This year has been a catalogue of destruction, one after another: the loss of life, income, business, restaurants, community, mental health. The list grows longer by the day, casting a shadow that will hover over us long after the pandemic has ceased to control our daily activities. The desire to find something good amid this madness is only human. Misery may love company, but when everyone is more or less miserable, we need some kind of relief valve.
I’ve found one: barbecue. The state of smoked meats in the D.C. area has never been better, even as the pandemic has impacted slaughterhouses and processors, causing meat prices to spike, in turn pushing restaurant prices higher for barbecue hounds like you and me. There’s no getting around this one basic fact: High-quality barbecue is not cheap, which means it may no longer be affordable for those who have seen their household budgets slashed to the bone.
But for those with the means, it is increasingly abundant, as my rounds made clear. This bonanza of good barbecue has come about despite declining sales, labor cutbacks, occasional beef shortages, health concerns and even, in one case, worries over visa extensions. The boom has come about because of the dedicated pitmasters and because of newcomers to the scene, three of whom made this list on their first attempt, including a precocious husband-and-wife team that debuted at No. 1, the Taylor Swift of barbecue.
The influx of talent has come at a cost. It has bumped some contenders off this list, good barbecue joints, places I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.
They include Rolling Rib Part II (the seasonal takeout spot in Upper Marlboro, which has killer pulled pork), Smoking Kow BBQ (with two locations in Northern Virginia, both of which sell these lacquered baby backs, at once sweet and smoky), Money Muscle BBQ (a new operation in Silver Spring that might have earned a spot had its smoke profiles been more pronounced), Garden District (on 14th Street NW, which has some of my favorite pit wings) and Fat Pete’s (the Cleveland Park veteran that has regained its footing after slipping in 2019). Then there are operations, such as Bark Barbecue and Mountain Song Barbecue, which produce meats good enough to grab a spot on this list, but they remain in pop-up mode, without a permanent home.
A quick note about my method this year: Everything I ate was takeout. I did this for a few reasons, including an obvious one: I didn’t care to eat indoors that often. But I also wanted to put everyone on equal footing. Some places don’t offer sit-down dining, but they all package meats for takeaway. I didn’t travel far when feasting on my orders. I’d grab the bags and find the nearest parking spot to dig in. Barbecue, as you know, goes downhill fast once pulled from the holding unit and sliced for public consumption.
I never thought I say anything positive about 2020, but I’ll proclaim this proudly: It’s been a very good year for barbecue.
10. HammerDown Barbeque
→ Same position on last year’s list
The pandemic has affected restaurants in countless ways. Staffing has been a particular struggle for HammerDown, the destination smokehouse on a stretch of rural Virginia highway that looks to be losing a battle with suburban sprawl. The worker crunch has pushed HammerDown founder Ken Soohoo and his younger brother, Bing, back into the pits to smoke meats. This is a boon to barbecue lovers. Soohoo’s brisket has never been better: The moist slices are stained red with white-oak smoke and outlined in black, a crust that seasons every bite with salt and cracked black pepper. The ribs are spot-on, too, the house rub balancing out its ample sugars with paprika and cayenne. The pulled pork are ropy strands, separated by hand and deeply succulent, if light on smoke. The sides can be hit or miss, but I swear by the baked beans, sweetened with dark brown sugar, which you can enrich with savory chunks of brisket (highly recommended).
41153 John Mosby Hwy., Aldie. 703-542-8692. hammerdownbbq.com.
9. Sloppy Mama’s
↓ No. 5 on last year’s list
Joe and Mandy Neuman, the founders of Sloppy Mama’s, contracted their operations this year, closing down their popular counter at Union Market during the pandemic. The contraction has hurt the Neumans’ bottom line, but it has also given the couple a chance to retrain their teams, tightening procedures that can naturally loosen over time. Joe Neuman, like Ken Soohoo at HammerDown, has also been more hands-on with the barbecue. Sloppy Mama’s drop in the rankings has less to do with its product and more to do with its competition. The shop’s chopped pork, rich and smoky, remains the gold standard. The housemade sausage, a pork link emboldened with brisket fat, snaps on first bite, its richness cut ever so gently with pickle brine. And speaking of pickles, you’ll find pieces of pickled cukes submerged in one of the best cole slaws around.
5731 Lee Hwy., Arlington; counter at Ballston Quarter Market, 4238 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. sloppymamas.com.
8. Ruthie’s All-Day
✳ New to the list
This Arlington newcomer isn’t a traditional smokehouse. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find the word “barbecue” anywhere on its menu. Owner and chef Matt Hill has instead created a family-friendly Southern restaurant that serves up breakfast, lunch and dinner in a rustic and refined space that looks like a Cracker Barrel got an extreme makeover — and a serious decluttering. Hill may prefer to call his entrees “meat and three,” in keeping with the Southern theme, but several of his mains are barbecue in everything but name. Formerly the culinary director for the Liberty Tavern Restaurant Group, including its smokehouse in Falls Church, Hill is blessed with an all-wood smoker at Ruthie’s (named after his late grandmother, a guiding light in his life), where he turns out superb specimens of brisket, pulled pork and spare ribs. The bones are particularly noteworthy: They’re smoked with a rub that includes five-spice powder, then glazed with a concoction that stirs together soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, ginger, Korean chili flake and more. They’re unforgettable.
3411 Fifth St. S., Arlington, 703-888-2841. ruthiesallday.com.
7. Federalist Pig
↓ No. 2 on last year’s list
Pitmaster and partner Rob Sonderman has been (somewhat) patiently waiting to open a new location in Hyattsville, where he will again work with a smoker worthy of his talents. Sonderman and co-owner Steve Salis had hoped to debut the suburban smokehouse late last year or early this year, but they’ve been stymied by the usual (bureaucratic red tape) and the unusual (the pandemic). In the meantime, the pair have ordered a gleaming, 25-foot mobile kitchen, complete with a wood-burning J&R smoker, to set up shop in the Hyattsville parking lot (5504 Baltimore Ave.) to jump-start operations. Expect the trailer to debut sometime after Thanksgiving, Sonderman says. In the meantime, the pitmaster continues to push his gas-assist smoker in Adams Morgan to its limits, turning out often fetching barbecue despite the constraints. Sonderman’s wings, spare ribs and pork shoulder remain the stars of the menu, distinctive and consistent. And if you haven’t tried his mac and cheese, these gooey shells smothered in smoked cheddar, you need to do yourself the favor.
1654 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-827-4400. federalistpig.com.
6. Hill Country Barbecue Market
↓ No. 3 on last year’s list
Anyone who set foot in Hill Country, pre-pandemic, knows how crowded the place could get on the weekends, as Texas expats, wannabe Texans and tourists alike turned the two-level space into what we would now call a superspreader event. Of course, the problem in dealing with such high volumes — aside from Hill Country’s nagging inconsistency with meats — is that your numbers have nowhere to go but down when a deadly virus races unabated across the country. Revenue has been way down at Hill Country, which brings no one joy, especially founder Marc Glosserman. But the pit crew here, led by Dan Farber, still delivers on the promise of the Central Texas-style smokehouse: The moist brisket remains the marquee meat, but the pulled pork, these rich morsels lightly touched with post-oak smoke, is an interloper that almost steals the show. And if you need a pick-me-up during the pandemic, I can’t think of anything better than Hill Country’s banana pudding speckled with vanilla beans, a confection that provides nothing but cool comfort down to the last spoonful.
410 Seventh St. NW. 202-556-2050. hillcountry.com.
5. Monk’s BBQ
↑ No. 7 on last year’s list
Brian Monk Jenkins does not play coy. It’s not his style. He says one of his business goals is to keep moving up in The Post’s annual barbecue rankings. He’s made good on that commitment: Monk’s moved up two spots this year despite competition that pushed other smokehouses further down the list. Jenkins is in a fortunate position: At a time when many operations are losing money, as much as 50 percent compared with last year’s revenue, Monk’s has been setting sales records, the owner tells me. He’s invested a fair chunk of those revenue back into the business. He bought two giant barrel smokers in May, and just as important, he and his pit team have refined their techniques. It shows in everything they produce, starting with slices of moist, accordion-pull brisket that hit all the marks. The Texas hot links, the spare ribs, the turkey, the pulled pork, there’s nary a miss here. The wild card is the smoke-scented pastrami, an unorthodox addition to the menu, but one that shouldn’t be ignored.
251 N. 21st St., Purcellville. 540-751-9425. monksq.com.
4. Smokecraft Modern Barbecue
✳ New to the list
Andrew Darneille knows restaurants. He’s been working in them for years, mostly managing front-of-the-house operations for restaurants large and small, from a location of the Cheesecake Factory to the late Old Glory BBQ in Georgetown. When the time came to launch his own, Darneille leaned into his passion for smoked meats. A backyard hobbyist turned barbecue circuit competitor, Darneille pushes the boundaries of a traditional smokehouse. His menu features smoked salmon, smoked spaghetti squash, smoked crab cakes, even smoked Caesar salad dressing, virtually anything as long as it’s “touched by fire or smoke,” Darneille says. But Smokecraft takes its staples seriously, too. Darneille buys Duroc pork, Wagyu beef and all-natural chicken and cooks them over six different types of wood, constantly tinkering with techniques to get the best out of his gas-assist smokers. The results are often mouthwatering: pulled pork that erases the line between sweet and savory, St. Louis-cut spare ribs that tickle the palate with a mild spice and slices of brisket that aren’t afraid to challenge diners with thick, smoky pockets of rendered fat.
1051 N. Highland St., Arlington, 571-312-8791. smokecraftbbq.com.
3. Texas Jack’s
↓ No. 1 on last year’s list
This Arlington restaurant has topped this list for the past two years, a difficult task given the vagaries of barbecue, and it might have retained the title if not for some tiny slippages. Wanner Zuniga and Edwin Abrego lead the pit crew at Texas Jack’s, and they continue to produce remarkable meats. Their pulled pork shoulder, flecked with seasoned pieces of outside brown, takes a plodding hunk of meat and turns it into an elegant tangle of smoke, acid, flesh and fat. Their spare ribs are textbook, the kind that let you sink your teeth into them, feeling that small, electric tug of meat from bone. Their chicken and Texas sausage hold their own, though the former’s aggressive seasonings can sometimes overwhelm the delicate white meat. Texas Jack’s brisket, usually its main attraction, was uncharacteristically tight on my recent order, as if the moisture had been leached from the slices. I chalked this up to the pandemic and the problem of slicing meats too early for takeaway, giving the beef time to degrade before unwitting customers (or a critic) can pick up their orders.
2761 Washington Blvd., Arlington. 703-875-0477. txjacks.com.
2. DCity Smokehouse
↑ No. 4 on last year’s list
DCity has ditched the traditional smokehouse hierarchy, in which a single pitmaster leads the crew and gets all the recognition (and the higher salary). Instead, Southeast Restaurant Group has instituted a team approach to smoking meats at DCity, where they keep a large-capacity J&R smoker running 24/7. The approach has paid off handsomely for the brand that debuted seven years ago as a tiny takeout with a big reputation. (If you’ll recall, Federalist Pig’s Sonderman was the pitmaster then, back when DCity still believed in a top-down structure.) No matter what meat you order at DCity — turkey, brisket, wings, pulled pork, spare ribs — it will arrive bathed in beautiful wood smoke, a mixture of fruit woods and post oak. In a region where barbecue joints often try to skate by with machines that can barely cough up a decent cloud of wood smoke, DCity is the real deal. The place is at the top of its game.
203 Florida Ave. NW. 202-733-1919. dcitysmokehouse.com.
1. 2Fifty Texas BBQ
✳ New to the list
Not only did co-owners Debby Portillo and Fernando Gonzalez open their restaurant during a pandemic, but they did so while also trying to renew their L-1A visas. Both circumstances have presented unique challenges to the couple from El Salvador. “To all that we’ve been through, now we have to add the renewal process. It’s a lot for us,” says Portillo, whose family has a long history of running restaurants and pupuserias back in the home country. 2Fifty is a joint project from Portillo, Gonzalez and Portillo’s father, Samuel, and it is singularly dedicated to Texas-style barbecue, under whose spell Gonzalez fell after a tour of Lone Star State smokehouses. The couple started out selling sandwiches and ingenious vacuum-sealed meats at farmers markets (now discontinued) until 2Fifty finally opened its doors this spring. All the meats are cooked on a 500-gallon, offset, indirect-flow smoker, which isn’t nearly large enough to keep up with demand (which is why a larger smoker will arrive next year). Buttery wagyu brisket. Smoky St. Louis-style ribs with just the right tug. Turkey so moist it almost melts on the tongue. Pulled pork with the lightest, sweetest smoke profile. Just as important: Portillo and Gonzalez channel their heritage into the sides, including caramelized pineapple and brisket beans that are closer in spirit to those prepared in El Salvador. 2Fifty is American. It’s Latin American. It is, hands-down, the best smokehouse in the area. (Heads-up: You best order ahead, if you want to sample this barbecue. I mean it.)
4700 Riverdale Rd., Riverdale Park, 240-764-8763. 2fiftybbq.com.
Dropped from last year’s list: Rolling Rib Part II in Upper Marlboro; Liberty Barbecue in Falls Church; and Garden District on 14th Street NW.
Photo editing by Jennifer Beeson Gregory. Design by Joanne Lee. Copy editing by Panfilo Garcia.