The NBA Finals are playing silently on televisions over the bar at Wicked Bloom DC Social Club on North Capitol Street, which is barely half full on a Friday night. I'm seated at a two-top a few steps from the bar, watching the mixologists shake cocktails and flirt with some young women. Time crawls, one minute slow-dripping into the next, as I wait for someone, anyone, to take my order.
No one ever arrives.
It's not easy these days getting your hands on what used to be the District's best barbecue. I should know: This is not the first time I've been ignored at Wicked Bloom, which is hosting a pop-up for its sister establishment, DCity Smokehouse, while the owners finish the barbecue joint's new home at 203 Florida Ave. NW.
[Best BBQ 2016: Top 10 barbecue joints | Best brisket | Best ribs| Best pulled pork]
Last year, under pitmaster Rob Sonderman, DCity was the clear thoroughbred among the ponies. No more. Sonderman left in January to work on a still-unnamed barbecue restaurant with the co-founder and former chief executive of the fast- casual &pizza. In Sonderman's absence, DCity has taken a nose dive. I visited its pop-up three times. I was served barbecue twice; on the other visit, I left after 25 minutes when no one had approached my two-top, a breach of hospitality etiquette so blatant that I had to assume the patient had deeper, more critical maladies.
The barbecue confirmed it: It displayed problems on almost every point. The ribs were emaciated bones with barely any meat hanging on them, the kind of aggressively butchered "shiner" ribs that knowledgable pitmasters avoid. (But at least the bones were no longer cut into one-inch riblets, nearly impossible to eat, which was the case on an earlier trip.) The brisket was poorly smoked and sliced, its moist deckle section studded with stiff, under-rendered fat. Clearly whoever was working the cutting station didn't have a clue about how to slice the meat, let alone the knowledge about when brisket is good enough to pass along to customers - and when it should be dumped in the trash.
For these reasons, among others, DCity didn't even make my top 10 list this year, a first-to-worst decline on the level of the 1998 Florida Marlins. It was critical to me to explain why DCity didn't make the cut after all the praise I heaped on it last year. Its absence underscores the crucial importance of the pitmaster, who does more than stand by a smoker and drink Shiner Bock. He or she sets the standards and then obsesses daily about how to maintain consistency with a product that basically fights against it.
"In my mind, it takes years to really become an in-tune pitmaster," says Jim Foss, co-owner of Smokehouse Live, who has been fine-tuning his approach to smoked meats for more than two decades. It takes time, Foss says, to learn the look and feel of good barbecue, let alone how to manage your smokers so you can prepare enough brisket, ribs, pork, sausage and other cuts without running out - or having too much left over at the end of the day.
With Sonderman temporarily on the sidelines, the best pitmaster in the area is Matt Lang, a name that may be unfamiliar to many local barbecue hounds. Lang used to tend the smokers at Brooklyn's Fette Sau, and he took home top honors on Food Network's "Best in Smoke" show in 2011. Last year, Lang was hand-picked to lead the kitchen at Texas Jack's, the Arlington newcomer that has rapidly established its dominance in Washington's crowded barbecue market.
The success of Texas Jack's is no accident. It's the result of endless hours of planning, executing the plan and tinkering with the plan on a regular basis. "It's pulling together the right team of people that deeply care about what they do," says co-owner Steve Roberts. "They're frustrated because they're always trying to do better. I like them to be frustrated."
If frustration leads to the kind of barbecue produced at Texas Jack's, then perhaps peace and contentment are overrated. Lang and his team understand that superior barbecue is not about chef-driven exuberance, but about pitmaster asceticism. It's about the ability to rely on quality meats, a handful of spices and the slow burn of seasoned hardwoods. It's about letting time, heat and smoke transform meats into something primordial, as if the history of fire were written into every succulent slice of brisket.
One thing to remember when sussing out the region's best smoked meats: Despite barbecue's reputation, the good stuff is not cheap. Primal cuts are expensive. Wood is expensive. Real estate is expensive. Labor is expensive. Just as important: The finest smokehouses are not afraid to admit defeat and trash a costly piece of meat when it doesn't meet a pitmaster's definition of quality barbecue.
"If there's a piece of meat that, for whatever reason, is not up to our standards, they will eliminate it completely," says Roberts of Texas Jack's. "It's really up to the meat cutter to decide that. We give them a lot of latitude."