A full rack of baby back ribs with sides of loaded baked potato salad, center, and collard greens at Myron Mixon’s Pitmaster Barbeque. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

For the past three months, while interrogating countless plates of barbecue as if they were suspects to a crime, I repeated one question over and over: Where’s the smoke?

Too many meats had only the faintest whiff, detectable perhaps to beagles, but not to bipeds with the sad olfactory skills that come standard with the human species. If you ask 100 adults how to define barbecue, you’ll probably get 100 different answers. But to me, the cuisine’s defining characteristic is the complex aromatic byproduct of burning hardwoods.

The math of my personal definition is simple: Smoke = barbecue.

Commercial smoker ovens have made it easier than ever to enter the barbecue business. Attached to the power grid or to a gas line — or both — these appliances can cook “barbecue” without the presence of a single trained pitmaster. Or without much wood, either. The ovens — their temperatures always constant, thanks to a “gas-assist” or similar heating function — are sold as set-it-and-forget devices for restaurants that don’t want to bother with the expense or temperament of a pitmaster, the kind of person who considers OCD a job skill, not a psychiatric disorder.

These commercial smokers are common to barbecue joints in the Washington area, and the devices themselves are not necessarily the problem. A skilled pitmaster, such as Rob Sonderman at Federalist Pig in Adams Morgan, will spend untold hours trying to coax a smokier performance from his gas-assisted Southern Pride unit. But others? Well, it’s all too easy to walk away from these smokers and let the machine do the work.

Rev Ward carries brisket into Texas 202 Barbeque. Ward and his wife, Felicia, used to have a restaurant in Texas before moving to Maryland and opening theirs in Brandywine. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

“When you have the gas-assist on, it kind of lets you forget about it. You can truly forget about it,” says Dan Farber, chef de cuisine at Hill Country in Penn Quarter. “The wood levels aren’t being monitored as they should be.”

Matt Lang, the former pitmaster at Texas Jack’s, the smokehouse that earned last year’s No. 1 ranking from the $20 Diner, says that when imperfectly smoked meats are pulled from these appliances, the blame falls clearly on the person overseeing the oven, not the oven itself.

“It usually comes down to pure laziness on the chefs’ part,” Lang says in an email from his new perch in Philadelphia. “Usually they cook the larger cuts overnight with little to no surveillance. So they toss in a bunch of logs when they leave at night and hope for the best in the morning.”

Laziness must be contagious. This year, I ran into a wall of smokeless meats. Several places dropped from the rankings because their barbecue sported less smoke than the passenger cabin on a Boeing 777. I practically turned bloodhound, trying to track down any trace of wood perfume on the barbecue at Smoke & Barrel in Adams Morgan and Epic Smokehouse in Arlington. Even Smokehouse Live, the Leesburg operation run by some hardcore barbecue meatheads, served up a few plates that were smoke-challenged.

“I have no answer for the lack of smoke,” says Smokehouse Live co-owner Jim Foss when offered details of my recent experiences, “other than I might not have been there.” Foss says he’s been off-site with catering events lately, leaving others to oversee the large-capacity Ole Hickory smokers.

Hill Country chef de cuisine Dan Farber slices his amazing brisket. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

A platter full of specialties at Hill Country, clockwise from lower left: brisket, Kreuz sausage, spareribs, pulled pork and beef short rib. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

By contrast, the pit crew at this year’s top smokehouse has been paying extra attention to its smokers. Early last year, Farber and his team at Hill Country began an experiment, based on the efforts at a sister Hill Country, in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York: The Washington crews would turn off the gas-assist function on their Ole Hickory smokers during the early part of the week, when business was slower. The cooks wanted to see how much more work it would take to maintain the proper cooking temperature with only wood smoke.

“It takes more oversight . . . and sometimes the oversight can get away from us,” Farber says. But “the more we can get away from [the gas-assist], the better and truer we can be.”

By the middle of last year, Hill Country shut off the gas-assist function for good, and the barbecue has never been better in Penn Quarter. The smokiness now hits this sweet spot in which logs of Texas post oak flavor the meats without suffocating them with dark, acrid clouds of wood smoke. The lusty pulled pork, in particular, performs well — a surprise in a smokehouse that specializes in beef-heavy Texas barbecue.

Hill Country’s rise to first place surprises no one more than me. Since it opened, in 2011, I’ve visited the smokehouse more times than I care to mention, sometimes impressed but frequently disappointed that it couldn’t come closer to the Central Texas ideal that first inspired the meat market. But this year, after my second visit, I wrote something in my notes that I never thought I’d utter about Hill Country: The “brisket is as good or better than Franklin’s.”

And, yes, I mean Franklin Barbecue in Austin, the mecca for those devoted to the church of holy smoked meats.

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DCity Smokehouse’s ribs, brisket and pulled pork, with baked beans. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)

10. DCity Smokehouse

Reappears after a year off the list

Once the preeminent barbecue spot in Washington, DCity slid into mediocrity when pitmaster Sonderman left and the remaining crew had to work from an off-site production kitchen while waiting on a new space. The rejuvenated DCity emerged in January in a handsome, if somewhat uncomfortable, space on Florida Avenue NW. Even better, pitmaster Shawn McWhirter has DCity back on the right track. His spare ribs — oddly cut, so that some flaps of meat are basically smoked into jerky — are a special treat, an un­or­tho­dox rack that nonetheless has become a signature item. 203 Florida Ave. NW. 202-733-1919. dcitysmokehouse.com.

These two platters from Smokehouse Live hold enough meat to serve a crowd. Front platter, clockwise from top right: Texas short ribs, Shiner Bock brats and beef brisket. Back platter, clockwise from bottom right: pork spareribs, buttermilk-soaked turkey breas and pulled pork. (Julie Wan/For The Washington Post)

9. Smokehouse Live

Ranked No. 2 on last year’s list

The barbecue and live-music operation nearly dropped from the rankings after my first visit, in late April, when the Texas short rib and pulled pork tasted as if they had been roasted, not smoked. But a follow-up meal in June found Smokehouse Live performing closer to its 2016 levels, when it competed for the top spot. Among the highlights were the spareribs, with their radiant black pepper spice, and the slices of (surprise!) lean-side brisket, which were remarkably moist, well seasoned and delicately smoked. 1602 Village Market Blvd. SE, Suite 120, Leesburg. 571-447-5483. smokehouse-live.com.

Beef brisket at Vanish. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

8. Vanish Farmwoods Brewery

Ranked No. 3 on last year’s list

After driving an hour to reach this brewery, among the rolling farmlands of Loudoun County, you may have to wait even longer for your barbecue, depending on the line on weekends, when the smoked meats are available. But you’ll be rewarded with smoked beef, ribs, chicken and pork pulled fresh from the wood-burning pits under the supervision of Daniel West. The smoke levels can yo-yo, from the (slightly) oversmoked brisket to the (slightly) undersmoked chicken, but either way, the barbecue doesn’t suffer much as a result. The chicken, incidentally, is raised on the farm, and its flavors are so concentrated that every other bird will pale by comparison. Vanish earns bonus points for its solid sides, courtesy of chef Bryan Voltaggio’s Family Meal in Frederick, and the killer lineup of beers to wash it all down. 42264 Leelynn Farm Lane, Lucketts, Va. 703-779-7407. vanishbeer.com.

Honey-glazed barbecue spareribs with a dark beer at Fat Pete's, which uses a J&R Oyler wood-fired pit. (Kate Patterson /The Washington Post)

7. Fat Pete’s Barbecue

Ranked No. 7 on last year’s list

The small local chain holds onto its No. 7 spot, even though its consistency has improved over last year’s performance. The College Park location, in particular, produces some fine brisket, with a brooding and well-developed bark that draws a sharp outline around the succulent beef. The dry-rubbed baby back ribs are toothsome specimens, so different from those overcooked racks in which the meat surrenders its bone with one stern look. Fat Pete’s would have gained ground if some competitors hadn’t opened or upped their own game.

3407 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-362-7777; 801 18th St. NW, 202-730-3070; College Park, 7406 Baltimore Ave., 301-864-1081; fatpetesbbq.com.

Texas 202’s brisket. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

6. Texas 202 Barbeque of Maryland

New to the list

New to the rankings but not new to the business of smoked meats, Texas 202 Barbeque of Maryland can trace its roots to the early 1990s, when Rev and Felicia Ward first opened their restaurant in Beeville, Tex. A former Army man and corrections officer, Rev Ward moved the family to Maryland to pursue his education. He and Felicia wound up back in the smoked-meats business last year when they relaunched Texas 202 Barbeque, named for a state highway in Beeville, but now modified with the phrase “of Maryland.” Rev Ward leans on the lessons he learned from his late aunt and uncle, who made New Zion Missionary Baptist Church a barbecue destination in East Texas. He relies on a Lang reverse-flow smoker — you can inspect the rig out back — to produce his signature brisket, with a bark so crispy it flakes off, like a layer of puff pastry. Ward’s meaty spareribs are not the pepper-sprinkled bones of Central Texas, but a garlic-scented rack all his own. 14123 Brandywine Rd., Brandywine. 240-681-3957. texas202barbeque.com.

Pitmaster John Bennett pulls ribs from inside the smoker at Myron Mixon's Pitmaster Barbeque. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

5. Myron Mixon’s Pitmaster Barbeque

New to the list

If you thought Mixon would attach his name to just any smokehouse to earn some extra bank, you don’t know one of the most decorated pitmasters on the competition circuit. Case in point: Mixon and his partners switched out the pellet smoker at the Alexandria restaurant late in the game, delaying its opening by months. But in the process, they installed a Mixon-branded piece of equipment that supplies significantly more smoke than the earlier unit. John Bennett, the pitmaster on site, also deploys some of Mixon’s rubs and competition tricks to produce barbecue that, at its peak, doesn’t require a drop of the namesake’s line of signature sauces. 220 N. Lee St., Alexandria. 703-535-3340. myronmixonspitmasterbbq.com.

Various meat platters, including brisket, spareribs and pork belly with smoked sausages at Federalist Pig. (Dayna Smith/For the Washington Post)

4. Federalist Pig

New to the list

Sonderman, the pitmaster, will never admit it, because he’s a total pro, but he’s handicapped by the gas-enhanced Southern Pride smoker that his insurance company preferred over an all-wood unit. Still, Sonderman and his pit crew produce some terrific barbecue, often playing up the spicier side of the pitmaster’s cooking style. Federalist Pig, in fact, is one of the few smokehouses that can incorporate influences from different barbecue regions without losing its own identity. Its ribs borrow a trick or two from Memphis, its chopped pork leans on North Carolina and its brisket burns with black pepper, like in Texas. The joint’s weakness? Its smoke levels, limited by that confounded machine. 1654 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-827-4400. federalistpig.com.

Brisket at Sloppy Mama's barbecue at Union Market. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

3. Sloppy Mama’s

Ranked No. 6 on last year’s list

Owner Joe Neuman, a former high school teacher, likes to say he prepares “real barbecue,” by which he means that he uses a smoker that burns only wood. You can tell the difference before taking a single bite: The smoke drifts up from the plate and tickles your nostrils with the aromas of red and white oak, offering a preview of the feast to come. Neuman and his team don’t smoke on the premises, but despite the road trips required to both Union Market and Solly’s, the barbecue holds up remarkably well. The bark on the brisket may sometimes lose its edge, and a sparerib may occasionally cook itself off the bone in a holding unit. But the meats are smoky, succulent and among the finest in the District. It’s time for Neuman to open a place of his own, a spot where diners can really settle down with his barbecue and sides (which, like the meats, are mostly the classics, done right). At Union Market, 1309 Fifth St. NE, and Solly’s Tavern, 1942 11th St. NW. 703-581-8177. sloppymamas.com.

A meat platter at Texas Jack’s with pulled pork in the center, with, clockwise from bottom left, brisket, beef short rib, chicken and pork spareribs. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)

2. Texas Jack’s

Ranked No. 1 on last year’s list

Despite losing Matt Lang, its respected pitmaster, Texas Jack’s hasn’t lost its swagger. Executive sous chefs Warren Zuniga and Wilson Giron have filled the void admirably, producing barbecue every bit as solid as Lang’s. The owners have even hired Drew Trautmann, former chef at Barcelona Wine Bar and Restaurant, to bolster the kitchen crew. So why the drop from its No. 1 perch last year? Small mistakes, the kind that separate the top-tier smokehouses from one another. A brisket in which the edges have become stringy and dehydrated. A beef short rib that could use a little more smoke. Pulled pork that could benefit from some crusty bits of outside brown. The sides and starters remain a highlight, especially the porky pinto beans braised in chicken stock. 2761 Washington Blvd., Arlington. 703-875-0477. txjacks.com.

The enormous beef short rib at Hill Country, this year’s gold medal winner. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

1. Hill Country

Ranked No. 5 on last year’s list

Before handing the title to Hill Country, I wanted to be certain about the place. So I visited the smokehouse three times. The third meal was better than the first, proof to me that Farber and his crew are firmly committed to their new approach with the smokers. The brisket finally fulfills the implied promise of Hill Country’s Central Texas theme, and the spareribs — these meat mallets with the rib tips still intact — are smoky and almost buttery, a richness accented with tiny explosions of black pepper. And like many smokehouses in Texas, Hill Country has embraced pulled pork, that staple of the Carolinas. The operation no longer puts boundaries around its smoking techniques or its meats. The barbecue — even the sides — is all the better for it. 410 Seventh St. NW. 202-556-2050. hillcountry.com/dc.

Dropped from the rankings:

Epic Smokehouse (1330 S. Fern St., Arlington. 571-319-4001), No. 4 on last year’s list, made an epic dive with a performance that bordered on a total bust. Garden District (1801 14th St. NW), No. 8 last year, continues to produce barbecue better than necessary for its beer-garden environment, but it’s starting to get lapped by the competition. Smoke & Barrel (2471 18th St. NW. 202-319-9353), No. 9 last year, might as well change its name to Smoke-Free & Barrel given the characterless barbecue I sampled this year. And the BBQ Joint, No. 10 last year, has beat a hasty retreat out of the District, closing both its 14th Street and Union Market locations.

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