Washington's reputation for attracting people from all corners of the United States has been part of the city's problem in developing a barbecue identity of its own. Smoked meats in the area tend to pander to all palates, whether those palates were developed in Texas, Kansas City, Memphis or the Carolinas. (Hill Country, of course, is the notable exception to the District's pan-'cue approach.)
But of all the styles available in Washington, one has been conspicuously absent: North Carolina whole hog, a form of barbecue that often requires special equipment and can be next to impossible to execute without overcooking at least one part of the pig, as author Meathead Goldwyn has painstakingly explained.
The Federalist Pig in Adams Morgan isn't selling whole hog barbecue, but former DCity Smokehouse pitmaster Rob Sonderman's new place offers the next best thing: chopped pork studded with crispy bits of skin. Sonderman smokes a whole bone-in shoulder — not a whole hog, alas — and then removes the skin and deep fries it. Those crunchy bits, with a scant amount of fat still attached, are reserved exclusively for Federalist Pig's chopped pork sandwich, the Carolina on My Mind.
But when I stopped by the smokehouse on Wednesday, Sonderman decided to throw this pig a bone. I ordered a three-meat platter with pulled pork, brisket and turkey, and the pitmaster tossed some cracklings atop the pork, a little Louisiana-style lagniappe for a writer whom Sonderman has known for a couple of years. The deep-fried skin provided a satisfying crunch to a dish that too often skates on its fatty acid, that mixture of lush pork and vinegar.
The chopped pork itself was not some pucker-inducing pile of vinegared meat: Its wood-smoke perfume was subdued, ephemeral even, not a desert-island brush fire designed to draw the attention of passing planes. The saucing of the meat was even more refined, a light hit of spicy apple-cider vinegar design to accent the pork. The chopped pork immediately ranks among my favorites in the area.
Turns out, the thin smoke penetration was a recurring theme with my meat platter, possibly, I thought, connected to Sonderman's efforts to transform a gas-powered machine into a full-on, wood-burning smoker. While the slices of brisket and turkey were succulent and seasoned flawlessly, neither had the kind of pronounced smokiness I desire in barbecue. For what it's worth — not much apparently — the brisket exhibited few signs of a smoke ring, either.
On my way out the door, I mentioned to Sonderman that some of the meats were not smoky enough for my tastes. He didn't disagree and shrugged his shoulders, saying he's doing the best he can with what he has. But later he texted with another thought: “Light smoke profile could have to do with the wood as well — using the honey locust and the persimmon wood this week,” he wrote, clearly puzzling over the issue, as dedicated pitmasters do. “Both seem to be pretty mild on smoke flavor.”
Sonderman will, no doubt, find the right mix of woods for his barbecue. I hope he will also decide to throw that crispy pig skin on his chopped pork, regardless of whether you order it as a sandwich or by the half-pound.
Federalist Pig, 1654 Columbia Rd. NW. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.