The smoker at Liberty Barbecue in Falls Church is a hand-me-down from the previous occupant of the space: a Famous Dave’s outlet that fell victim to the chain’s cost-cutting measures. The gas-assisted machine is not the kind that makes pitmasters drool, but it’s the kind that makes the grade with city health inspectors. It’s a standard, set-it-and-forget-it urban smoker — safe, ugly and reliable.
But here’s the thing: Dedicated pitmasters have been finding ways to manipulate these large-capacity contraptions to produce smokier, more succulent barbecue. They may turn off the gas function on the unit, relying only on smoldering logs to cook their meats. Or they may turn the thermostat so low that the gas never kicks on. Whatever the technique, the pitmasters are willfully undermining the very purpose of these machines, which is to make low-and-slow barbecue easy for anyone to master, even the underpaid line jockeys working at every Famous Dave’s.
Technically, I guess, you could lump Matt Hill into the category of rookie pitmasters. The chef, who oversees a trio of related restaurants in Clarendon, including Liberty Tavern, had never run his own smokehouse until sister restaurant Liberty Barbecue came along late last year. But Hill is a child of North Carolina — Charlotte, to be exact — where the barbecue traditions run deep and proud. He recalls smoking his first pork shoulder on an improvised grill at age 14, or maybe 15. He can’t remember the exact year because, in all likelihood, it was no big deal. Just the standard rite of passage for any kid who grew up with the scent of chopped pork in his nostrils.
Hill had lusted after his own barbecue joint for years, yet he’s been running kitchens long enough to know he would need pitmasters with real experience if he wanted to tinker with that Southern Pride rotisserie smoker in the kitchen. So he hired a pair of pros: Dan Till, a veteran of Pork Barrel in Alexandria, and Wilson Giron, a former executive sous chef at Texas Jack’s in Arlington. Together, this trio endlessly searches for ways to improve the performance of their smoker, and their results are solid and sometimes even impressive, although not consistently so.
The first time I visited Liberty, it was an unseasonably warm day in February, barbecue weather in winter. I sat at the bar, admiring the airy space with its mix of bench seating and simple, armless chairs placed around family-style tables. It reminded me of an outdoor picnic, only set in a climate-controlled room with a full bar and craft cocktails. One element immediately stood out: There was barely a trace of smoke in the air, a potentially worrisome sign as I waited on a three-meat platter.
My platter arrived on a jelly roll pan, generously loaded with pulled pork, thick slices of brisket and two clublike spare ribs, the rib tips still attached. The smokiest of the three was, to my surprise, the ribs, which spend the least amount of time in the smoker. Seasoned with only salt and pepper, the bones offered the kind of meaty resistance that makes biting into them such a pleasure. The pulled pork featured rich, ropy strands of shoulder meat, light on smoke but long on fatty, gelatinous flavor.
The brisket was the runt of this litter. Cut from the end of the brisket, the slices sported a brawny, black-pepper-heavy bark, but concealed flesh that had started to break down into individual fibrils, a sure sign of overcooked meat. I chalked it up to time, barbecue’s sworn enemy. It was well into the 8 o’clock hour when I dined, and I suspect the meat had sat in a warming unit since morning, slowly losing its figure.
A week and a half later, some friends and I pawed our way through a four-meat platter, and it was as if the brisket had been shipped in from Central Texas. The slice of moist brisket practically quivered, releasing a rush of hickory smoke when passed before my nose for inspection. This was objectively fine barbecue, although I should point out one pertinent detail: Hill spotted me in the restaurant before we sat down to eat. Now, he couldn’t exactly smoke a whole new brisket for us, but he could make sure that only the finest slices were sent our way. The scales, I’d suggest, were tipped in our favor.
Just three months into its existence, Liberty Barbecue has navigated a relatively safe course, keeping its menu tight and manageable. Still, there are surprises, starting with the appetizer chicken wings, so smoky, crackly and buttery they don’t need the spicy chipotle or Alabama white sauces. The strips of smoked pork belly, rubbed with something approximating Chinese five-spice power, have a split personality: sometimes firm and smoky, and sometimes luscious and lined with grill marks for an acrid finish. Honestly, I’ll take them either way, especially with a splash of the house-made Carolina vinegar sauce.
One of the unexpected pleasures at Liberty has nothing to do with barbecue. It’s the pickle-brined fried chicken, a dish featured only on Mondays at Liberty Tavern. It’s a daily offering here, and I swear I could eat it just as often. The bird is brined for 36 hours in a mixture that includes apple cider vinegar, garlic, salt, sugar, dill seed and more. The chicken is then breaded and pressure-fried into a crackly specimen, with the sweetest, softest note of acid hiding in the background.
There’s nary a miss among the sides, although consistency can be an issue here, too. One evening a disposable tin of mac-and-cheese arrived stiff and lukewarm, as if it had barely touched the salamander broiler on its way from walk-in to table; another night, it was creamy, nutty and irresistible. The kitchen stumbled in other areas, too: a burger griddled to an almost dehydrated state and a smoked-brisket chili that was so timidly spiced it practically qualified as tomato soup.
Bridie McCulla handles the desserts at Liberty Barbecue, as she does at all the sister establishments. I’d encourage you to save space for her Texas sheet cake, a dark and fudgy treat that dares to suggest that there’s no such thing as too much chocolate. This is not a subtle finishing course. It’s like the brisket of desserts, which is no doubt why I love it.
370 West Broad St., Falls Church, Va., libertyfallschurch.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: West Falls Church/VT-UVA, with about a 1.5-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $4 to $32 for appetizers and salads; $6 to $55 for smoked meats, platters and entrees.