The brisket was familiar, and it was strange.
Sliced thin from the lean side of the muscle, the ribbons of beef were as tender as veal. Each slice sported a smoke ring so perfect, it looked as if the stripe had been applied with an eyeliner brush. The meat’s edges offered no bark whatsoever, but instead supplied wave after wave of wood smoke.
The brisket reminded me of the Kansas City-style slices I devoured in my 20s. Well, except for one troubling quality: The slices were all pink in the middle. I wondered whether the pitmaster at this Northern Virginia smokehouse — the name on the facade read Oklahoma Joe’s, but more on that in a sec — was relying on a competition trick and injecting the brisket with brine or some other flavorful cocktail. I mean, why not? Its owner, Joe Davidson, is a legend of the competition circuit.
Turns out, I was sort of right. And terribly wrong.
First of all, the Oklahoma Joe’s location near the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station is no longer an Oklahoma Joe’s. The two investing partners behind the joint have made an amicable split from Davidson and his plan to expand the Oklahoma Joe’s brand to the Mid-Atlantic. Ahmad Ashkar — who is also behind the charity-minded Falafel Inc. in Georgetown — and brother Aladdin Ashkar had their own ideas about barbecue. Like anyone devoted to the art of smoking meats, they couldn’t just surrender their beliefs for the sake of a chain.
“Joe wants to do barbecue his way, and my brother and I want to do it the Kansas City way,” Ahmad Ashkar says. Davidson was supportive of the split, he adds.
The new signage just went up at the smokehouse: It’s now called District BBQ , an odd handle for a Vienna space (2670 Avenir Pl., 703-573-2370), but that’s neither here nor there. The important thing is that the Ashkar brothers — natives of Kansas City, Mo., where the barbecue traditions run deep and saucy — have been stepping up their efforts to produce some seriously smoky meats.
One of the first things the brothers did was apply duct tape over the burner switch, so no one could turn on the gas-assist function of their Ole Hickory smoker. At District BBQ, they cook only with wood, with billowy clouds of smoke that touch everything inside the restaurant, including the patrons who walk through it. But Ahmad and Aladdin Ashkar have also had to search for their own suppliers, which is how I encountered that brisket with a blush of pink. It was apparently a pre-injected product the brothers briefly experimented with. They didn’t care for it. They have since abandoned the supplier.
All of which, I think, indicates that District BBQ is a place to watch in the coming months. The operation didn’t crack my list of top 10 barbecue joints this year, but it improved dramatically since my first visit, shortly after the shop debuted last year as Oklahoma Joe’s. The barbecue was a snooze back then. It’s now in contention for a spot among Washington’s best. Its pulled pork is already noteworthy, the smoke weaving in and around the seasoned meat. Its burnt ends, at once caramelized and righteously chewy, make you understand why Kansas Citians love them so. I expect the brisket will only get better with time.
I also expect that you’ll see more District BBQ shops around the Washington area. The brothers are already building a second location, set to launch in Bristow, Va., in February, and they have their eyes set on Rockville, too. Will it be more of a good thing? Or too much, too soon? Given what I’ve seen and heard at this point, I’m placing my bets on the former.
So who else almost made the rankings this year? I’m glad you asked.
Several established brands upped their game from last year. Pork Barrel BBQ (2312 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, 703-822-5699) produced some fine pulled pork, succulent and studded with aromatic strands of outside brown. The St. Louis-style ribs were spot on, too. The brisket was its Achilles’ heel, slices of lean-side beef that boasted a handsome smoke ring, but nothing else.
The brisket also sunk Urban Bar-B-Que , the local chain that’s been smoking meats for more than a decade now. A friend and I visited the location in the Rock Creek Village Center (5566 Norbeck Rd., Rockville, 301-460-0050), once the site of Urban’s burger eatery. The brisket here was as dry as a mummy’s throat. I ignored most of the slices, saving room for what is arguably the best plate of pork anywhere in the area: Pulled into large, meaty strands, these pieces were smoky, rich and perfectly seasoned.
Finally, I want to tip my $20 Diner gimme cap to an old timer on the D.C. scene: Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Company has been smoking meats since 1990, long before some of you were eating solid food. Owner John Snedden uses custom-made pits that burn only wood, not that you’d know this when you place an order at, say, his original location in Glover Park (2418 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-333-2558). A cook will typically reconstitute your barbecue on a burner, adding sauce along the way.
In my early years as a Washingtonian, I used to turn my nose up at this style. But last month, when I visited the Glover Park store, I found myself face-to-face with this lush pileup of smoky barbecue, sauced and sprinkled with a few softened curls of onion. It wasn’t fresh — the ribs, in particular, had the hardened exterior of bones too long out of the smoker — but it was delicious. The brisket was like meat candy, the beef equivalent of maple-glazed bacon.
Maybe I’m just turning soft as I get older. I prefer to think, however, that I’m turning less dogmatic about barbecue. There are many ways to attain the final product we all desire: a smoky mess of meats. Rocklands has its approach down pat, and I think it’s time to give the place its due respect.