DBBBBQ: Chapter 1
Getting on the Good Foot
The week preceding my takeoff was spent in Washington DC, where quality Q has apparently gone the way of cured Tyrannosaur. Granted, I didn’t do as much scouting as I should have, but internet consensus led me to The Rib Pit, a hole in the wall smokehouse not too far from where I was staying in Columbia Heights. The front was promising enough: standing room the size of a walk-in closet, all transactions made through a bulletproof glass partition and a faint trail of smoke seeping through to prime customers for flavor.
I paid just over $5 for a generously sized pulled pork sandwich, greens and yams. Unfortunately, value did not translate to satisfaction. The pork was decently smoked, but stumbled just over the line from juicy to soggy. The tomato-based sauce helped pull it into a flavor zone, but at a completely unremarkable pace. The sides were soggy and formless, devoid of personality and generally irrelevant to the meal at hand. While I give The Rib Pit points for its completely unpretentious approach, the sad truth is that there’s really nothing in its barbecue for humility to mask. For the money, a trip to Ben’s Chili Bowl would be a more worthwhile investment.
My first real stop on the tour proved much more successful. Just outside of Richmond, VA, in the town of Ashland, stands The Virginia Barbeque Company, a genuine southern barbecue shack with a four-shelf spice rack decked with regional hot sauces. A recent addition to the barbecue scene, Virginia Barbeque has already shot into the franchising business, but research told me the original location was still one of the state’s best Q corners, and the proof was in the local couple that waddled up the steps minutes after I’d taken my food out to the porch and laughed at the sight of me devouring smoked pork at 11 in the morning.
Speaking of which: I ordered a pulled pork sandwich, cornbread, and BBQ baked beans. The cornbread muffins balanced sweetness, richness and crumble like nothing I’ve ever had. The beans were also astoundingly good, winding a ribbon of meaty smoke around a rich, hearty consistency with a spicy kick that eased into a mild sweet finish. The pork was tender, slightly juicy, and very slightly smoky. The slaw, a very inoffensive white mix with minimal mayonaise content, complemented the easy-going barbecue perfectly. True to form, the sandwich required no sauce, which was for the best since the sauces offered were nothing to brag about during recess (I suppose that’s why the restaurant makes a point of its hot sauce rack).
There was nothing particularly amazing about Virginia Barbeque’s sandwich, but each bite was steeped in authenticity, and the sides hit like Teddy Roosevelt sneaking up on an enemy dozing in a hammock, big stick in hand and Rough Riders at the ready. As I sat on the porch, washing down my meal with a paper glass of sweet tea, I felt the home-bred magnetism of this scene and knew that this is the kind of Q and the kind of place that merits a good weekend drive. I also realized that I was a mere weekend drive from the North Carolina border, on the other side of which unholy fields of barbecue rapture were waiting for harvest.