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The $20 Diner’s 2016 guide to the best barbecue in the D.C. area

This list has changed dramatically since last year's survey. The top four restaurants this year were either in their development stages in 2015 or not mentioned in my compilation.

Such turnover should give you some indication about the state of barbecue in Washington: We don't have an iconic smokehouse yet, the kind of trusted spot on par with Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Central BBQ in Memphis or Skylight Inn BBQ in Ayden, N.C. Washington also has a lot of mediocre 'cue, as my visits to more than 20 joints during a six-week period revealed. While the D.C. scene has improved, it has a long way to go before anyone speaks our town's name in the same sentence as Kansas City, Lockhart, Tex., or even Brooklyn.

[Best BBQ 2016Best brisket | Best ribs| Best pulled pork | Why pitmasters matter]

Ribs, brisket and pulled or chopped pork are the meats most commonly found on local barbecue menus, which provided a baseline for me to review restaurants that varied significantly from place to place. With that said, not every joint on my list smokes all three meats, and while I didn't automatically disqualify a smokehouse for failing to offer all three, but I ranked them lower than I might have otherwise.

10. The BBQ Joint

Chef Andrew Evans does ribs better than just about anybody else. My bones came glazed in sauce and sprinkled with seasonings for a bracing one-two punch of sweetness and spice. The other meats on Evans's menu can have dyspeptic mood swings: The brisket can be smoky, spicy and decadent one day - and virtually without charisma the next.

Two D.C. locations: Union Market, 1309 Fifth St. NE. 202-714-3292; and 2005 14th St. NW. 202-747-2377.

9. Smoke & Barrel

This Adams Morgan operation has stepped up its game since last year, when its barbecue was borderline hopeless. The brisket still needs a personality implant, but the pulled pork is delightfully understated: mildly smoked and lush. The ribs sport plenty of sweet-and-salty flavors and, even better, they are not smoked to the point where the meat hangs loose on the bones like a cheap jacket.

2471 18th St. NW. 202-319-9353.

8. Garden District

The urbanites who dwell in the Garden District seem to prefer the beer over the barbecue, which is their loss. Chef and pitmaster Tad Curtz produces pulled pork and brisket sandwiches that deserve a more attentive audience. You can order the meats without buns, too: The pork may be saucy - practically stewlike, in fact - but Curtz will tuck some "outside brown" pieces in there to add muscle to the dish. The brisket, particularly if you're slipped an end piece, rewards you with a parade of smoke, spice and salt across the palate.

1801 14th St. NW.

7. Fat Pete's Barbecue

This Cleveland Park upstart was among my favorites last year, but recent visits have revealed a maddening inconsistency. Perhaps the operation has placed too much emphasis on expansion, with locations expected to open this summer in downtown Washington and College Park. Fat Pete's also recently lost pitmaster Brendan Woody, who was an anchor. The ribs, at once smoky, sweet and peppery, are always worth a visit.

3407 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-362-7777.

6. Sloppy Mama's at Solly's

Joe Neuman is the traditionalist behind Sloppy Mama's, which sells its meats daily at Solly's Tavern on the U Street corridor. Neuman cooks his pork shoulders and briskets on a custom-made smoker at Mess Hall and transports the meats to Solly's for reheating and serving. The barbecue is better than you'd ever imagine: The sweet, piquant bark on the brisket looks and tastes as if it were fresh from the smoker. The chopped pork, dressed lightly with a vinegar-based Carolina sauce, expertly balances smoke, spice and tang. If Sloppy Mama's served ribs, it would rank higher.

Solly's Tavern, 1942 11th St. NW. 202-232-6590.

5. Hill Country

This Penn Quarter favorite continues to turn out excellent 'cue, although sometimes the meat market will sell you barbecue held well past its prime. On one visit, the ribs may be peppery, smoky and succulent. On the next, they may have hardened into a meat stick. The brisket remains stellar.

410 Seventh St. NW. 202-556-2050.

4. Epic Smokehouse

A surprise entry on the list, the Pentagon City restaurant is as much a high-end steakhouse as a barbecue joint. But under chef Wayne Halleran, the place serves quality smoked meats, which are cooked low and slow in a Southern Pride unit with hickory and apple woods. The pulled pork, spiked with lovely pieces of "outside brown" meat, can be eaten without a lick of sauce, its wood perfume and seasonings enough to carry the dish. The charred, heavily sauced ribs are pure, sticky fun.

1330 S. Fern St., Arlington. 571-319-4001.

3. BVQ at Vanish

Chef Bryan Voltaggio's barbecue (dubbed BVQ, of course) has debuted well at Vanish, the seed-to-sip brewery in Lucketts, Va. The chopped Virginia-style pork, rubbed with a coffee-and-spice mixture and smoked over hickory, benefits from a mop of vinegar-based sauce. It's powerful stuff, radiating smoke and tanginess. The Texas-style brisket, by contrast, needs refinement: It came sliced too thick and sauced. Plus, it smacked of pot roast. This would not have passed Voltaggio's inspection.

Served Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Vanish, 42264 Leelynn Farm Lane, Lucketts, Va. 703-779-7407.

2. Smokehouse Live

Another relative newcomer, this Leesburg operation nails the brisket and ribs. In fact, Smokehouse Live's brisket is executed so well - the meat moist and smoky, the smoke ring well-defined, the bark good and crusty - that I debated briefly whether it deserved top honors in that category. What trips up this place is its pulled pork, which I find under-seasoned and a little underwhelming.

1602 Village Market Blvd. SE, Suite 120, Leesburg. 571-447-5483.

1. Texas Jack's

This Arlington newcomer has ascended to the top, not by default, but by the dedication of pitmaster Matt Lang. The smoky, moist-side brisket is the attraction, each crusty slice the standard by which others in the area are judged. The meaty, St. Louis-style ribs and Yucatan-spiced pulled pork also trade on lean preparations, the smoke and meat always front and center, never requiring a jacked-up sauce to save its bacon.

2761 Washington Blvd., Arlington. 703-875-0477.

Missed the cut: Kangaroo Boxing Club on 11th Street NW; Small Fry on Georgia Avenue NW; Oklahoma Joe's in Vienna; Pork Barrel BBQ in Alexandria; Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Company in Arlington; DCity Smokehouse at Wicked Bloom; and Urban Bar-B-Que in Rockville.

More barbecue: 

• Why pitmasters matter

• Best brisket

• Best pulled pork

• Best ribs