For years, I’ve made the argument that barbecue is not seasonal. Demand for hefty platters of smoked meats does not tilt with the earth’s axis. I’ve lived in two of America’s acknowledged barbecue capitals — Kansas City and Texas — and no soul in either place would dare to declare the fare is fit to eat only in summer. You might as well call the Alamo a little gift shop in San Antonio while you’re at it.
The best barbecue joints in the D.C. area
But I also have never before compiled a barbecue guide in winter — during a pandemic, when a virus has ripped through the restaurant industry’s workforce and disrupted its supply lines. These combined forces have wreaked havoc on the D.C. region’s scene. In the past few weeks, I’ve tasted day-old barbecue passed off as fresh, spare ribs with only thin flaps of meat clinging to the bone and brisket so undercooked that I had to hold down a slice between my incisors and use a free hand to rip off a bite.
These experiences help explain why you don’t see some established names on this guide. (I should also note that Rolling Rib Part II and Garden District were closed for the season.) I don’t believe for a second that you can’t get a decent platter at DCity Smokehouse, Hill Country Barbecue Market, Money Muscle BBQ or Fat Pete’s. For better or for worse, I happened to visit these spots on days when they were off their game. It happens, especially now when pit crew members may be out with covid or meat suppliers may be foisting off shiners (those ribs with barely any meat) or undersized briskets on kitchen managers. It doesn’t help that the omicron variant has hurt consumer demand, at least in sit-down dining, forcing some operators to carry over meats that they didn’t sell the previous day.
I’m sympathetic. Proprietors are trying to survive what, in retrospect, will be the most brutal stretch of their careers, often without much public assistance but with plenty of public agita about vaccine mandates and masking. Yet, I also have a job to do.
The interesting thing is that, despite the underperforming smokehouses, I encountered more than enough good barbecue to compile this list. New pitmasters have entered the fray, and veterans have stepped up their game or just maintained the status quo. There are plenty of quality meats in our area to satisfy a craving and, at the highest level, our top places are doing things the hard way, which is to say the right way: They are building and tending fires by hand; refining their methods for smoking meats; and relying on human touch and observation, not gas-assisted machines, to produce these specimens of the pitmaster’s art.
* New to the list
You might remember Matthew Deaton as the guy behind Mountain Song BBQ, the short-lived collaboration between the pitmaster and Neighborhood Restaurant Group. Mountain Song was a pandemic-related casualty, but Deaton has landed softly in Fredericksburg, Va., where he has partnered with co-owner Matt Haney to drag this historic restaurant into the era of craft barbecue. The pitmaster’s first order of business was rolling in two Lang reverse-flow smokers so Allman’s could get back to cooking with live fire, not ovens. Over the years, Deaton has stripped down his approach to barbecue. You could call it elemental: His rub is little more than salt on pork, and salt and pepper on beef. “I really want the meat to tell the story,” he says. Allman’s sells brisket only on Sundays, which I have yet to sample; my recommendation is based mostly on Deaton’s pulled pork and spare ribs (smoky, unpretentious, honest) and his terrific chicken, a pile of pulled bird mixed with Allman’s house sauce, a clove-heavy condiment that locals love so much, Deaton says, they will go through a whole bottle in one seating.
1299 Emancipation Hwy., Fredericksburg, Va. 540-373-9881. allmans-bbq.com.
Grubbing Hard BBQ
* New to the list
Furloughed early in the pandemic from a law firm, where he was pushing paper for attorneys, Matt Chanin found his true calling in his parents’ backyard. Chanin had been cooking meats on his folks’ patio as a form of recreation, but when he lost his job, friends challenged him to go to work for himself. Chanin put up a Facebook post, announcing his DIY barbecue venture, “and I got, like, 15 cars lined up in front of my parents’ house waiting to get food.” A year ago, Chanin outgrew the family’s backyard and moved to a commissary kitchen in Gaithersburg, Md. Grubbing Hard still has no bricks-and-mortar space — that’s on Chanin’s to-do list — but the pitmaster has developed a devoted following with events and pop-ups, relying on a surprising variety of meats that he cooks in reverse-flow and cabinet smokers at the commissary. Self-taught in the art of smoke, Chanin was initially a disciple of Texas pitmaster Aaron Franklin, but he’s developing his own style, including a cheesesteak sausage (you read right); big, toothsome and intoxicating spare ribs; and dark, crusty slices of brisket that rely on one of Texas’s worst-kept secrets: Lawry’s seasoned salt. Give Chanin, 25, a few more years, and the right equipment, and watch him move up this list.
Check the website and social media accounts for the latest events. 240-778-5500. grubbinghardbbq.com.
↓ No 3. on 2020′s list
At a time of great upheaval in the industry, this Arlington smokehouse, now entering its seventh year, has maintained a remarkably steady pit crew. Wanner Zuniga and Edwin Abrego still lead the team, and they’re putting out consistently solid barbecue, even if my recent order of ribs were scrawnier than those in the recent past. The pitmasters are magicians with their Southern Pride smokers, extracting the kind of wood-smoke aroma that you’d expect from a custom-made, 1,000-gallon off-set. Their brisket (a tad saltier than I remember in previous visits), chicken and especially their pulled pork remain stars. The kitchen’s Achilles’ heel this year was its sides, at least the ones I sampled. A mayo-heavy slaw with little seasoning, a mushy pile of corkscrew mac and cheese that was as floury as it was rich.
2761 Washington Blvd., Arlington, Va. 703-875-0477. txjacks.com.
↓ No. 5 on 2020′s list
All things considered, life has been pretty good for Brian Monk Jenkins and his wife, Kirsten, out in Loudoun County. Unlike some of their peers in the big city, the couple’s smokehouse in Purcellville, Va., has seen its revenue rise during the pandemic. The namesake pitmaster credits his ability to resume catering operations last year, but Monk’s also has a loyal following at the restaurant, too. Such devotion doesn’t happen by accident. The crew at Monk’s has many years working the seven smokers that occupy the patio next to the main dining room. That kind of experience often translates into consistency, arguably the hardest element for any smokehouse to lock down. Monk’s boasts one of the most ambitious menus anywhere, a Brobdingnagian spread of wings, pulled pork, burnt ends, sausages, chicken, pastrami, turkey, spare ribs, brisket and even bacon on a stick, all house-smoked and all worth a try. The brisket on my latest trip was tighter than usual and the pulled pork a dash or two below its standard seasoning levels. But everything else was dead solid perfect, and don’t forget to order the smoked Gouda mac and cheese because anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Am I right?
251 N. 21st St., Purcellville, Va. 540-751-9425. monksq.com
Same position on 2020′s list
I don’t know who’s been more frustrated with Fed Pig’s long-delayed debut in Hyattsville, Md.: me or pitmaster and partner Rob Sonderman, the man who gave Washington its first taste of craft barbecue when he was leading DCity Smokehouse. Last winter, Sonderman and his boss, Steve Salis, rolled out the 25-foot Fedmobile, which plowed right through the red tape holding up Fed Pig’s Hyattsville smokehouse. The trailer, customized with its own wood smoker, sits in the parking lot next to the still-unfinished storefront, serving up many of the plates that the restaurant can’t yet touch. Sonderman oversees the entire Fed Pig operation, but he’s also running the show at Salis’s latest project, Honeymoon Chicken in Petworth. The pitmaster is stretched thin, which, I fear, has led to the inconsistencies I encountered at the Fedmobile and the original Adams Morgan location. Still, I’ve eaten well at both spots, too: a brisket that melted like butter on the tongue in AdMo; the trailer’s crusty spare ribs, which split the difference between sweet and spicy; AdMo’s exquisite pulled pork sprinkled with pulverized pieces of fried skin, adding an element of texture to this rich barbecue staple. Plus, Fed Pig still has the best, most decadent, barbecue sandwiches anywhere.
1654 Columbia Rd. NW; 5504 Baltimore Ave., Hyattsville, Md.; 4856 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, Md., inside Ensemble Kitchen. federalistpig.com.
Smokecraft Modern Barbecue
↓ No. 4 on 2020′s list
For the past two years, Andrew Darneille has had a lot more on his mind than barbecue. The pitmaster and owner of Smokecraft opened his stylish, full-service restaurant in July 2020, just four months into this global nightmare that we’re still dealing with. The date of Smokecraft’s debut is pertinent, at least to federal officials when they were handing out Paycheck Protection Program loans and Restaurant Revitalization Fund grants. Darneille has had to fight for every scrap of public assistance he got, lest his nearly $2 million dream project go up in smoke. Between struggling to survive ― and struggling to secure staff — it’s a minor miracle that Darneille has had the bandwidth to focus on smoked meats. But he and his team continue to serve up barbecue worthy of those competition trophies that sit in the front window. The St. Louis-style ribs are things of beauty, a glistening rack that boasts a sticky, mouthwatering bark. The skin on the quarter chicken may be a tad flaccid, but the bird is charred, succulent, smoky and lightly glazed with a pineapple-bourbon sauce. The brisket borrows a competition trick and arrives brushed with housemade jus, adding more richness to slices already decadent with buttery fat. Darneille may even sell the best side anywhere: campfire baked beans studded with bacon and ropy, smoky strands of pulled pork.
1051 N. Highland St., Arlington, Va. 571-312-8791. smokecraftbbq.com.
* New to the list
Your meal begins the moment you step inside Smoking Kow’s Alexandria shop, where the aroma of wood smoke hangs in the air, stimulating your appetite faster than a stiff negroni. Since I last visited Smoking Kow, pitmaster and owner Dylan Kough has ditched the cherry wood for his cooks; he now smokes exclusively with hickory, which perfumes every protein with sweet, slightly piquant aromas, the kind that make you immediately think of bacon. Hickory, pitmasters will tell you, can add a bitter edge to meat if applied too liberally. Kough has the right touch: His barbecue has the kind of smoky personality that draws you close. The kitchen still insists on shredding its brisket, instead of slicing it, but I didn’t mind this time, largely because my pile of beef was studded with lusty morsels of bark, the exterior as dark as coal. Kough has switched from baby backs to spare ribs, and his are on point, at once super smoky and sticky with a butter-and-brown-sugar glaze. Kough is something of a Kansas City barbecue guy. He’s a fan of sauce, which is why I find his barbecue joints such paradoxes. His meats don’t need them.
3250 Duke St., Alexandria, Va. 703-888-2649; 2910 N. Sycamore St., Arlington, Va. 703-534-2510. smokingkowbbq.com.
↑ No. 10 on 2020′s list
For the past several years, HammerDown has clung to the bottom rungs of this guide, but Ken Soohoo made a giant leap forward in 2022. I asked him what he’s doing differently, and he had a succinct answer the first time we talked: nothing. The founder of HammerDown made it sound like I had finally caught the smokehouse at the right time, when their meats were fresh from the smoker. But during our second interview, Soohoo noted that he had made a few changes with his briskets, cooking the beef at a higher temperature to help set the bark. He also mentioned that his younger brother, fellow pitmaster Bing, is smoking chicken thighs in smaller batches, and more frequently. Is it any coincidence that both meats were highlights during my recent visit? The brisket, so beautifully elastic, boasted a rugged, peppery bark and a deep ruby smoke ring. It was spot-on. The chicken may have been even better: The seasoning blend — salt, pepper, garlic, onion, cumin seed and more — was seamlessly integrated into the tawny thighs, making for one delectable bite after another. The ribs and pulled pork were terrific, too. This was the year the smokehouse lived up to its name and really put the hammer down.
41153 John Mosby Hwy., Aldie, Va. 703-542-8692. hammerdownbbq.com
Sloppy Mama’s BBQ
↑ No. 9 on 2020′s list
In the parking lot of Sloppy Mama’s, Selvin Garcia and Fredi Hernandez oversee three 500-gallon smokers and two BQ Grills, which co-founders Joe and Mandy Neuman have assembled outside their restaurant, a converted Pizza Hut in Arlington. As you can imagine, this motley collection of cookers means that Garcia and Hernandez have a lot of fires to tend and a lot of grates to babysit. “We burn a ton of wood, and it’s an inefficient process all the way around,” Joe says. Despite the inefficiencies, the pit team is producing some of the best barbecue in Sloppy Mama’s eight-year history: tender brisket with ribbons of soft, rendered fat; juicy chopped pork dusted with Joe’s custom-made rub, an 18-ingredient avalanche that he’s dubbed Happy Sprinkles; and spare ribs cooked long enough to bathe them in white-oak smoke but not so long that the meat slips from the bone, soft and lifeless. Life will soon get a lot better for Garcia, Hernandez, the Neumans and maybe even barbecue hounds in the area: Sloppy Mama’s will soon replace its mini-campground of cookers with two, 1,000-gallon barrels from Primitive Pits, the same Georgia company that built 2Fifty Texas BBQ’s new smokers. Game on.
5731 Langston Blvd., Arlington, Va. 703-269-2718. sloppymamas.com.
Bark Barbecue Cafe
* New to the list
The sleek, minimalist cafe in a Kent Island business park seems out of place until you realize that Berj Ghazarian, the founder of Bark, also co-owns the manufacturing company next door, the one that sells chocolate sauces, gelato, fruit fillings and other dessert ingredients to restaurants. During a trip to Texas more than a decade ago, Ghazarian had his road-to-Damascus moment about barbecue. When he returned, he started with the usual backyard cooks, but quickly moved to the competition circuit, which he realized was not for him. Ghazarian has settled into a formula that works well: In the parking lot of the business park, Ghazarian or his right-hand-man, Lorenzo “Ren” Price, will cook briskets, ribs, chicken and pork belly on a pair of Moberg smokers but mostly use those meats in sandwiches, rice bowls or as an occasional special for day workers. But here’s the secret: You can also order a platter of the meats, even if you don’t see the platter listed on the menu. What you’ll get is some of the finest barbecue in the region: pepper-heavy slices of prime brisket that have been slow-smoked to a jiggly consistency; smoked pork belly prepared like brisket, complete with a bark made crusty with coriander, cloves and more; spare ribs smoked once and then smoked a second time in a braising liquid infused with a peach-hoisin sauce, gochujang and more; and smoked chicken (modified from a recipe developed by Ghazarian’s father, Boris) in which boneless thighs are marinated overnight and then cooked for two-plus hours until bronzed and irresistible.
371 Log Canoe Cir., Stevensville, Md. 443-618-3676. barkbarbecue.com.
2Fifty Texas BBQ
Same position on 2020′s list
One anecdote, I think, tells you everything about Fernando Gonzalez, the mastermind behind 2Fifty’s superb barbecue: In December, he hired Mauro Chiefari, a former pitmaster at Franklin Barbecue in Austin, to consult for several days at what is already the best smokehouse within miles of the nation’s capital. In preparation for Chiefari’s stopover, Gonzalez told himself to act as if he knew nothing about barbecue so he could better absorb the lessons of the visiting pitmaster. By the time Chiefari left, Gonzalez had revamped how he seasons and cooks wagyu and prime briskets, which already had no peer in Washington. Chiefari also taught the 2Fifty crew how to make their own sausages, a multiday, multistep process that takes beef trimmings (and sometimes pork) and transforms them into spicy, succulent links that are smoked at very low temperatures. Chiefari’s tips, however, should not be confused with a makeover. 2Fifty’s Salvadoran co-founders, Gonzalez and wife, Debby Portillo, still channel their personal history through their Texas-style smokehouse. You see it in specials like the brisket tacos and barbecue pupusas or in everyday sides such as the fried sweet plantains and caramelized pineapple. This is Central Texas barbecue with a Central American soul. It’s so special that people even notice it from afar, like the afternoon I posted a video of my spread of 2Fifty’s meats. I quickly got a private message from Matt Lang, the former pitmaster at Texas Jack’s and now the man behind Zig Zag BBQ in Philadelphia. “They’re playing hardball,” Lang wrote me. “Everyone else is playing slow pitch softball.”
4700 Riverdale Rd., Riverdale Park, Md. 240-764-8763, 2fiftybbq.com; 1309 Fifth St. NE inside Union Market. 202-961-1738, its2fiftys.com.
Dropped from the list: Hill Country Barbecue Market, DCity Smokehouse and Ruthie’s All Day (a technical omission: I’ve decided Ruthie’s, while serving quality 'cue, really operates more as a restaurant with a smoker than a smokehouse restaurant).
Photo editing by Jennifer Beeson Gregory. Video by Hadley Green. Design by José L. Soto. Copy editing by Jordan Melendrez.