A roll of butcher paper hangs next to the touch-screen register at Federalist Pig. The thick, porous paper, frequently used to wrap briskets during the final hours of their smoke bath, serves a more thankless task at pitmaster Rob Sonderman’s new barbecue joint: It lists the meats and sides that have sold out for the night.
Some days, the list reads like an obit page, in which a few of your dearest friends have made the transition to the big smokehouse in the sky. One Sunday, I walked into Federalist Pig and was confronted by the evening’s casualties: brisket, chicken, coleslaw, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. Did the Huns just storm Adams Morgan?
As disheartening as this death watch may be, the 86’d list is evidence that Federalist Pig is that rare D.C. barbecue emporium that favors quality over quantity. The place serves smoked meats till they’re gone, even if they’re gone by 8 p.m., the dinner hour for many in this hard-working town. It’s an approach that acknowledges the limitations of low-and-slow barbecue, with its inherent scarcity. A pitmaster of Sonderman’s skill can do a lot to generate demand for his product, but he can’t defy the laws of food chemistry. He can’t smoke a 16-pound brisket to order just because someone demands a platter of fatty-end beef at any hour of the day.
In short, if you want to sample some of the finest barbecue in Washington, you better get to Federalist Pig early, before the place turns off its jaundiced yellow lights for the evening. Adjust your dinner schedules accordingly.
Federalist Pig is a different animal from Sonderman’s last pit stop, DCity Smokehouse, that former shoe box on Florida Avenue NW, where the pitmaster and his crew were burning only hardwoods to produce barbecue of often exceptional quality. At Federalist Pig — a joint project with Sonderman; Steve Salis, co-founder and former chief executive of &pizza; and Steven Thornton, former chief operating officer for Nando’s Peri-Peri — the partners were forced to install a gas-enhanced Southern Pride smoker when their insurance company wouldn’t allow an all-wood unit.
Sonderman accepted the change of smokers as more of a challenge than a setback, even if, in the small, obsessive world of serious barbecue, these gas-assist ovens will mark you as a traitor to the pitmaster tradition. Sonderman decided to adapt the machine into a wood-burning smoker, a modification that one local pitmaster privately told me couldn’t be done. The machine, I was informed, can’t reach the temperatures needed when burning only wood.
This turned out to be #fakenews. Sonderman’s machine burns plenty hot, even when he and overnight pitmaster Desmon Demar pack it with briskets and whole pork shoulders. Which isn’t to say Sonderman hasn’t battled his new oven. He initially tried to burn fruit woods in the smoker, but the more exotic logs, including persimmon and honey locust, didn’t produce the quality of smoke necessary to perfume the meats. Sonderman now relies on red oak, white oak and pecan woods for his cooks.
So what does all of this geekery say about Sonderman? It says this is a pitmaster decidedly not interested in the convenience of a gas-assist oven. Sonderman is deploying every trick he knows to produce barbecue at the same level he achieved at DCity more than a year ago, when I considered him the District’s finest pitman. He’s not there yet, but his dedication to the craft still places him near the top of the local pitmaster pecking order, especially now that Matt Lang has left Texas Jack’s.
Sonderman has changed every recipe from his DCity days, playing up the spicier side of his personality in the process. His brisket growls with two different grinds of black pepper. His chicken wings and spareribs crank up the chili powders, but with enough sweet counterpoints to ensure the meats remain on this side of the Jamaican jerk dividing line. Sonderman puts a spicy edge on numerous items, whether his pickle chips or his special side of Mexican-style hominy, which comes spiked with green chiles. Even his “faux cue” sandwich (an ever-changing stack of smoky vegetables, crispy onions and more) pushes a nuclear agenda.
If there’s a recurring issue at Federalist Pig, it’s this disconnect between what you see and what you smell and taste. Piled onto a jellyroll pan, Sonderman’s barbecue tantalizes the eye with glistening slices of jiggly brisket; with dark and lacquered rib bones; with chopped pork stacked high on a seeded bun and topped with a sprinkling of crispy pig skin. Yet time and again, these plates come up short on the sniff test: The meats regularly lack the deep smoky flavor that their sultry, almost cinematic glamour would suggest. It seems clear that, even when burning only hardwoods, Sonderman’s Southern Pride unit has trouble perfuming meat to the pitmaster’s previous standards.
Smoke penetration aside, there is much to admire about Federalist Pig. The chopped pork, prepared from a whole bone-in shoulder and topped with pigskin croutons, may be the closest thing Washington has to North Carolina-style whole-hog barbecue. The succulent turkey breast, smoked and held in warmed butter, almost begs for reclassification: Confit barbecue? The spareribs borrow from Memphis traditions but are uniquely Sonderman’s: After their initial smoke, the bones are glazed with sugar and apple cider vinegar, then popped under a broiler until crusty before a final shake of seasoning. Right now, the ribs are superior to Sonderman’s brisket, which remains a work in progress.
The sandwich menu at Federalist Pig is more focused than Sonderman’s old one at DCity, although it is just as committed to pushing the limits of human anatomy and our ability to wrap our jaws around these big, bread-based bites. Two sandwiches, the Club and the Jive Turkey, deserve special mention for their ability to surround the smoked meats with enough decadent flavors to make ordering turkey not an act of defiance. Add a side of smoked cheddar mac-and-cheese or crisp, salty fries, and you no longer look like the nutritional nerd who orders turkey at a smokehouse. (Although your beer chaser will have to wait until next month, when the restaurant expects to get its liquor license.)
There’s one other benefit to taking a chance on turkey at Federalist Pig: It never seems to appear on the list of barbecue casualties.
1654 Columbia Rd. NW, 202-827-4400, federalistpig.com.
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; noon to 10 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Columbia Heights, with a half-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $8 to $12.50 for sandwiches; $6.50 to $11 for barbecue meats by the half-pound; $15 to $55 for platters and combos; $15 or $28 for half-rack or full rack, respectively, of spare ribs; $5, $9 or $17 for a quarter, half or whole chicken; $6.5, $12 or $22.50 for six, 12 or 24 chicken wings.