Exhausted and exhaling with the heavy sigh of someone unsure of his actions, I reach for another bone. “I’m gonna hate myself for this later,” I say. In front of me is what remains of a rack of ribs, half a chicken, a mound of pulled pork on a toasted roll, and enough sides to feed a small kindergarten class.
“Then don’t eat it,” my friend remarks, not understanding that such logic takes a back seat to the demands of principle when faced with such a bounty of food.
“I gotta,” I insist.
“He’s gotta,” another friend concurs through a mouthful of pork and sauce.
More a feed than a meal, rib eating doesn’t cease on the stomach’s terms, but when the food has disappeared. There’s hardly a more suitable stage for the carnivorous ritual than Kenny’s BBQ in Mount Pleasant, a 25-year-old institution that has been under new ownership for five months (there’s another location in Beltsville). With linoleum and tile surfaces that could easily be hosed down if necessary, Kenny’s scrappy three-table dining room announces that rib eating is messy business. Factor in sauce, which is everywhere at Kenny’s (in a pool on the Styrofoam plate, spread over the ribs themselves, in squeezable containers on the table), and it’s not rare for remnants from a feed to be found lingering on both expected parts of the body, like a cheek or chin, and in less explainable spots, like a knee or forehead.
“This is a cagey-veteran move,” boasts my friend, a meaty Kenny’s rib in one hand and his shirt soaked through with sweat. He takes his bone and puts it through a series of somersaults in a puddle of sweet sauce, splattering and dripping maroon droplets on our table. When we’re done eating, the woman behind the counter gives us a bucket of water to wash up in.
The overwhelming consensus among connoisseurs is that ribs are like real estate: Quality is dictated by location. In The Only Texas Cookbook, food scribe Linda West Eckhardt writes, “If you have ever ordered barbecue in such outrageous places as New York or Los Angeles, you will understand from experience the murderous rage that lives in us all.”
Without the benefit of tradition on its side, the District is subject to the barbs of ’cue snobs. “Sure, it’s in the South,” a critic might say, “but Washington is not Carolina, and it ain’t even close to Memphis.” A colleague even went so far as to suggest that the area is suffering “the death of barbecue,” citing as evidence the demise of the Dixie Pig on Richmond Highway in Alexandria, Sixties in Silver Spring, and Moe’s on Rhode Island Avenue. With the Red, Hot and Blue chain now planning to bum rush the market with its sterile franchises, I’m still not convinced we’re headed for death. But I understand the “murderous rage.”
If Georgetown’s Old Glory Bar-B-Q didn’t pay such scrupulous attention to regional barbecue customs the restaurant would be a disaster: Simply put, it has all the trappings of a sports bar. But like many backyard outings, Old Glory is saved by sauces. Each table is equipped with a rack of them and a card that aligns each substance with its geographical territory: the tomatoey Memphis sauce that most people are familiar with, the Kansas City and southwest Texas sauces that are spiced, respectively, with cayenne and dried chile pepper, the tart, vinegar-based concoctions from Lexington and eastern Carolina that prove to be our favorites, and the yellowish-brown Savannah sauce that looks and tastes like mustard.
Most local rib joints don’t claim any provincial allegiance, and the sauce selections are hardly as comprehensive as Old Glory’s. But with a singular sauce comes a singular identity that hinges on taste. Eating at Old Glory can be an education, but it’s hardly a place to be a regular.
Both Rocklands in Glover Park and Starke’s Head Hog BBQ in Bethesda demonstrate an affinity for the slovenly ritual of rib eating. Rocklands is a clean hole in the wall with a screen door and a bowl of peanuts to munch on as you wait for your rack, which is prepared in a wood-burning pit that occupies nearly as much space as the sparse dining area. The ribs are served on a plate of tinfoil with a grilled scallion for garnish and served with a tame sauce we make nuclear with one of the several bottles of unforgiving pepper treatments located on the restaurant’s one large table and bar. The smoky essence of the hickory and oak it’s cooked over makes a tough, fatty rack of spareribs worth our effort. And Rocklands’ baby-backs, leaner and smaller than the spare, are the best we tried.
Starke’s ribs have a similar quality, though the sauce used is more tangy than Rocklands’ and the restaurant’s baked beans are something to behold—so rich with molasses they could be a dessert. Run by former Redskins lineman George Starke, Head Hog is also the only game in town. “As a Bethesda resident,” says my friend who senses the barbecue apocalypse, “I have to say I’m thrilled to have this here.”
Barbecue chefs are known for their arrogance; just try to get your hands on the tongs of a cook who knows his trade. Tearing meat from the bone is also a task that requires a certain attitude. The temperament at Blaze and the Rib Pit, two takeout joints that each claims its ribs as supreme, is appropriately cocky.
Blaze is only a few months old and is co-owned by Donald Mfume, son of Kweisi, the head of the NAACP. Blaze won’t serve pork ribs until the restaurant’s second floor is renovated so it can house a second smoker. But Mfume insists that his beef ribs—much larger, meatier, and often tougher than pork—are tender, “the best in town.” An empty boast, perhaps, but Blaze’s gargantuan racks could feed the Flintstones, and are slow-cooked long enough that the meat-to-bone bond is easily broken. When asked how his ribs compare with others in town, the guy at the Rib Pit says, “They don’t. Our shit’s good.” I ask for Wet-Naps; he tells me to use my tongue. He sells me the day’s special, a pork sandwich, which turns out to be six ribs with two slices of bread on the side. I eat the delicious ribs, which are wet through with a tangy sauce, and toss the bread.
Most rib freaks will say that there’s no time like the present to indulge in a rack. But press and they’ll agree that barbecue eating is essentially a seasonal sport to be practiced like a glutton in the leisurely outdoors.
Melvin used to run a barbecue place at 4th and T NE until he got sick of the bad location and having to work every day. Now he drags a small fleet of trucks and smokers to the parking lot of a Rhode Island Avenue Safeway to sell what in his opinion is the only kind of barbecue—Carolina-style dry rub, sauce on the side.
“I don’t like my ribs sloppy,” Melvin says. “If you like them sloppy, make them sloppy yourself. Where I’m from, if you cook them with sauce it ain’t barbecue.”
As a sauce man, I find Melvin’s assessment hard to swallow. But not his ribs. Although I try Melvin’s ribs bare, which is like eating a well-seasoned steak, I prefer to make mine sloppy with his peerless sauce. (The secret? “Italian seasoning,” whispers one of Melvin’s employees.) As I sit under a tree with juice running down my arm, rack on my lap, the church crowd begins to filter into the parking lot. A woman yells at me from the window of her car, “Is that barbecue any good?” Unable to speak, I raise a bone in the air as though I’m about to propose a toast. She’s in line in no time.
Blaze Hickory Smoked Bar-B-Q, 1110 U St. NW. (202) 234-0316.
Kenny’s BBQ Restaurant, 3066 Mount Pleasant St. NW. (202) 328-1112.
Kenny’s II, 10973 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville. (301) 937-9590.
Melvin’s Ribs at Safeway Supermarket, 514-C Rhode Island Ave. NE. (202) 636-8640.
Old Glory All-American Bar-B-Que, 3139 M St. NW. (202) 337-3406.
The Rib Pit, 3907 14th St. NW. (202) 291-6261.
Rocklands, 2418 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (202) 333-2558.
Starke’s Head Hog BBQ, 7003 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. (301) 907-9110.
Some readers have praised the Cottonwood Cafe for its ambience (“They’ve even got ceiling fans on the patio,” says Mark) and its bar (“I haven’t eaten there yet, but the beers are good,” says another patron), but the only mention of food has been for “fire and spice,” a pasta dish Mark says “is to die for.” I take exception to an $18 dish that comes with only three average-size shrimp. But the grilled red chile sausage makes this heavy dish, tossed with pepper tagliatelle, sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, shiitake mushrooms, and roasted shallot cream, worthy of its name. No wonder they have fans outside.
Cottonwood Cafe, 4844 Cordell Ave., Bethesda. (301) 656-4844.—Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.