For his new barbecue joint, Rob Sonderman wanted a smoker that burns only wood, but the former DCity Smokehouse pitmaster says his insurance company nixed the idea.
That one, seemingly innocuous decision has complicated Sonderman's next project, Federalist Pig, which is scheduled to open Friday in the former Shawarma King space in Adams Morgan. The District's best pitmaster, who's been absent from the scene for nearly a year, will now rekindle his career with a Southern Pride smoker, the kind of gas-enhanced oven that's scorned by barbecue purists.
Even Sonderman is sheepish about the machine. After all, he's a purist, too. He's the guy who was producing excellent barbecue at DCity with a J&R wood-burning smoker. Sonderman knows all too well that controlling fire, smoke and temperature — elements that, more or less, are maintained effortlessly with a gas-enhanced smoker — are essential skills of the pitmaster's craft.
Which explains why Sonderman doesn't plan to use the supplemental gas heat on his new smoker, other than to ignite the lump charcoal in his firebox. Once the bed of charcoal is smoldering, Sonderman will turn off the gas and feed wood into the firebox to cook his briskets, ribs, turkeys, sausages and chickens.
“The machine obviously makes life easier, and the gas valve is a nice thing to have to get the fire going,” Sonderman says. “But I definitely don't want to use the gas at all, if I don't have to.”
Federalist Pig is a partnership between Sonderman and Steve Salis, the co-founder and former chief executive of &pizza. It won’t look anything like the pitmaster’s previous place of employment. For starters, the nearly 1,200-square-foot space will have a lot more seating than the old DCity: There will be stools and benches (well, a repurposed church pew) for 30 diners, plus more seats on the patio when the weather warms. But just as important, Sonderman has overhauled all his recipes, from A to Z.
So nothing is carrying over from DCity?
“The [smoking] technique is carried over, obviously,” Sonderman says. “But in terms of direct recipes, nothing.”
The problem is that when the pitmaster left DCity, he also left behind his recipes. Sonderman wasn't about to compete against himself by offering the same sandwiches, sauces and dry-rubbed meats found at DCity. (Not that there would be any competition at present, since DCity remains on hiatus while waiting for its new location at 203 Florida Ave. NW.) Besides, Sonderman says, “I kind of wanted to change a lot of stuff. It's a new thing, and it's just an opportunity for me to mess around with different flavor profiles.”
The menu at Federalist Pig won't be as deep as the old one at DCity. It will launch with six signature sandwiches, including the Carolina on My Mind, a chopped pork shoulder sandwich studded with crispy bits of skin. Truth be told, Sonderman's Texas Ranger sandwich sounds pretty similar to his previous gutbuster at DCity, the Brisket Champ. Both are brisket-based bites with fried onions and house-made pickles on Texas toast.
But because he's revised his sauces, pickle brines, dry rubs and bread, Sonderman expects his latest beef sandwich to yield different flavors. Sonderman has even expanded his line of hardwoods, which will contribute new flavors to the meats as well. He plans to throw six kinds of logs into the smoker: red oak, cherry, maple, pear, persimmon and honey locust.
“It smells in between oak and hickory,” Sonderman says. “It's got a little bit of a sweet aroma to it. It's pretty nice.”
The pitmaster has other surprises awaiting at his new place, including smoked sausages stuffed with freshly ground beef or pork trimmings as well as dry-seasoned spareribs prepared (somewhat) like the bones found in Memphis. Sonderman has even been tinkering with smoked jackfruit and breadfruit, which he hopes to serve in the future as a vegetarian barbecue sandwich.
“It has a very similar consistency to pulled chicken,” he says. “It has that kind of shreddable texture.”
Whatever you order at Federalist Pig, it will be served on a quarter sheet pan covered in butcher paper. Sides will include crispy Brussels sprouts, spicy garlic green beans and Red Bliss potato salad. Drinks will initially be limited to the soft variety, heavy on sodas from the South such as Cheerwine, Nehi grape and Big Red. Sonderman hopes to add local beer in cans and bottles next month, when he secures a liquor license.
As opening day approaches, Sonderman expects the barbecue from his Southern Pride unit will compare favorably to his previous smoked meats. There's little reason to doubt Sonderman on this front, but still, I wondered if the machine's very presence at Federalist Pig made him feel as if he were betraying his allegiance to the traditional barbecue gods.
“I definitely do, a little bit,” he says. “It's unfortunate that with this space, I couldn't use the smokers that I wanted to use, but I didn't really have a whole lot of options . . . I know that we'll be able to cook good food out of this.”
Federalist Pig, 1654 Columbia Rd. NW, federalistpig.com. Hours: Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.