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The search for transcendent barbecue in the heart of power-tie steakhouse country can lead a ’cue connoisseur to some pretty unusual places—say, Tony Kornheiser’s radio show. On the Friday before Labor Day of last year, Kornheiser introduced Lee Howard and David Calkins, co-owners of Urban Bar-B-Que Company in Rockville, to discuss grilling techniques for weekend pit bosses. Howard and Calkins spoke knowledgeably of wood chips and charcoal, smoke rings and meat selections, while Kornheiser’s staff waxed rhapsodic about the barbecue men’s menu.
After too many unhappy visits to the D.C. area’s barbecue outlets, from Half Moon in Silver Spring to Rocklands in Glover Park, I figured I couldn’t do any worse by following the advice of sports-talk radio. After my first visit to Urban, I thought Kornheiser’s crew might be onto something. In fact, I was so excited about Urban’s crispy, moist, and molasses-swabbed spare ribs that, as soon as I finished my half-slab, I pulled out my cell phone and called a friend and amateur pit master whose slow-smoked, buttery brisket bitch-slaps every limp slice of barbecued beef in the area.
“Hey, Jim,” I said. “Have you ever been to Urban Bar-B-Que in—”
He interrupted me. “Oh, man, that place sucks.”
Urban seems to generate this kind of hostility from purists, not only those who understand the art of smoke but also those who consider it blasphemy when a ’cue joint refuses to stick to a regional style. Urban clearly plays to the crowd, serving up everything from Carolina-style pulled pork to Memphis-style ribs to a bastard-child brisket of Texas and Tennessee heritage. The overhead chalkboard even offers up such head-scratchers as crab cakes and corn dogs. It’s easy to understand why Urban’s desire for approval could invite the opposite reaction: No one likes a suck-up.
Howard and Calkins make no apologies for their eclecticism. They believe the D.C. market, with its power to pull people from all parts of the country, calls for inclusion, not exclusion, of America’s regional barbecue styles. But the pair have ventured far beyond regional styles; their barbecue joint frequently uses smoked meats merely as a starting point, not an end in themselves, creating hearty and heavy fare that’s a new style of comfort food for stressed urbanites.
So along with your barbecue staples—the meat combos, the bacon-spiked collard greens, and the mustardy potato salad—you’ll find Soul Rolls, two-bean chili, and a Caesar salad with pulled pork or chicken. Of course, many of these dishes begin at the same place: the smoker, where Urban’s stainless-steel-pit operators demonstrate an inconsistent touch. The brisket, for starters, would fail the test of any ’cue devotee.
It’s not that Urban doesn’t know shitty brisket from Shiner Bock. It’s that Howard, a Texas native who served as general manager at Old Glory, and Calkins, a Marylander who chefed at J. Paul’s, are catering to their clientele, which apparently doesn’t favor fatty beef smoked with oak woods for 12 hours. No, it apparently prefers lean, marinated USDA Choice brisket cooked in a convection oven with hickory and apple wood. The result is a doughy, slightly sweet beef that leaves an aftertaste of cotton. To make the meat palatable, you have to drench it in one of Urban’s sauces, a behavior bordering on sacrilege in central Texas, where smoked brisket is served unadorned.
The comparisons to Texas are not unfair. Though they say they’re not paying homage to any particular location, Howard and Calkins have nonetheless created a space with the look and feel of a central-Texas smokehouse—with blasts of Austin irony to blow through all that earnestness.
Walking into this tiny eatery, hidden among strip-mall monoliths, you’re pummeled with Texana: a Spoetzl Brewery sign, an electric cactus, a wagon-wheel chandelier draped with plastic chili-pepper lights. Bumper stickers—“Keep Austin Weird,” “I § Mullets,” and “Talk Nerdy to Me”—cling to every available inch of cabinet and counter.
The restaurant’s cooking takes a cue from its cluttered atmosphere, yielding an Urban landscape crowded with ingredients. The Urban Burger, a sauced, 6-ounce patty supporting a latticework of shredded cheddar and jack cheeses and two intersecting strips of thick bacon, is almost lost among all its competing flavors.
The same flavor battle undercuts the Two Step Chili, a mixture of ground chuck, kidney beans, and black beans that, when ordered fully loaded with cheese and sour cream, leans heavily on dairy. Ditto for Urban’s Soul Roll, a twist on the fried Chinese spring roll whose shredded-brisket interior suffocates under three different cheeses.
The restaurant’s best items, by contrast, rely on a few choice ingredients. The smoked pork sausage, made special for Urban by Binkert’s Meat Products in Baltimore, are German, mustard-seed-spiked links that provide the rare touch of spice from a kitchen mostly interested in the sweet side of ’cue.
Which brings me back to the sweet pork ribs I tried all those months ago. Marinated in Urban’s molasses-and-vinegar “red” sauce, these St. Louis–style ribs emerge from their smoky den with an expert char that conceals a tender, pink interior. The ribs are the reason to return to Urban again and again, even as the larger search for transcendent barbecue in D.C. continues.
Urban Bar-B-Que Company, 2007 Chapman Ave., Rockville, (240) 290-4827.
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