In a world defined by its territories, tribes and customs, each one quick to pick a fight with outsiders, I had mixed it up with the Lone Star State’s most influential smokehouse, a taunt that many qualified as a monumental form of stupid. But I had my reasons. I also had few barbecue experts who could contradict me, since most had not set foot in both places.
Until Vaughn came knocking.
We visited Hill Country on a Sunday in late June. Our order of brisket, from both the lean and moist sides, had already been sliced and was lounging under a heat lamp. I asked whether the slices were fresh. The counterman insisted they were. They weren’t. They had surrendered their succulence well before we arrived. Whatever smokiness they may have had initially was history. Even some of the bark had been unceremoniously sliced off.
Vaughn quickly rendered his judgment: thumbs down, which I captured on Instagram and promptly shared. The messages, texts and emails soon followed, including ones from Hill Country founder Marc Glosserman and pitmaster Dan Farber.
“I was definitely devastated at first. I was hoping that he would have been impressed,” Farber says. After he massaged his bruised ego, he sat down with his team and explained, “It’s hard to get to the top, and it’s even harder to stay there.” He went on to say that small mistakes, like the counterman’s nonchalance about the freshness of the brisket, can hurt a smokehouse’s reputation.
“Even though it’s Sunday, you can’t lose sight or lose focus,” Farber told the team. “We all are as good as our last brisket.”
Vaughn’s opinion did not, by itself, rob Hill Country of its crown. No, the restaurant’s inconsistency did. I visited Hill Country five times in the months leading up to this year’s top 10 barbecue list, and I could never predict what would land on my butcher paper. Sometimes the brisket was so on-point — smoky, aggressively seasoned, fork-tender — that it did compare to the best found in Central Texas. Other times, I wondered whether the pit crew had forgotten to put wood in the smoker.
Hill Country is symbolic of the D.C. barbecue scene in general: It’s always in flux.
So much has changed since June 2017, when I last updated this list. Smokehouse Live in Leesburg has closed. José Andrés has entered the barbecue business with his new America Eats Tavern in Georgetown (where his crews still need to figure out how to produce more and better smoke). And some smokehouses that I thought were ready for prime time — such as District BBQ in Vienna — took a step back.
The result? There are four new restaurants on the list, which I expanded to 11 this year because the smokehouses that finished 10th and 11th both deserved attention, though for different reasons. There’s also lots of movement up and down the list for those that made the cut again. There’s even a new No. 1. But for those who saw Vaughn’s stern thumbs down, that probably doesn’t come as a surprise.
The 11 best barbecue joints
Located on a bucolic stretch of highway in Loudoun County, HammerDown is not beholden to the same environmental regulations as the big-city smokehouses. Founder and pitmaster Ken Soohoo’s custom-built smoker huffs and puffs on an open-air slab next to the restaurant, perfuming the outdoors with the clean, woodsy scent of smoldering white oak logs. The meats pulled from Soohoo’s pit are surprisingly light on smoke, as if his giant, reverse-flow rig can’t quite pull the vapors the entire length of the smoker. Still, the brisket rings true, succulent and stinging with black peppercorns. The spareribs need work: Their primary aroma is rendered fat, bordering on rancid. But the operation is not even a year old. My long-term expectations are high for HammerDown.
Ranked No. 7 on last year’s list
The small local chain has closed its College Park location, and its downtown operation doesn’t smoke meats on premises. Which leaves the original Cleveland Park location as your only semi-reliable outlet. Based on my two visits, I’d say it’s a crapshoot as to what you’ll get here. When Fat Pete’s nails it — say, slices of brisket that tickle your nose with smoke and your palate with spice — you’ll wonder why you ever doubted the place. Then you’ll bite into a sparerib, its meat underseasoned and its exterior bitter with char, and you’ll suddenly remember why.
This Purcellville establishment boasts an impressive variety of outdoor smokers, including a large box used occasionally to smoke whole hogs, for a rare taste of South Carolina ’cue in Virginia. The pit team also takes a time-intensive approach to brisket, holding the wrapped meat for hours in oversize coolers before slicing and serving the beef to order. The technique makes for brisket that almost melts on your tongue. But it also does terrible things to the outer bark, stripping the brisket of many of its essential seasonings. Sauce is practically a requirement here, save for the nearly blackened spareribs, which hide a nice pinch of spice in the relief map of rub on their surface.
251 N. 21st St., Purcellville, Va. 540-751-9425. monksq.com.
Ranked No. 10 on last year’s list
In the two-plus years since pitmaster Rob Sonderman left DCity, this Florida Avenue operation has been searching for an identity of its own. Sonderman’s fingerprints remain all over the sandwiches, but DCity pitmaster Shawn McWhirter has fine-tuned his approach to pork — a tangled mound of pulled pig meat, lightly smoked and studded with almost caramelized pieces of outside brown — to the point where it’s become one of my favorites anywhere in the District. I’d still like to see McWhirter take a more aggressive approach to trimming the fat off his precooked briskets, and then slicing the beef thinner for service. That said, the brisket is showing better than ever. And when fresh, the wings are a signature item worth repeat orders.
This take-away spot in Upper Marlboro, Md., is open Friday through Sunday only, which means the tiny parking lot can become clogged with cars, many arriving straight from church. But whether pious or agnostic, customers faithfully stand in line for co-owner Ivory Davis’s Southern-style meats. For a first-timer, Rolling Rib may require a leap of faith: Its meats are not produced for the Instagram age, when a dish’s visual appeal is practically more important than its gustatory one. This is homestyle barbecue designed to satisfy only one thing: some deep-seated craving for meats slow-cooked with wood and charcoal. If the brisket sells out, as it often does, order the spareribs and pulled pork, both of which are smoky and succulent. As an unexpected treat, Rolling Rib, Part II (the first edition was a truck) serves up slices of sweet potato pie from the legendary Henry’s Soul Cafe, which was founded by the father of RR co-owner Henrietta Davis.
9423 Marlboro Pike, Upper Marlboro, Md. 301-599-0099.
6. Texas 202 Barbecue of Maryland
Ranked No. 6 on last year’s list
Co-owner and pitmaster Rev Ward is a religious man and a serious servant to the god of smoked meats. A sign underneath the ordering counter warns that the devil is not welcomed at Texas 202, which is a genuine loss for Satan, because Ward’s brisket is even better than it was last year. The beef is also, much to my surprise, not a deep bow in the direction of Texas. Its bark isn’t a blast of pepper spray, but something more balanced and satisfying. Ward takes his barbecue just to the edge of oversmoking without ever tumbling over the precipice. Conversely, Ward’s pulled pork is a saucy affair, almost to the detriment of his smoked meat. Almost.
This suburban smokehouse, the latest project from the folks behind Liberty Tavern and Lyon Hall, had been experiencing the standard ups and downs of a pit crew fumbling its way around an unfamiliar smoker. But then chef Matt Hill and his team discovered that young hickory burns better in their Southern Pride smoker than wood aged a year or more. I noticed the results even before I learned that Hill made the change. The smoke is more pronounced now on Liberty’s meats, though not obnoxious. With Hill’s background in fine dining, Liberty also puts extra thought into its sides, including a mac and cheese enriched with a three-cheese Mornay sauce.
Ranked No. 1 on last year’s list
No need to shed a tear over Hill Country’s demotion. The place, despite its high volume and questionable reliance on front-of-the-house managers to keep the smokers burning late at night, can still produce terrific barbecue. Just as important, both Marc Glosserman and Dan Farber have taken their public embarrassment as motivation to review all systems. Can they finally conquer the smokehouse’s nagging inconsistencies? I wouldn’t bet against it.
Ranked No. 3 on last year’s list
If you want to experience Sloppy Mama’s at its finest, skip the subpar offerings at Solly’s Tavern and head straight to Union Market, where owner Joe Neuman showcases the full range of his smoking capabilities. The spareribs, unavailable at Solly’s, sport one of the best rubs in this business — a little sweet, a little spicy, wholly addictive. The pulled pork, chopped fine and assertively sauced, is so good I eat it with my fingers, like a bar snack. The brisket can sometimes show its age, which I attribute to Sloppy Mama’s need to truck meats from its off-site kitchen. That may change next year, however, when Neuman debuts his commissary, complete with picnic tables, so customers can taste his products straight from the smoker.
At Union Market, 1309 Fifth St. NE, and Solly’s Tavern, 1942 11th St. NW. 703-581-8177. sloppymamas.com.
Ranked No. 4 on last year’s list
Rob Sonderman’s matchbook-size smokehouse in Adams Morgan is the most consistent barbecue joint in Washington, bar none. You walk into the Pig, you walk out satisfied. Do I wish Sonderman had better smoke penetration on his meats? Do I wish that sometimes he’d dial down his spice? Yes and yes. But these are quickly becoming banal objections that overlook a larger truth: Sonderman and his team have found ways to compensate for their underperforming smoker, turning out barbecue with complex flavor profiles that have their own identity, singular from all others in the area. The beef short rib, available only on Thursdays, tastes like some turbocharged cross between barbecue and Oaxacan mole. It’s unforgettable.
Ranked No. 2 on last year’s list
Open since late 2015, Texas Jack’s has already burned through its original pitmaster as well as an executive sous-chef who helped take over the pits when the first guy split. Warren Zuniga is now in charge of the kitchen crew, and he has a firm grip on the helm. Texas Jack’s is that rare modern smokehouse that caters to the craft-drinking crowd — and its desire for refined places to quaff — without sacrificing the quality of its ’cue. The smoke levels may be ever so muted at times, but the spareribs are without peer locally, and the brisket is a well-constructed shrine to Texas. “You have to have a staff that is responsible just for the barbecue,” says co-owner Steve Roberts, “and that uses a proven methodology.” Plus, Roberts adds, you must constantly monitor yourself — and make corrections when necessary. It’s an approach that other smokehouses might consider adopting.
2761 Washington Blvd., Arlington. 703-875-0477. txjacks.com.
Dropped out from last year’s rankings:
No. 8 Vanish Farmwoods Brewery in Lucketts, Va. (the meats often spend as much time in the oven as in the smoker); No. 5 Myron Mixon’s Pitmaster Barbeque in Alexandria (a truly lackluster showing on my last visit); No. 9 Smokehouse Live (closed).