It all started with an innocent enough culinary question.
Was Kenny’s Smokehouse on Capitol Hill, where President Barack Obama dined June 13, worth the time of the leader of the free world?
And what if Team HOH found Kenny’s lacking? Perhaps we could provide alternatives if the president’s barbecue jones struck again.
Out of these considerations grew HOH DMV-Q: a one-day, three-lunch sampling of barbecue joints in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Selections were chosen using a highly complicated algorithm: how much we could get away with expensing + how far we were willing to drive + how long we had for lunch.
Kenny’s Smokehouse 732 Maryland Ave. NE, Washington, D.C.
Calling it a glorified carryout is apt and accurate, given the small number of dining room seats.
But size evidently doesn’t matter to the first family, as evidenced by the framed picture of Michelle Obama commemorating her visit to the rib shack in 2009, which has now been joined by the centerpiece image of the president mugging with the establishment’s grinning owners.
POTUS’s pilgrimage set the Internet ablaze, spurring into action all manner of barbecue enthusiasts — from respected dining critics to Capitol Hill denizens — complete with second-guessing of Obama’s choice before his order of pork ribs even hit the table.
Team HOH faithfully re-created the president’s meal — glazed pork ribs, collard greens, red beans and rice and cornbread — before passing judgment. We also snagged a few extras, including the beef ribs the White House pool reporter incorrectly cited as Obama’s meal selection and some roasted chicken to widen our sample.
The collard greens were the hands-down favorite, pungent and stewed until tender alongside pork. The pork ribs were meaty and excessively sloppy thanks to a shellacking in tangy, tomato-based sauce. The cornbread, which initially seemed dry to some, rapidly grew on all of us. The red beans and rice, however, were flavorless.
Smokeshack Ribs & BBQ 9119 Livingston Road, Fort Washington, Md.
The pillar of smoke billowing from this roadside pit got our little barbecue patrol very excited. Once inside, we were rewarded with an even more austere environment than Kenny’s (just a handful of stools) but a front-row seat to mountains of meat being rendered atop wood-fueled blazes.
Sides seemed fine; the sugary baked beans struck a chord. But all eyes were on the vinegar-soaked animal products. Monstrous beef ribs yielded sinewy flesh baptized in acetic acid, sucrose and capsaicin. Pork ribs literally fell off their tiny bones. And the chicken — ohhh, that amazing chicken — was moist, spicy and delicious.
Pork Barrel BBQ 2312 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, Va.
Pork Barrel scored high on aesthetics (comely staff, spacious bar) and amenities (regional sodas, draft craft brews). Ex-Congressional staffers Heath Hall and Brett Thompson began their barbecue empire building by marketing their award-winning sauces and rubs, which they apply to a range of proteins at their nascent restaurant.
The food looked great, but nothing clicked for any of us. St. Louis-style pork ribs were dry and bland. Roast chicken was adequate but that was it. Sausage conveyed spice but lacked sizzle.
In the end, the consensus was that 44 made the right call, but the Smokeshack is worth a trip down Indian Head Highway.