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Three different vehicles have taken up residence at the back end of a massive parking lot that serves the Safeway grocery store at 514 Rhode Island Ave. NE. One is a converted 1995 school bus now outfitted with deep-fryers, prep tables, and coolers. The second is a square white panel truck that hauls around a giant generator, and the final is a beat-up red Chevy 1500 pickup with an equally well-used Southern Pride smoker propped up on cinder blocks in the bed.
This sprawling mobile barbecue empire belongs to Fate Pittman, a 73-year-old pitmaster who has been smoking pork, beef, and chicken for more than 30 years. Except no one calls Pittman by his family name. Everyone knows him by the handle painted onto his vehicles: Mr. P.
Mr. P is a large graying man, his fingers as plump as sausages. He doesn’t move around that well anymore. He blames it on a bad back, which he injured decades ago while working in the auto-body repair business before he turned to barbecue. It’s with some reluctance that I ask Mr. P to extract himself from his comfortable perch inside his school bus to show me around. I tell him that I’m sorry, but I only half mean it. The fact is, I’m on a mission. A guy who makes pork ribs this good needs some love from the local food press.
The barbecue man sells a number of items from the main window on the side of his bus. He sells fried whiting, barbecue chicken, oversized sections of smoked beef ribs, and a whole mess of side dishes, from coleslaw to collards. The chicken is pretty fine, both smoky and moist, but his beef ribs are chewy and dehydrated—and yet shockingly still edible, like a good meaty jerky. (I’ve heard tell that on his better days, Mr. P’s beef ribs are a work of art, which gives you an idea of how fickle barbecue is.)
But the main reason to hop aboard Mr. P’s bus is to order his pork ribs. They are, without any doubt in my mind, the best pork ribs in the area. They’re charred. They’re crispy around the edges. They’re moist and pink inside. They’re smoky and salty and meaty and, goddamn it, I want a whole rack right now! Because Mr. P is from western North Carolina, he serves his meats with a ketchup-based barbecue sauce. I wouldn’t bother with it; like good Texas ’cue, his meats don’t need the extra flavor.
Mr. P didn’t always used to work out of a school bus. At one point in his barbecue career, he says, he had real brick-and-mortar stores, mostly takeout oriented. But then he got into the mobile smoke business up in Chillum, which was a thriving concern, as Mr. P describes it, until Prince George’s County started cracking down on street food vendors. That’s how he ended up in this godforsaken Safeway parking lot.
Because of his age, Mr. P has plenty of help with his business. Victor “Preacher Man” Wilson is his day-to-day pitmaster, tending to the hickory and oak logs that fuel the Southern Pride. Wilson is also the one who makes sure the meats, especially those simple spice-rubbed ribs, don’t smoke too long. But Mr. P also has Belinda Roberson, who works the window and prepares all the sides, including the baked beans and potato salad, which she says are the bestsellers. Roberson has been working with Mr. P, she says, for 30 years.
“We’re two of his secret weapons to keep it going,” says Preacher Man, who’s been working with Mr. P, off and on, for 10 years. “We’re him when he’s not here.”
Except that may not be the case in the near future. Mr. P is thinking about retiring. “Don’t you think it’s time?” he asks me rhetorically. The problem is, he may not have anyone left to carry on the business, including his four children. “They don’t want to mess with it,” Mr. P says. “They got their own things.” Even worse, neither Roberson nor Preacher Man think they can afford to buy out the business.
All three of them—Mr. P, Preacher Man, and Roberson—seem to sense that the business is on its last legs. Which may explain why they’re pushing so hard for one last request. They really want me to try to get a message to President Obama: Go visit Mr. P’s Ribs and shake the owner’s hand.
“He tried Five Guys,” Preacher Man says, “Tell him to try this here.”
Mr. P’s Ribs and Fish is located in the Safeway parking lot at 514 Rhode Island Ave. NE. It operates from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.