The plan was this: I would take the barbecue guru out on the open road, two obsessives on a quest for smoke and meat. His publicist thought this a cute bit of hardball, assuming I was angling for a longer interview, when in fact I wanted no interview at all. As for the guru, he was said to be charmed by the idea. That is, until the day before, when he worried how in the world he was going to squeeze in a trip to the hinterlands and still be back in time for his appearance at the National Press Club.
He proposed hitting a barbecue place in Georgetown instead.
Imagine my disappointment. Besides my fear that I would forever after be linked in his mind with a middling ’cue joint, I found it hard to get excited about the prospect of sitting among a bunch of frat boys and tourists and licking my fingers of four kinds of sauce, each with a name more clever than the last. Especially after working myself into such a lather in anticipation of the pilgrimage. So I canceled on the guru. The next day I headed south, solo.
Something about traveling a good distance for barbecue feels right to me, and not just because I have always believed that the chances of finding something memorable increase exponentially the farther you get from the city. I think it’s because the thrill of the hunt is as much a part of the experience as partaking of a method of cooking so ancient and ritualistic that you feel connected with the distant past in a way you seldom do with anything else.
I knew I was going to like Johnny Boy’s Ribs in La Plata, Md., from the moment I swerved the car into the parking lot. If “The farther from the city, the better” is the first law of ribs, then this is the second: “The more dilapidated the place, the better.” And it’d be awfully hard to improve on Johnny Boy’s sagging shack with its peeling white paint and cement-block foundation. (There’s also a solid-looking brick building in the same lot, which also bears the name Johnny Boy’s. That’s not it.)
Indoor seating? Please. You won’t even find an indoor bathroom. Here’s what else you won’t find: cutesy retro signs, two-buck bottles of fancy soda, or a wailing blues soundtrack to prove how rootsy the owners are. You sit with flies buzzing around you at one of the 16 sunbaked picnic tables. Maybe you’re lucky and you’ll get a table with an umbrella. What, you wanted ambience? You’re here to get messy.
What you will find, and in ceaseless abundance, is smoke—great gusts of slow-burning hickory and oak spiraling up and over the little white shack. The billowing smoke tells you something important: It tells you that open-pit cooking is going on.
Most jurisdictions (Charles County not among them) in the area either prohibit open-pit cooking or closely regulate it, setting aside provisions only for the occasional fair or church social. Even if it deprives us of our fair share of good country ’cue, it’s hard to fault these regulations. Open-pit cooking is, literally, playing with fire. Johnny Boy’s knows this as well as anyone—the original place, a wooden shack, burned to the ground in 1989.
You walk up to the window and place your order. Inside, there’s a grill over an open fire. A team of workers hacks away with cleavers, dividing rib racks into portions, shredding great slabs of pork shoulder, reducing thick beef briskets into a manageable mince.
I turned up some smaller, thinner, drier ribs on occasion, but on the whole these are thick, big-boned ribs, with meat that is faintly pink along the edges. Finding pinkness in a rib is a wonderful thing. Why? Because a pink edge is the surest sign that some of the smoke has permeated the meat. And smoke equals flavor. There’s also a pronounced taste of celery salt in the crusty, almost crackling, exterior of these ribs.
Purists are fond of saying that sauces are hardly necessary when the meat has been cooked properly. True enough, but once you embrace a hard-line stance like that, you tend to lose sight of the subtleties that distinguish very good from merely good barbecue. Such as the marvelous balance of Mama Sophie’s red sauce, which comes across as equal parts tang, sweetness, and spice. Sauce like this can elevate the standing of any meat, properly cooked or not. And I just couldn’t resist dragging some of the beautifully crisped fries through the puddle I’d made on a Styrofoam lid.
The pulled pork absolutely does not need embellishment, but all the same, they make a terrific match, meat and sauce, especially on a bun with some cool, creamy coleslaw. The meat threads are more thin and fine than ropy; they look almost spun. Bits of char find their way into the shredded tangle, and the whole thing is suffused with smoke and salt.
All during the drive down, I’d felt twinges of remorse for what I’d done the night before, dissing the guru like that. But as I licked away the last of my lunch from my fingers that day, I wasn’t feeling any pain at all.
Johnny Boy’s Ribs, Route 301 & St. Mary’s Avenue, La Plata, (301) 870-2526. —Todd Kliman
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