The first time I tried to order the St. Louis-style ribs at the Midlands, the beer garden had already sold out for the night. I blamed myself. I had arrived about 9:15 p.m. Any smokehouse worth its seasoned hardwood should run out of meats well before closing time.
Two days later, I arrived at 8:30 p.m. on a Saturday and encountered the same problem: The place was picked clean of available racks. The next day, I walked into the Park View establishment at 1:30 p.m., determined that I would finally wrap my fingers around these elusive bones. No go. They wouldn't emerge from the smoker, I was told, until 4:30 p.m. I felt like these ribs were ghosting me before we had even developed a relationship.
The fourth time was the charm — until I bit into the ribs. They were pink, soft and undercooked. Before long, two men approached my picnic table and identified themselves as Josh Scales and Willie Bell, part of the kitchen and pit crew at Midlands. Apparently I had been spotted by their boss Trent Allen, whom I've known since he launched the Purveyors of Rolling Cuisine (a.k.a. PORC) truck in 2011. I told Scales and Bell the truth: Their ribs were undersmoked. I had barely touched them.
I sensed they knew my opinion before I even stated it. I had hardly finished my sentence when they told me not to judge their ribs by this evening's efforts. A pit fire earlier that day had ruined their first racks. The emergency, backup bones clearly had not spent enough time in the smoker. I was sympathetic, but I must confess that I still haven't figured out the rhythms of this place, pit fire or no pit fire.
Regardless, I told the pitmen that I'd be back for another round of bones.
I'm not usually the masochistic type when it comes to securing barbecue. Yes, I once waited six hours in Austin for smoked meats, but my reward for that vicious time suck was a platter of Franklin Barbecue. So far, I had made four trips to the Midlands and had only four semi-smoked spareribs to show for it. Why continue the pursuit, you ask? Because Midlands has pedigree. Co-owners Allen, Robin Webb (Allen's wife) and Peyton Sherwood previously ran Kangaroo Boxing Club, on 11th Street NW, the bricks-and-mortar spinoff of the PORC barbecue truck. Allen has logged a lot of time behind smokers, devising methods to coax succulent meats from small, overworked machines.
Those days are gone. The Midlands partners have invested in a custom-made, 7,000-pound rig from Graves Commercial Smokers, located just north of Atlanta. This black-metal behemoth is actually two smokers welded together on a 20-foot trailer.
Each smoker has its own firebox, with grill racks positioned above the burning logs and to the side, in an attached barrel. Each pit, then, is essentially both a vertical and offset smoker. These twin beasts are competition-level rigs, designed for those souls firmly committed to the art of smoking meats.
"Peyton and I drove down to Georgia to pick it up," Allen said. "Peyton has a really big truck."
The weird thing is, the Midlands may have a first-round draft pick of a smoker, but the owners have relegated their all-American to practice-squad duties. One barrel remains propped open throughout the evening, serving as a grill for hamburgers, chicken breasts, brats or veggie burgers, the kind of stuff associated with backyard barbecues, not serious smokehouses.
The smoker is basically reserved for sides such as baked beans (soft, sweet and spicy) and those St. Louis-style ribs that are harder to find than a Sumatran rhino. I should note that the Midlands sometimes smokes other small proteins, like wings and duck, which allows the pitmen to start work in the morning, instead of tending fires all night. The meats are typically available about 6:30 p.m. Which means that, on busy nights, your window of opportunity for smoked meats can be very narrow. We're talking two hours or less. Heed the lessons of the ribless.
The grill items are little more than plain proteins or vegetables served on a bun, sometimes topped with a form-fitting slice of melted cheese. The only one I'd order on a regular basis is the beer brat in a pretzel bun, a snappy little pork link from Catoctin Mountain Farm, whose spice is accented with the soft scent of hickory and white oak smoke. The toppings are part of the issue: Coarsely chopped onions and grape-tomato halves make for odd, pebbly partners on a flat chicken breast or ground-beef patty.
If the Midlands prefers to be a beer-soaked party barn, so be it. On a weekend night, when a live band may compete with a televised football game for your attention, Midlands can generate an endorphin rush faster than a series of breaking news alerts on your phone. The beer helps. The Midlands has 22 draft lines inside, with four more outside, and about half those taps are rotated weekly. Should you really like a particular brew — say, the sweet and bready Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel from Bavaria — you can sometimes skip the wimpy 10-, 16- or 25-ounce pours and go straight to the 34-ounce stein. Call it the blotto-maker.
Part of the Midlands's charm is its split personality. If you want to avoid the jockish, testosterone-flushed vibe of the indoor bar — with its nonstop flicker of televised games, its free pool, its $5 shots — you can escape to the leafy patio. It's a surprisingly tranquil space, home to canines and couples who actually talk to each other. On the patio, I'm content to knock back a Flying Dog Summer Rental with a house-made artichoke dip, noticing the subtle pepper heat of the dip and the grapefruit sting of the radler, while soaking up the last dregs of summer.
But the patio is also home to that custom pit, whose wood smoke is a constant come-hither. I made one final attempt to gnaw on those rib bones that had eluded me. It was a Friday night. I arrived around 8:15. There were only two people in front of me at the food counter. The ribs were still listed on the chalkboard menu. As I started to place my order, an employee approached, a rag in hand. My heart literally started pounding hard, fearing the worst. His eyes searched the menu for the 86'd dish, and then he found it: He wiped clean the listing for St. Louis-style ribs.
3333 Georgia Ave. NW, midlandsdc.com.
Hours: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday-Thursday; 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Georgia Avenue-Petworth, with a 0.4-mile walk to the beer garden.
Prices: $4 to $12 for appetizers and entrees.