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Two chefs mess with the orthodoxy of barbecue, and we’re the better for it

Chef/owner Matt Hill carves a smoked brisket at Ruthie's All-Day in Arlington. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post/for The Washington Post)

My problem with best-of lists, even the ones I compile, is not just their arbitrary nature but their implied air of authority. All my heroes growing up were people who fought authority. They still are. To me, best-of lists suggest the establishments included on them are the only ones you need to care about, end of story. The man has spoken!

But food lists, no matter how much they’re rooted in knowledge and experience, are arbitrary. And I don’t mean that all taste buds are different, though that’s true, too. I mean, individual experiences inside restaurants are different: Your slices of brisket may arrive fresh, moist and elastic. Mine may be better used as a razor strop. But then there are the decisions made outside the sphere of a restaurant, like the one I made for this year’s barbecue guide: I single-handedly decided that Ruthie’s All-Day (3411 Fifth St. South, Arlington, Va., 703-888-2841; no longer fits my definition of a smokehouse.

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It’s my list, of course, so I get to make the rules. But here’s a peek at the cobwebby inner-workings of my anti-authoritarian brain: I question everything, especially my own decisions. Which is why I wanted to chat with Matt Hill, the chef and co-owner of Ruthie’s, about his definition of a barbecue restaurant. I wanted to see if mine had been trapped in amber, tied to a lower Paleolithic era when every smokehouse required Formica tables, Lone Star neon lights on the wall and a meat-by-the-pound counter in back. I wanted to check with Hill and see if the definition of a barbecue joint had shifted to something more flexible — a place that could serve smoked meats and fried chicken, tuna tartare and a black bean quinoa burger — and I had been caught unawares.

For better or worse, Hill is too much of a gentleman to call me a knuckle-dragger. He’s a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a veteran of some fancy kitchens (Craft, Range, Charlie Palmer Steak), but he’s also a guy raised in North Carolina. He has manners. He sometimes addresses me as “sir.” Yet, even if Hill and I didn’t mix it up over definitions, he did share one important opinion: He thinks Ruthie’s is, at its core, a barbecue restaurant.

“We do a lot of different things, granted. But, I mean, we really do focus on the barbecue,” Hill told me. “It’s very special to me, you know: the long process of making a tougher cut of meat into something really, really special.”

I’m not sure our conversation changed my mind on Ruthie’s. The Arlington restaurant does seem to be in a category of its own making, though I will continue to ponder whether I need to expand my definition of a smokehouse. In the meantime, I thought it only fair to highlight some of the dishes that Hill prepares in a style that, like his restaurant itself, embraces barbecue traditions but expands on them, too.

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Take, for example, his duck available on the dinner menu. Hill brines the bird in a simple salt solution for a couple of hours before smoking it until the duck reaches about 110 degrees Fahrenheit. He’ll then chill the bird and finish it on a wood grill to order. What you get is a fan of breast meat, its aroma as delicate as Chinese tea-smoked duck, but its woodsy, white oak personality placing it somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line, especially when paired with the accompanying sunchoke chowchow. It’s a brilliant dish, American barbecue as filtered through Sichuan traditions.

In fact, I’ll ride with Ruthie’s poultry dishes all down the line, even when Hill’s brisket and pulled pork are on point. His wings are briefly brined, dry-rubbed with custom seasoning mixture (which Hill has dubbed TCB or Taking Care of Business, the spice blend equivalent of a stadium anthem), smoked and then finally fried to order. Crackly on the outside and juicy inside, these wings, unlike so many of their bar cousins, need no sauce. The half chicken is even better and more complex: Marinated for two days in soy, lime and lemon juice, the bird is smoked, held, grilled to order and then finished with white barbecue sauce. Unorthodox, yes. Amazing? Without question.

Unlike Hill, Rich Rosendale doesn’t consider his restaurant a barbecue joint. He originally opened Roots 657 (42301 Spinks Ferry Rd., Leesburg, Va., 703-779-9657; in 2016 as a neighborhood spot, serving soups, salads, sandwiches and burgers to locals in the Leesburg area. Rosendale is not the kind of guy who babysits 1,000-gallon offset pits custom-made in Texas. He comes from the world of fine dining. He used to be executive chef at the Greenbrier, the historic resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., where the operators once had a doomsday bunker in the basement for members of Congress. He’s competed in the prestigious Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France.

In other words, if you cut him, Rosendale doesn’t bleed barbecue sauce.

By which I mean that Rosendale has developed his own chef-driven approach to barbecue. It’s unconventional. It’s precise. It’s designed to be so foolproof that high-schoolers working part-time at Roots 657 can, more or less, prepare it. It’s also practical: Rosendale oversees a vast collection of enterprises, ranging from fine-dining events and restaurants to corporate trainings and culinary workshops. This guy doesn’t have time to drink beer by a smoker.

Executive chef Scott Poff oversees the Old Hickory and Myron Mixon smokers in the back of Roots 657. Per Rosendale’s direction, these smokers run low for large cuts of meat. I mean, really low, lower than the usual low-and-slow temperatures, and lower than the preferred temps for Mixon’s famed water smokers, which can run at 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Rosendale won’t say how low he sets the smokers, but he allows that they cook at temperatures under 205 degrees. Between the humidity of his smoking cabinets and their lower temperatures, Rosendale’s approach sounds like a cross between traditional barbecue techniques and sous-vide cooking.

Rosendale also likes to aggressively trim his briskets, using the leftover fat to make soap(!). To the chef’s way of thinking, a thick layer of fat interferes with smoke’s ability to penetrate the meat while also blocking the rub from seasoning the beef. I’ll give him this: Rosendale’s techniques make for some radiantly smoky meat, a selling point all its own, especially when those meats are tucked into a sandwich. But — and here’s where the master chef and the barbecue hound differ — I find his brisket too dry and crumbly. The high humidity of his smoking method cannot make up for the lost fat.

But the thing that Roots 657 does well, maybe better than anybody else, is pulled pork. The bark on the shop’s pork shoulders is a deep, dark mahogany, created by a confluence of rub, smoke and lots of time. The rub, which includes a small amount of sugar, seasons every bite, turning these ropy, fatty pieces of pork into something that goes down like candy. I certainly ate it like candy.