He essentially called my survey a barbecue guide for snowflakes. I’d challenge him to a fight, but that would mean I’d have to put down my Cronut and caramel macchiato.
They’re not all haters, of course. Many readers ask, in all earnestness, why a certain place didn’t make the cut or suggest a joint that they assume I had missed. In most cases, we simply disagree on the merits of a place, or they’re recommending a spot too far outside my purview. (Sure, great barbecue is worth a road trip — it almost demands one — but perhaps not one that requires two hours.)
This year, though, several readers (and the owner of the place himself) asked why Smoking Kow BBQ didn’t crack my top 10. I assure you there’s a very good reason for its omission: Until recently, I had never set foot in the original Alexandria location, nor its second shop in Arlington (2910 N. Sycamore St.). For reasons I can’t begin to explain, I didn’t even have Smoking Kow on my list of barbecue shops to scout this year.
Once I completed a full course of ritual self-flogging, I decided to rectify the situation. Consider this column a mea culpa to fans of Smoking Kow, to owner Dylan Kough and to Washington barbecue hounds in general. This place is good, at least the original location, which is the focus of this review. It’s top 10 good, for sure. Is it top-five good? Not yet. Not until Smoking Kow can stand on its two feet without Kough’s steadying hand. (More on that in a minute.)
Kough’s path to professional barbecue wound through the smoke-free zone of a Big Four accounting firm. A graduate of the University of Maryland, with degrees in finance and accounting, Kough felt as trapped as a brisket on an 18-hour smoke when he was employed at KPMG. He eventually used his business smarts to launch the Smoking Kow food truck, which debuted on the streets in 2015 with meats smoked at Union Kitchen, the culinary incubator. You could say Kough was too sick for corporate life. He had contracted the barbecue bug, its symptoms familiar to anyone who has ever tried to smoke slabs of meat in the backyard, striving for perfection in an imperfect world.
As a budding pitmaster who grew up without a fixed position on the American barbecue map — Bethesda, clearly, doesn’t have a style or even a single decent smokehouse — Kough was free to find an approach that suited his palate. He landed on Kansas City style with its burnt ends (the Kow offers up good, crusty implosions of fat) and tomato-based sauces that strike a democratic balance between acid and sugar. Kough’s original sauce is a turbocharged example of the style: Its apple cider vinegar announces its presence with authority, only to discover that the molasses and brown sugar are not intimidated by it. They end up speaking with equal voices in this terrific sauce.
Kough clearly puts a lot of effort into his sauces. Too bad you don’t really need them on many of the meats pulled from his Ole Hickory rotisserie smoker, a hybrid gas-and-wood-burning unit. On some level, Kough must be aware of this fact. Breaking from tradition at some (though not all) of K.C.’s famous smokehouses, the pitmaster serves up meat without sauce, an act that seemingly moves his operation’s center of gravity further south, somewhere around Central Texas, where they’re not so keen on sauce. But Kough prefers to let customers decide for themselves: to sauce or not to sauce.
The first time I tried Smoking Kow’s brisket, it was seriously on point. Roughly chopped into moist chunks, the brisket had the kind of robust smokiness that you’d expect from meats cooked in a 1,000-gallon offset, not a gasser. The exterior bark, which glistened like stars in the nighttime sky, didn’t have the black-pepper bite of Lone Star State brisket, but something more complex. A little sweet. A little spicy. A lot more subdued than the loud, bullhorn honk of classic Texas brisket. I would have preferred slices over this inelegant pile of meat, but I understood Kough’s rationale: The chopped beef allows him to sneak more flavor and richness into the brisket, which might otherwise cause alarm among diners who howl in protest over a half-inch ribbon of rendered fat along the top of their slices.
My favorite meat at Smoking Kow may be its chicken, a notoriously difficult animal to smoke. Kough solves the problem by relying on boneless, skinless thighs, which remain juicy even after their long, dry bath in hickory smoke. Peppery, smoky and succulent, this pulled chicken makes a strong argument for higher consideration among classic barbecue proteins. I like Kough’s approach to ribs — baby backs, in this case, the pitmaster’s preferred bones — which are crackly and caramelized with a butter-and-brown-sugar glaze. I just wish they were a tad meatier. His pulled pork, I find, works best when wrapped in a toothsome housemade flour tortilla and packed with chipotle aioli and coleslaw. It’s overindulgence at its finest.
Smoking Kow serves up the usual sides, save for one that rarely graces barbecue menus: cheesy jalapeño grits, which Kough describes as his “least-selling side, for sure.” I’d like to use the power of this platform to turn that statistic on its head: Sharp with cheddar and animated with the umami rush of roasted garlic, these grits should be required eating at the Kow. For sure. For a lighter accompaniment, try the collard greens, splashed with tamari, or the Texas caviar, a cool and crisp salad of black beans and roasted corn, both a satisfying way to balance out all the barbecue. They’ll also help you save room for the salted caramel bourbon banana pudding, a dessert that believes anything worth doing is worth overdoing.
On my final visit, I ordered the chopped brisket atop the house mac and cheese prepared with the corkscrew pasta known as cavatappi. Underseasoned and without any discernible smoke, the brisket was closer to pot roast than barbecue. It also was prepared without the assistance of Kough, who was gone over the weekend in question. This is a common problem when people bitten by the barbecue bug open smokehouses: It’s hard for them to teach others to be just as obsessive.
If you go
Smoking Kow BBQ
3250 Duke St., Alexandria, 703-888-2649; smokingkowbbq.com.
Nearest Metro : Eisenhower Avenue, with a 1.4-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $3 to $17 for platters, sandwiches, tacos and sides; $14 to $27 for ribs and meats by the pound.