Laying the Wood: Rocklands custom-built pit.  custom-built pit.
Laying the Wood: Rocklands custom-built pit. custom-built pit. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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It’s 3 a.m. on the Fourth of July, and I’m standing in front of my barrel smoker in Takoma Park, feeding it more hickory and oak. After babysitting my fire for the past six-plus hours, I’m sweaty and tired, and my clothes smell like they were just pulled from the embers of a California forest fire. I desperately want to sleep, but the gauge on my smoker is registering 400 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m worried the brisket buried within that black barrel will turn to ash unless I tamp down those flames to a more manageable 225 degrees.

I start by closing the vents. It doesn’t help much, given that my cheap Brinkmann smoker is leakier than a certain pipe in the Gulf of Mexico. The air creeping into my portable pit continues to stoke the flames, so I try that old fireplace maneuver and throw a giant log into the off-set wood box, hoping to suppress the small blaze within. Finally, after 30 minutes of fussing and pacing and worrying, I get the temperature under control. The fire box is releasing big, beautiful clouds of black smoke into the main chamber. I can go catch two hours of sleep before I have to start the process all over again.

This, of course, is the reason many commercial barbecue houses don’t rely on temperamental wood pits, which require the watchful eye of a trained pitmaster and healthy pile of seasoned hardwoods. (And, for that matter, why commercial barbecue houses exist in the first place; sometimes you want smoked brisket and more than two hours of sleep.) The barbecue industry has instead created sophisticated tools and equipment to ease the burdens, and costs, of smokehouse owners. Companies like Southern Pride and Ole Hickory Pits have built units—large capacity machines with rotisseries, gas elements, and thermostats—that can maintain constant temperatures for hours without a pitmaster who understands the vagaries of wood, fire, and smoke.

There are folks (mostly with Texas addresses, I should note) who will claim these units produce nothing but “roast beef”—meat, in other words, that doesn’t have the smoky depth of real pit barbecue. But as anyone who has spent a lot of time around barbecue knows, it can be a mercurial despot. Barbecue doesn’t always reward those who respect the wood-smoking traditions; it can laugh in the face of a veteran pitmaster as he pulls a dry, lifeless brisket from the smoker. This asshole called barbecue sometimes even looks kindly upon those who play it cautiously and rely on machines that take much of the skill—and sweat—out of the business of smoking meat.

You’ll find all manner of barbecue smokers around D.C., as well as in our suburbs and exurbs. There are Southern Pride units that combine gas and wood; J&R Manufacturing smokers that mix wood with electricity; even custom-made smokers that burn nothing but split hardwood. I recently sampled meats from a number of different smokers around the area, and came to perhaps an obvious conclusion: The smoker is only as good as the person who tends it.

For years, I had assumed the smoker at Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Company was one of those weasely stainless-steel jobs that burned a few token chunks of wood, letting gas do most of the real work. I had my reasons for thinking this: The thinly sliced brisket at the Glover Park shop never struck me as particularly smoky. I’d go so far as to say the beef’s dominant flavor was its sweet, vinegary sauce, not wood smoke. But at owner John Snedden’s urging, I checked out the place’s custom-made pit; general manager Antonio Mejia unbolted the double doors and showed me the smoker’s guts, a deeply blackened space with mesh steel racks stacked one atop another, suspended over an oak and hickory fire generated in a separate box underneath. Mejia’s team regulates the heat via vents built into the front of the firebox.

What I found most interesting, though, is that Rocklands doesn’t always use its designer smoker to its fullest. The baby backs, for instance, never even enter the chamber; they’re seared on the wood-burning grill and then baked in an oven for several hours. The dry rubbed brisket, untrimmed and brimming with delicious fat, is smoked for a mere 10 hours before it’s wrapped and placed overnight in the refrigerator. Cooling allows the beef’s muscles to tighten up so the morning prep crew can easily slice the brisket into thin ribbons, then portion them for sandwiches. The cooks reheat each order on a grill and slather the slices with a vinegar-based sauce.

As I bite into the brisket sandwich, I realize something for the first time: I’ve been judging Rocklands through lenses clouded with Texas smoke. The joint’s compass, I think, points farther north. When dripping with sauce, these firm, lightly smoked strips of brisket remind me of Kansas City ‘cue, a style I used to adore before I took up residence in the Lone Star State. Putting aside my regional bias, I found I could again savor the overly sauced charms of Rocklands’ brisket. Still, I far prefer the place’s spare ribs, deeply smoked and charred bones with a satisfying chew.

Many miles north of Rocklands, another barbecue house relies on a large-capacity Southern Pride unit to do its smoking. Nick and Sara Rossi and their partner, Geoff Thomas, recently took over the old Blue Ribbon BBQ space in a dated strip center, which looks like some developer glued a bunch of Pizza Huts together. Blue Ribbon prides itself on its Carolina-style pork, and rightly so. The meat is finely minced and lightly coated with a vinegar-based sauce; its sour, smoky flavors remind me of the famous Valladolid sausages of the Yucatan.

Blue Ribbon’s straight, unadorned brisket is more Texas-style than Rocklands’ version; it has also varied noticeably in my two trips north. My first plate of thick-cut beef arrived at the table sporting a bark as black as crude oil. The savory exterior was deceptive: The meat was underseasoned and slightly dry, though it did deliver on its promise of wood smoke. The following day I made a return trip to sample the joint’s smoked and deep-fried hot dog, topped with chopped brisket, cheese, and diced onions—a surprisingly lackluster exercise in decadence that couldn’t begin to compare to a real caloric fun ride like Urban Bar-B-Que’s “soul rolls.” While at Blue Ribbon, I ordered the brisket again and found it melt-in-your-mouth moist and semi-smoky—but devoid of serious bark.

I could chalk up the bark to a matter of taste. Personally, I prefer a thick crust of salt and pepper hardened by time and smoke. I suspect Blue Ribbon prefers to let you doctor your lightly seasoned beef with one of its many sauces, to better suit your tastes—arguably a more democratic approach to ‘cue than my one-bark-fits-all/no-sauce Texas totalitarianism. But as I talked to the young man behind the counter, he was arguing that cooling the beef before serving makes for a better brisket experience, at least from the standpoint of slicing the meat. I couldn’t dispute the ease of slicing. But nothing beats brisket straight from the smoker, when the slices are so moist they fall apart in your hands. Finding brisket this fresh at Blue Ribbon can be a crap shoot; they only smoke the cut several times a week.

If you want to sample moist, falling-apart brisket, hop in the car and head to
KBQ Real Barbecue in Bowie, where co-owner Kerry Britt uses a formidable J&R Manufacturing smoker to slow cook his meats. The smoker, Britt tells me, does have an electric oven element should the internal chamber temperature drop too low, but by and large, the machine relies on large logs of oak and hickory for its heat. You can taste that fiery essence in every one of Britt’s meats. His spare ribs are served dry, without a lick of sauce, but they don’t need it; the smoke acts as its own deep, satisfying flavoring agent. Same with the dry pulled pork, which releases smoke all across your tongue, as if still smoldering in your mouth.

Seasoning is Britt’s weak spot. He prefers a combination of wet and dry rubs, which I find underwhelming in flavor and, in the case of his thickly sliced brisket, inadequate to create a lusty bark. All of his meats, save perhaps the spare ribs, benefit from some table-side seasoning or a drizzle of sauce. It’s not necessarily barbecue to eat unadorned.

Which leads me back to my earlier observation: A pitmaster’s smoking tools alone do not create great barbecue. The seasonings, the dry rub, the choice of wood, the amount of fat trimmed before smoking, the time in the smoker, the decision to chill meats, the method for holding warm meats, the process for reheating meats—all of these affect the quality of your ‘cue. And because people, not machines, are behind each of these processes, quality can vary widely from place to place, even visit to visit. Some days, you might conclude our local pitmasters have entered a long-awaited golden age, in which they understand how to manipulate smoke and time and animal protein to powerful effect. Other days, you might wonder what you were smoking to lead to such a ridiculous conclusion.

Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Company, 2418 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 333-2558

Blue Ribbon BBQ, 7206 Muncaster Mill Road, Derwood, Md. (301) 926-1529

KBQ Real Barbecue, 12500-B1 Fairwood Parkway, Bowie, Md. (301) 352-8111

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