It was the sign that hooked me. There it was, a simple hand-painted sandwich board straddling the median on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. Its message was direct: PIT BBQ. An arrow pointed right.
I turned right.
I eventually ran right into Hardy’s, a big white truck parked just outside the Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative. The truck is where you meet Roxie. She takes your order, serves up sides, and shouts to her husband what meats you want. Her husband, Corries Hardy, is just a few feet away, tending his large portable smoker crammed with three tiers of juicy meats, including sausage, ribs, brisket, turkey, and pork.
I immediately start asking him the usual barbecue-geek questions: What kind of wood does he use? How long does he smoke his various meats? Does he use a rub?
His answers are brief and friendly (though his tone understandably suspicious of a stranger asking waaaay too many questions): He uses apple wood only. He likes its sweet scent. (Don’t get him started on hickory.) Hardy has created his own special brown sugar-based rub, which is adapted from his grandfather’s recipe. He smokes his brisket for about seven hours and his ribs for about three.
His style of barbecue, like his rub, is inspired by his grandfather’s work at the smoker in Florida. It’s the kind of slow-smoked ‘cue that doesn’t play up the smoke. Which explains why he keeps his pit constantly open.
I politely tell Hardy that I’ve spent a lot of time in Texas and have grown accustomed to its style of barbecue. I’m speaking in code, of course. I’m signaling my bias and giving myself an easy out, should I not prefer Hardy’s ‘cue. After all, this former Army man towers above me like a skyscraper. His arms look like the thighs of an Olympic sprinter. He wears a straw hat. He reminds me of Alex Karras in Blazing Saddles, and I wasn’t interested in being the horse that takes his punch, particularly after the pitmaster offered me a free sample of his brisket (not that smokey but tender and sweet).
I then bought some ribs; I would have bought more, but I had just eaten lunch. Hardy gave me an extra rib. (Man, if I didn’t like his ‘cue now, I figured I was destined to be dog food.)
Hardy’s ribs are indeed sweet. But they also have an excellent chew. They require some jaw work to remove the meat from the bone, just the way I like ’em. But the surprise came from Hardy’s sauce, which starts with a sweet hit of what tastes like cider vinegar, but resolves into this welcome blast of heat.
It might not be my preferred style of barbecue, but I could appreciate its craft. This is a pitmaster who has dedicated himself to his own personalized style of barbecue, down to the custom-made rub and the home-made sauce. There is a meticulousness and singularity of purpose here that I can fully embrace. These are the traits of the finest pitmasters, from North Carolina to Central Texas. The fact that my heart and palate will forever belong to Lone Star State ‘cue is not Corries Hardy’s fault.
Hardy’s barbecue is available from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sundays near the Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative at Willow and Wisconsin streets in Bethesda.