There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The original smoker at Urban Bar-B-Que still sits in the kitchen, a homely unused hunk of metal that looks like some prison-yard sweat box. Truth to tell, the Smoke Chef didn’t always live up to its name; it was more of a convection oven, with a teeny smoke box at the bottom that employees had to fill (and refill and refill) with wood chips and chunks to generate the plumes of black perfume vital for any real barbecue.
A few feet to the right of the old Smoke Chef, however, is its replacement: a tall, imposing contraption technically known as the XLR-600. Both machines share the same parent, an Illinois manufacturer called Southern Pride. But the $3,000 Smoke Chef, with its small pull-out meat racks, is the runt of the litter. The XLR-600 is the overachiever. It features a wood box that can burn up to six split logs for 12 straight hours, encircling meats in thick clouds of hot smoke; it also has rotisserie racks on which hundreds of pounds of brisket and pork can rotate, Ferris-wheel-style, slowly circling and marinating one another with melting droplets of rich, flavorful fat. It costs around $20,000— and it’s money well-spent.
With this new machine, the Urban Bar-B-Que location in Rockville now produces, hands-down, the best smoked meats in the area. But here’s the catch: You can’t give the steely beast all the credit. You must also factor in owners Lee Howard and David Calkins, who have been on a mission lately to produce high-quality ’cue—and not just by D.C. standards, which hover somewhere north of a George Foreman grill, but by the toughest barbecue standards anywhere. We’re talking central Texas standards.
I didn’t know any of this, of course, until fairly recently, when Calkins called out of the blue to say that Urban had installed the XLR-600. He encouraged me to come see the machine for myself and tempted me with promises of fatty brisket beautifully charred with only salt, pepper, and smoke. He no doubt wanted to erase the memory of the harsh words I wrote three years ago about his brisket, which I described as “doughy, slightly sweet beef that leaves an aftertaste of cotton.”
It didn’t take long for me to change my mind about Urban’s brisket. As soon as I walked in the door and hit that wall of smoke, I knew that Howard and Calkins were up to something good. My first bite confirmed it; the brisket was a first-class ticket to Texas. Each slice was almost geological in its strata: moist grayish meat seamlessly led to a light-pink smoke ring, itself topped with an ivory streak of buttery fat encased in a black, bruised bark of char and seasonings. The taste of smoke filled my mouth, as pleasing as the day’s first cigarette back when we all used to huff and puff like a XLR-600.
Even Urban’s pork ribs, cut St. Louis–style, were better than I remembered, which is saying something, because the joint’s slabs have always been my go-to meat here. The ribs remain slathered in a sticky sweet sauce, which is not the deal-breaker it could be in lesser ’cue houses, mostly because the meat is perfect in every other respect; it’s slightly pink on the inside, slightly crispy on the outside, and it offers just enough resistance to remind you of the pleasures of separating flesh from bone with your teeth.
Simply put, the new smoker improves everything it touches, which is not to say that everything the Southern Pride unit produces is great. Sure, the pulled pork, with its simple salt-and-pepper rub, nearly measures up to the more celebrated stuff at Buz and Ned’s in Richmond, Va., but the pulled chicken could use an extra dose of smoke so that the meat isn’t all about its seasonings. But even here, Calkins and Howard say they’re devising ways to better their birds. Their most current recipe (which I haven’t sampled) calls for soaking halved chickens (better for smoke penetration) in a brine for 48 hours before throwing them into the smoker. The preparation sounds positively Frank Ruta-esque, which may be too snooty for some of you to stomach from a smokehouse, but I can’t wait to try it.
Urban’s sudden acceleration to competition-level ’cue has dumbfounded as much as delighted me. I’ve had to recalibrate my opinions not only on Urban, a once-middling performer, but also on our barbecue scene as a whole. I find myself puzzling over that hoariest of theories—that good barbecue can’t be found in the metropolitan area—and realize now that it’s a lie. The fact is, I feel like a dolt right now. I always knew cities were capable of producing fine barbecue. I’ve tasted such stuff in Dallas, Houston, and even in New York City at Hill Country. I just never thought it would happen here.
But it has, and it happened after a trip to Texas. About two years ago, Howard and Calkins took a tour of the smokehouses of central Texas. They hit Kreuz Market in Lockhart. They ate at Cooper’s Old Time Pit BBQ in Llano. They got religion. “You just taste it,” Calkins remembers about the simply rubbed meats, cooked only with smoke and time, “and you go, ‘That’s it!’” He puts his hands in the air as if he’s surrendered to a power higher than himself.
Translating the taste of Texas to D.C. is not easy. For starters, our area is situated far closer to another barbecue epicenter, the Carolinas, where passions run deep for smoked pork dressed with any number of sour sauces. Urban couldn’t just forsake those loyalists. Then there’s the fact that both Howard, a Texas native, and Calkins, a Marylander, have had to unlearn the bad habits they picked up while working at Old Glory in Georgetown, where they once marinated briskets in an oil blend with—God help them—herbs. But mostly, the men had to swallow hard and sink 20K into their new kitchen helper. Most local barbecue owners, Calkins says flatly, can’t, or just don’t want to, drop that kind of cash.
The main issue for Urban these days is holding meats once they’ve been pulled from the smoker in the morning. Dinner patrons hankering for brisket, for example, will get slices that have been sitting in a moist-environment warming unit for nine hours or longer, which, at the very least, softens the crisp texture of the meat’s exterior bark. One solution is to teach Washingtonians the joys of eating barbecued meats in the a.m., straight out of the smoker, when the brisket and pork are at their peak. Which is exactly what Calkins and Howard plan to do at 9 a.m. Saturday, when they’ll open the door on their XLR-600, release a cloud of smoke, and start slicing the freshest, smokiest meats this area may have ever tasted.
Urban Bar-B-Que, 2007 Chapman Ave., Rockville, (240) 290-4827.
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