themselves a new, custom-built smoker. It’s a stick-burner that huffs and puffs outside the recently expanded Rolling Rib, which now has an adjacent dining room that seats 20. With their new machine, father and son turn out exceptional, idiosyncratic barbecue, seemingly beholden to no tradition, other than the ones they create themselves. The ribs are the undeniable star: charred, crusty, smoky and meaty. I could gnaw on these bones all day long. The chopped pork is a pile of minced pig meat, completely irresistible when mixed with the half-spicy sauce. The brisket may not compare to the best around Washington, but the sauced slices of lean-side beef are still slammable enough. The only bad news here is Rolling Rib’s seasonal status: The place closes down for winter on Nov. 17, reemerging next March. Which means you only have a few days left this year to enjoy this fine smokehouse in Prince George’s County.
9423 Marlboro Pike, Upper Marlboro, Md. 301-599-0099. therollingrib.com.
5. Sloppy Mama’s
No. 3 on last year’s list.
Yes, Sloppy Mama’s got demoted this year, dropping two spots from its No. 3 ranking in 2018. But the downgrade should come with an asterisk. Joe and Mandy Neuman are among the most ambitious owners in Washington barbecue. They made their bricks-and-mortar debut, with an advertising executive’s sense of timing, on July 4 in a converted Pizza Hut in Arlington. The location serves as the hub for a sprawling smokehouse empire, with satellite counters at Union Market and Ballston Quarter Market. This business model requires a lot of smoked meat and a lot of travel, and I sense the husband-and-wife team are still perfecting their systems. In the past few months, I’ve tasted the best that pitmaster Joe Neuman can produce (meltingly tender slices of moist brisket at Ballston), and I’ve observed the flaws in the system (spare ribs that had hardened into meat sticks, presumably from an extended stay in a holding unit at the Lee Highway shop). In barbecue, timing is everything, and Sloppy Mama’s is the latest evidence.
Main location: 5731 Lee Hwy., Arlington; counters at Union Market, 1309 Fifth St. NE. and at Ballston Quarter Market, 4238 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. sloppymamas.com.
4. DCity Smokehouse
No. 8 on last year’s list.
Earlier this year, pitmaster Shawn McWhirter walked away from DCity, the smokehouse that he had led ever since Rob Sonderman parted ways with the business to open Federalist Pig. Omar Marroquin, culinary director for Southeast Restaurant Group, DCity’s parent, has stepped in to manage the pit crew here. Marroquin suffers no fools — and no shortcuts. Among his first marching orders: Stop passing off two-day-old meats as fresh from the smoker. The changes are palpable at DCity, which made the largest jump of any smokehouse this year. Every meat has improved under Marroquin’s watch. They’re not just fresher, either. They’re smokier, too. The kitchen has even worked to improve its trimming and cutting skills. The sliced brisket no longer resembles slabs of prime rib.
203 Florida Ave. NW. 202-733-1919. dcitysmokehouse.com.
3. Hill Country Barbecue Market
No. 4 on last year’s list.
I’d wager that no restaurant produces more barbecue — or more mixed feelings among customers — than this Penn Quarter establishment captained by pitmaster Dan Farber. To my mind, the criticism is the logical result of a high-volume smokehouse constantly colliding with a voluble customer base, eager to sprout off about barbecue at every turn. The only way to shut up the critics is to serve good ’cue, and Farber continues to do so. My last visits here have been solid as a rock. The smoke penetration on the big three — brisket, ribs and pulled pork — has been impressive. Plus, I’ve sensed a shift away from aggressive seasonings and toward rubs that accentuate, not dominate, the quality of the smoked meats.
410 Seventh St. NW. 202-556-2050. hillcountry.com.
2. Federalist Pig
No. 2 on last year’s list.
Ever since pitmaster and partner Rob Sonderman opened Federalist Pig in Adams Morgan in 2017, I’ve fussed about the smoke levels that he and his team are able to produce with their small Southern Pride smoker. Maybe I caught them at the right time, on the right night, but I noticed a significant jump in smoke penetration during my last visit in mid-October. My slices of lean-side brisket, still fresh enough to stretch like an accordion, ferried the last faint clouds of wood smoke from that Southern Pride, not just the usual riot of cracked black pepper. Sonderman has an affection for spice, whether with black pepper or chile pepper powders, which burrow their way into his meats. His juicy chopped pork almost stings with heat, while his lacquered spare ribs have a black-pepper bite that needs to be respected. To my mind, the pitmaster’s love of spice has an almost Southern aspect to it, as if Sonderman is trying to remind locals of our location below the Mason-Dixon Line.
1654 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-827-4400. federalistpig.com.
1. Texas Jack’s
No. 1 on last year’s list.
The Arlington smokehouse maintained its top spot, in large part, because ownership cared enough to contract with opening pitmaster Matt Lang, who took a break from building out his barbecue shop in Philadelphia to work with the pit crew at Texas Jack’s — Edgar Mendoza, Wanner Zuniga and Edwin Abrego — to review all parts of the kitchen operation. The investment paid off handsomely. On my last visit, there was not a misstep with any of the meats, which tickled my nostrils with wood smoke before I took a single bite. The brisket, dark and crusty on the outside, jiggled with rendered fat under its peppery bark. The pulled pork relied on a dash of acid — not a 100-year flood of vinegar — to cut its richness. The spare ribs required a small tug, just enough to remind you of the animalness of barbecue, to release the smoky flesh from the bone. It was as close to perfection, I dare say, as you’ll get in Washington barbecue circles.
2761 Washington Blvd., Arlington. 703-875-0477. txjacks.com.
Dropped from last year’s rankings: Fat Pete’s in Cleveland Park (maddeningly inconsistent and, worse, often bland) and Texas 202 Barbeque of Maryland (co-owner and pitmaster Rev Ward sold the business and moved back to Texas; the new owners are still finding their way).
Design by Joanne Lee; Photo editing by Jennifer Beeson Gregory; Copy editing by Missy Khamvongsa.