Over the course of several weeks, the $20 Diner visited nearly 20 barbecue restaurants in the region to rank them according to some kind of arbitrary hierarchy. (Hold your phone calls and e-mails; some joints were skipped either for the sake of time or out of ignorance.) The organizing method I chose was how closely each place adhered to the tenets of the new barbecue traditionalists.
Think of this exercise as Six Degrees of Aaron Franklin, the James Beard Award-winning purveyor of Austin's Franklin Barbecue.
It’s no contest. These two are smoking at a higher level than their peers. Their products, although not perfect, display an extraordinary level of commitment to barbecue. What’s more, they’re constantly tinkering. The kitchen team at Fat Pete’s spent much of the winter refining its rubs and smoker operations, to the point where the Cleveland Park joint has quickly joined the upper ranks of D.C. barbecue. Both places also prepare a few killer sandwiches, whether the Brisket Champ at DCity or the Burnt Ends and Grilled Cheese at Fat Pete’s.
Second degree: Hill Country in Penn Quarter and the BBQ Joint in Union Market (with other locations in Easton and Pasadena, Md.) take radically different approaches to barbecue. Hill Country adopts a Central Texas style, with meats served on butcher paper and adorned with lean-and-mean dry rubs, while BBQ Joint bends to the will of Andrew Evans, former chef at the three-star Inn at Easton, which closed in late 2007. Both can produce quality meats, although with Evans’s plates, you may sometimes pine for more smoke. At Hill Country, you may pine for more moist brisket.
Third degree: Garden District in the 14th Street NW corridor and Kangaroo Boxing Club in Columbia Heights are maddening places for different reasons. At Garden District, where after a certain hour the crowd’s attention turns to liquid refreshments, chef/pitmaster Tad Curtz buries his brisket and pulled pork — both succulent, both tickling the nostrils with wood smoke — on store-bought sesame-seed buns. With a few tweaks, Curtz could sell quality ’cue by the pound . . . if he had room in the tiny kitchen, that is. Kangaroo Boxing Club, by contrast, dotes over some of the best pastrami in the District but remains content to bury its spare ribs under an AstroTurf of herbs and spices.
Fourth, fifth and sixth degrees: Any of these joints may serve a dish worth your time and money, but by and large, they are getting lapped by the new urban pitmasters. The group includes fresh faces and institutions with long track records, listed here in descending order, from my favorite to least favorite in this category:
Urban Bar-B-Que Company (the pulled pork, lightly sauced and studded with crusty, caramelized hunks of meat, has surpassed the brisket as my go-to item).
Pork Barrel BBQ in Del Ray (the turkey, succulent and smoky, is the star).
Bethesda Barbecue Company (the ribs radiate smoke, sometimes imparted by the grill, where the bones are occasionally finished).
BBQ Bus at Denizens Brewing Co. in Silver Spring (the shredded chicken, well-seasoned and saucy, is the way to go).
Mission BBQ, with multiple locations (go with the chicken, even if it’s closer to taco meat than barbecue).
KBQ Barbeque in Lanham (order the pulled pork and slather it with the Sriracha sauce).
Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Co., with multiple locations (the tissue-paper-thin sliced brisket, reconstituted on the grill, remains a guilty pleasure).
Smoke and Barrel (order a craft beer and some sausages).
Dixie Bones BBQ in Woodbridge (get the ribs, so meaty and moist you might think they were steamed).
Kenny’s Smokehouse on Maryland Avenue NE (grab enough sauce to compensate for the under-seasoned meats).
In an orbit of their own: These two are so iconoclastic they almost defy classification.
Few pitmasters start their careers in kitchens run by Tom Colicchio and Thomas Keller, but Robert Gadsby of RG's BBQ Cafe did. After running refined restaurants in Los Angeles and Houston, then flaming out at the Mussel Bar in Bethesda, Gadsby opened this chef-driven barbecue joint. I’m not sure I would call Gadsby’s beef “barbecue”; it’s more like shaved roast beef first smoked then finished to your desired temperature on the grill. Whatever you call it, I’ll devour it any day.
Pitmasters Back Alley BBQ opened earlier this year in the alley behind Wagshal’s along Massachusetts Avenue NW. It’s high-concept barbecue, prepared to order to avoid the vagaries of holding meat in warming units. Yes, you have to call ahead, and no, you can’t eat your dinner there. Which means the barbecue often holds in its own container until you get home, leading to the very issue Wagshal’s hopes to avoid. (There are reheating tips on the Web site for those with such ambition.) Even when the meat lacks smoke or much barbecue character at all, you can at least fall back on the pure, full-throated flavor of the beef, which is all prime. The Iberico de bellota ribs, big lacquered bones of smoky succulence, will haunt your dreams. And maybe your bank account. The ribs, sourced from acorn-finished black pigs from Spain, cost $19.99 for four bones.