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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 01/ 4/2011

Smoke Signals: The year in barbecue

By Jim Shahin
barbecue_opt.jpg Those tangy salty ribs. (Susan Biddle for The Washington Post)

Before moving forward into 2011, let's take a smoke-in-our-eyes glance back at 2010. The year just past was – dare I say it? oh, what the hell – smokin’ for the local barbecue scene. And, yes, we now have enough activity that 'cue snobs might merely raise an eyebrow rather than flat-out laugh when you call Washington’s barbecue a “scene.”

That’s progress.

Now, let's parse our terms. By “scene,” I don’t mean style.

Despite a tendency toward sticky sweet sauce and, in a cluster of smokehouses in Southeast, pork ribs crusted with a tangy saltiness, the area’s identity remains, seemingly resolutely, its lack of one.

Everybody serves everything – Texas-style brisket, North Carolina pulled pork, Memphis ribs – but nobody is really doing any of it with bone-deep authenticity. At the same time, there is no category-bending experimentation, such as the Southeast Asian-influenced barbecue at Fatty ‘Cue in Brooklyn.

Yet more barbecue joints are opening, more talk is centering around barbecue (there's even a blog dedicated to D.C.-area ‘cue called Beltway BBQ) and more locals are lighting up the national cook-off circuit.

The scene is nascent, to be sure. But it will only grow, with more barbecue restaurants on the way in 2011, which we’ll talk about next week. In the meantime, though, let's look at where we’ve been.

The phenomenon known as Pork Barrel BBQ, founded by two former Senate staffers after their boss, Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), lost his re-election bid in 2006, continued to rock the 'cueosphere with its perpetual-motion Tweeting and Facebooking machines. In between postings, they co-sponsored a fundraiser for the Fort Riley USO in Kansas, won first place in the People's Choice Contest at the Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle and fifth overall at West Virginia’s state championship, Pickin’ in the Panhandle. Oh, yeah, and Pork Barrel's sauce and rub products are available in more than 1,000 stores in 38 states.

Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Company, the local four-restaurant success story, celebrated its 20th anniversary in December. Patrons celebrated with a barbecue platter at the 1990 price.

In the spring, Fat Face Bar-B-Que, a truck that grew into a storefront in Southeast, received a contract to serve barbecue at RFK Stadium for D.C. United games and other events. Also in the spring, Blue Ribbon BBQ in Derwood received an ownership and menu makeover.

The owner of Art and Soul, Chicago-based chef Art Smith, was one of three judges on TLC’s “BBQ Pitmasters.” The others were world-champion barbecue competitor Myron Mixon and former football player, Warren Sapp.

In June, the 18th annual Safeway’s National Capital Barbecue Battle (someone please come up with a better name) again turned downtown streets into a small, smoke-clouded town, attracting competitors from around the country. Overcoming stiff competition, the District of Columbia Firefighting Team, led by Michael Skahill of Keedysville, Md, took first place in the sauce category. Chix, Swine and Bovine, led by Mike Richter of Jessup, won fifth place in brisket.

In the fall, a new barbecue restaurant opened on H Street NE under the name Chuck’s Wagon. It is now called Inspire Café, but pitmaster Charles Smith still prepares the peach-wood smoked ‘cue.

In December, a scruffy hipster bar near the 9:30 club called American Ice Company started serving hickory-smoked pulled pork, chicken and turkey sandwiches as its pub grub.

On the more refined side, hay-smoking (yes, as in horse feed) is all the rage among some of the city’s top restaurants, such as Bibiana downtown and Cleveland Park’s Ripple. (Read more about this in The Post’s Food section on Jan. 19.) J&G Steakhouse grills its foie gras. And Annie’s Bistro Francais – didja catch that, a French bistro? -- serves a sandwich of vinegar/pepper-laced pulled pork imported from North Carolina.

Around the country, the biggest addition to the barbecue calendar was Texas Monthly magazine’s first annual BBQ Festival. Held in September, it sold out within hours.

Oh, yeah, and I heard something about someone starting the nation’s first barbecue column in a major daily paper. Smoke Signals, I think they call it?

This look-back was just a broad overview and surely misses some significant events. To help Smoke Signals remedy that in the coming year, restaurateurs, competitors, barbecue lovers and just plain folk, please send tips, suggestions, opinions and questions to me, Jim Shahin, at

By Jim Shahin  | January 4, 2011; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Smoke Signals  | Tags:  Jim Shahin, barbecue  
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