A decade ago, Washington’s barbecue IQ would have scored in the borderline range. You know: capable of basic repetitive behavior but with little capacity for creative thought.
In the past few years, however, the area’s barbecue intelligence has grown exponentially, led by Robert Sonderman (formerly of DCity Smokehouse), Brendan Woody at Fat Pete’s and the corporate crew over at Hill Country, which has been something of an incubator for a new generation of D.C. pitmasters.
Like Sonderman and Woody, Matt Lang, the chef behind Texas Jack’s in the former Tallula/EatBar space in Arlington, also worked for a spell at Hill Country. Except by the time Lang landed at that Penn Quarter smokehouse, he was already a fully developed pitmaster with an impressive resume: He had earned raves not only at Brooklyn’s Fette Sau but also on Food Network’s “Best in Smoke” program, which he won in 2011. Lang’s barbecue IQ looks to be off the charts.
A platter of smoked meats at Texas Jack’s confirms it. His moist brisket is A-lister stuff, thick, succulent slices with a pink smoke ring lingering just below a dark outer bark of salt, pepper, smoke and fat, all fused together in a Southern Pride smoker set low and slow. Lang’s pork spareribs dare to ask that you use your teeth, the pepper-laced meat still clinging to the bone, as it should. Even the chef’s pulled pork, a staple that can easily devolve into a dehydrated heap, is a juicy, smoky, fragrant tangle of Duroc shoulder meat.
This kind of name-above-the-title barbecue demands an obnoxious amount of JLo-level attention, and Lang is just the guy to provide it. Co-owner Steve Roberts says Lang has a pull-down bunk in the office, where the chef has been known to spend the night babysitting for his pits just to keep a close eye on the smoke and temperature levels.
“He’s that kind of chef,” Roberts says. “He’s actively making adjustments all the time.”
The barbecue leans on the spare, smoke-centric style of central Texas, even when a particular cut adopts a foreign accent, such as the pork shoulder rubbed with Yucatan spices. But Lang’s sides wander far from the state’s small-town smokehouses, where the accompanying bites have traditionally borrowed from home-style preparations. Lang’s sides speak of the Mediterranean, Latin America and culinary school. Sometimes his inspiration stumbles into cliche (a kale Caesar with the chunky stems worked into the salad); other times, it borders on brilliance (the porky pinto bean risotto, in which the meat and legumes add depth without detracting from the silken rice).
The bar program, under beverage director Remzi Yilmaz, makes a strong case that wine deserves a place on the barbecue table next to the Shiner Bock, small-batch bourbons and smoky cocktails. Just as important, Texas Jack’s (named for a Virginia-born cowboy and Wild West showman) argues that a smokehouse doesn’t have to resemble a flophouse. This place looks like a Texas chow hall bought itself a Glamour Shots session. There’s even an eight-seat perch that looks onto the smokers, like a sushi counter for barbecue.
“Why do we always have barbecue in a run-down building with bad furniture and bad design?” Roberts wonders. “Is there a law against putting barbecue in a nicely designed place?”
Texas Jack’s, 2761 Washington Blvd., Arlington, 703-875-0477. txjacks.com. Smoked meats, $4.75 to $45. Tom Sietsema is on vacation.