As Andrew Evans stood over a wood cutting board and sliced thick lengths of brisket at the new BBQ Joint location at Union Market, I asked the pitmaster what kind of rub he uses. Salt and pepper? Or something more elaborate?
“I can’t stand salt-and-pepper rubs,” Evans responded.
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If we were holding this conversation in some seedy Texas bar, instead of the genteel confines of this gastronomic meet-market, Evans and I might be trading left hooks instead of words. But since I’m supposed to be wearing my journalist’s hat and not my Texas barbecue apron, I swallowed hard on the chef’s dismissal of the classic Lone Star State rub and treated the comment as just another piece of information.
Later, I learned that Evans doesn’t think about barbecue like a dogmatic pitmaster, one bound (perhaps straitjacketed?) by the practices and seasonings of a particular region. As the man who once created the menus at the Inn at Easton, a three-star dining room that closed in late 2007, Evans wants his barbecue to be as inventive as his fine-dining cuisine. One result of his approach: He doesn’t believe in the superiority of smoke, but in a hickory wood perfume that’s in perfect balance with the meat’s other qualities.
You could say Evans is a barbecue iconoclast. You could also say his ’cue forces you to drop many, if not all, of your preconceived notions about smoked meats and sauces.
The first time I ordered Evans’s brisket, I was struck by its succulence. His slices were so moist they almost sweated, even when carved from the lean, traditionally dry side of the brisket. This kind of juiciness is as rare as tempeh in a Tennessee smokehouse, particularly for meats smoked at another location and transported to a retail spot via insulated coolers, as is Evans’s barbecue at Union Market. My brain searched for answers to his moisture miracle, even as my stomach begged for another bite.
As a sometimes competitor on the barbecue circuit, Evans might be injecting the beef, I figured. Turns out, he brines his briskets for 48 hours, then smokes them in a Cookshack machine that creates a moist environment, resulting in a hunk of beef that’s simultaneously succulent and devoid of a smoke ring. The slices also don’t have much bark, that layer of fat and seasonings melded together into a blackened crust. Instead, Evans sprinkles his briskets with a prickly mixture that smacks of onions, garlic, salt and sugar.
In short, the brisket at BBQ Joint would seem to offer little for Lone Star enthusiasts like me: little smoke, little bark and little of the flamboyant pepperiness of Central Texas meats. Still, Evans’s sheer skill with his pits creates a kind of inverted, alternative barbecue universe, one where juicy, delicately scented beef proves almost as delectable as my preferred style. Almost.
If Evans proves stingy with the hickory smoke on his brisket, he turns spendthrift with it on his ribs and sausages. The former are pork spare ribs, served either wet or dry, that require you to tear the smoky, sweet-and-spicy flesh from the bone with your incisors, as all good barbecue ribs should. The latter are sliced rings of Duroc pork sausage mixed with Devils Backbone Vienna Lager and Sriracha sauce; they will flood your mouth with liquid, smoke and spice, likely leaving behind a wad of thick, chewy casing.
Depending on your need to pile on flavor, the brisket, ribs and sausage can all be savored without one of Evans’s four house-made sauces. Only the coarsely chopped pork, practically as dry as jerky, demands an application of outside moisture. It could be a scoop of creamy, crunchy slaw atop the meat sandwiched between soft potato buns. Or it could be a squirt of Evans’s spicy barbecue sauce, a pungent-and-peppery concoction with fermented, almost Asian overtones, thanks to its addition of Worcestershire sauce.
The pork’s sad, desiccated state made me wonder if its shortcomings could be traced to its traveling time and holding units. So I hopped in the car and headed to Easton, where Evans opened his original BBQ Joint in 2010. (Evans delivers his ’cue to Union Market from the Pasadena, Md., store, opened in 2013, but I wanted to sample the fare at the older, more established operation.)
Driving on U.S. Route 50, buzzing past dormant fields and rusting barns, just puts you in a barbecue state of mind. So does the BBQ Joint in Easton, with its wood shavings on the floor and competition trophies perched on a ledge above the dining room. The Easton menu dwarfs the microscopic one at Union Market; this is the full-frontal barbecue experience, as opposed to the peekaboo version off Florida Avenue in Northeast Washington.
As predicted, the pulled pork in Easton proved juicier and smokier than the poor meats forced to survive the death march from Pasadena to the District. (Although even in Easton, these porky morsels faded fast, as the air began its dehydration assault.) Just as interesting, the Eastern Shore shop produced an inferior brisket, its lean, pot-roast-like slices stripped almost clean of fat. I also thought the Easton location served overcooked, less compelling collard greens and baked beans compared with the versions in the District.
As if anyone needs another reminder, the mood swing between BBQ Joint locations underscores the difficulties in bringing consistency to a smoking process that resists all attempts at domestication. This must be particularly true for the sophisticated, chef-driven barbecue of Andrew Evans, who prefers meats of craft and nuance, not just those with Texas-size clouds of black pepper and smoke.
1309 Fifth St. NE. 202-714-3292.
Nearest Metro station: NoMa-Gallaudet, with a half-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $5 a link for sausages; $7.50, $9.50 and $11 per half pound for ribs, pork and brisket, respectively.
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