First you see the smoke. And not just a cute, log-cabin curlicue lazily spiraling up from the chimney, either. This is big smoke, wild smoke, burning-down-the-house smoke that seemingly explodes through the carryout’s black rooftop. Sometimes, when the weather is particularly nasty, this smoke is capable of swallowing half the block in a hazy, moorish fog.
Then, as this culinary cumulonimbus gets closer, thicker, sweeter, that first blast of life-affirming smell finds its way into your car: oak and hickory and beef and pork and…bliss. By now, you’ve forgotten about the smoke. You’ve forgotten about that diet. You’ve forgotten about the years-old tuxedo you were hoping to squeeze your fat ass into by inauguration time.
All thoughts of eating light or dieting or a stretch-pants-free life are forbidden at the Smoke Shack Ribs & Barbeque, a small but mighty carryout joint in Fort Washington, Md., the finger-licking, saucy-smile capital of Prince George’s County. Here, the name of the game is full-throttle, elbows-up barbecue: both claws digging into the styrofoamed mess, sauce dripping its way onto every article of clothing, sweat streaking down your forehead. And only after the damage has been done do you sleepily reach for that thick stack of overwhelmed napkins. (Even with the napkins, you’re probably gonna need a shower afterward.)
From 1991 to 1999, the Shack peddled an endless number of plates of North Carolina-style beef, pork, and chicken out of a rickety roadside truck a few rural blocks off Indian Head Highway. Riddick Bowe would often show up to chow down; Marion Barry would occasionally drop by to dig in. But, as the increasingly popular Shack inspired abundant curbside competition around the county, the P.G. powers that be ordained that such backseat vendors were harming the under-construction image of their fast-growing area. Whatever.
The Shack’s eventual move to an equally cramped but altogether wheelless edifice hasn’t hurt business at all. Now wedged on Livingston Road between a hair salon and a car washand partially obscured by the two buildings, so make sure to let the smoke guide youthe Shack now stays open seven days a week; keeps longer, more stable hours; and, best of all, still sells monster meals for well under a sawbuck.
Ranging from $8 for the half-slab to $14.50 for the Flintstonian full slab, the ribs are coated with eight different seasoningsall of which are kept a coy mysteryand slow-cooked over an open pit packed tight with thick logs of hickory and oak. Take a peek: Behind the register and to the right is the massive, hard-working grill, always overloaded with glistening, crackling meat and usually void of open real estate. Flavored to the bone with an earthy, fiery richness, the pork and beef ribs, as well as the chicken (all available in whole and half portions), are slathered in a vinegary sauce capable of sticking to your digits for days. But as good (although sometimes a tad chewy) as the ribs are, the Bunyan-sized pulled-pork sandwich is even better. “Sandwich” actually may be a stretch: A small bun and powerless white bread are provided more out of tradition than practicality, and odds are dead even that, at some point during your fork-it-on feast, a sauce-besotted morsel will wind up in your lap.
On the “Fresh From the Sea” portion of the menu, fillets of whiting or sea trout, croaker, and large shrimp (which are more like Long John Silver’s-style popcorn shrimp) are offered up fried and otherwise. The place boasts of having a world-famous crab cake (come to think of it, what restaurant doesn’t?), but on the day I’m in the mood, it’s fresh outwhich, I imagine, might be a good sign. When it comes to seafood, I’m an oyster-any-which-way fanatic, and the fried bivalves here are heavy and juicy, and hold just enough of that sweet strong sea-floor taste to combat the thin layer of golden batter coating them.
And then we get to the sides, which, as far as my more-more-more mentality is concerned, are the best guilty-pleasure part of the Smoke Shack experience. The candied yams, voted by select members of the Washington City Paper Free Food Society as “the best ever,” are so smooth and lip-puckering sweet they should come with a lollipop stick. The baked macaroni and cheese is a sturdy multicheese masterpiece. The baked beans are pulled from the pot just before reaching mush level and swim nicely in a shallow pool of sugar, cinnamon, and pork. The collard greens have an overpowering taste that most certainly includes select drippings from the grill. And though I must admit that I’ve never been a fan of either coleslaw or potato salad, I’m toldin stuffed-mouthed detail from folks who debate such picnic delicacies with fire-and-brimstone fervorthat each is sweet and subtle and holds just the right amount of mayo and crunch.
Returning from my third visit to the ShackI’ve bought $44 worth of food (that’s four bloated bags’ worth), praying that my chums at the paper would be hungrya colleague and I encounter gridlock on the way back to the city. We try to drown out the smells wafting from the back seat with some really loud Black Sabbath, but Ozzy & Co. are no match for our wailing stomachs. The return trek takes more than an hour, and by the time we get to the office, the food has lost some heat. But the bounty still manages to pull 12 starving writers and editors into the kitchen. And there’s still a lot left over after the carnage: at least two full dinners and plenty of candied yams. One of my colleaguesnot exactly your down-and-dirty BBQ typeturns to me with a groggy grin on her mug and a hand on her belly: “Make sure you say something about siestas,” she says.
Smoke Shack Ribs & Barbeque, 9119 Livingston Road, Fort Washington, Md. (301) 248-8200. Sean Daly
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