The holidays are as good a time as any to reward oneself with a plate of smoky, delicious barbecue.
And, as we learned by completing a loop of prominent local pitmasters all operating within striking distance of the Capitol — some old, some new and some that just can’t seem to sit still — the barbecue business is booming here in Washington, D.C.
Rob Sonderman is no stranger to authentic barbecue, having previously played a role in making mouths happy at Hill Country’s Penn Quarter outpost. But now he’s doing barbecue his way at neighborhood newcomer DCity Smokehouse.
The seasoned pitmaster convinced Revive Catering to let him work his magic on its neglected carryout operation by slipping the bosses a taste of his self-styled ’cue.
“I did a tasting for all of them with some barbecue ... and we went from there developing the menu and getting more staff and equipment in place and so on,” Sonderman said.
The nascent smokehouse came online earlier this fall and features a formidable array of dining options. Although he said Texas and Kansas City have informed his barbecue outlook, Sonderman pledges allegiance mainly to creativity.
He vertically stacks his various meats over a potpourri of fragrant woods (hickory, cherry and pecan), and tends to each with distinctive rubs and sauces.
His signature brisket is dry rubbed with salt, course black pepper, garlic and chili powder before spending 18 hours enveloped by smoke. Pulled pork picks up brown sugar and additional proprietary spices, while turkey breast is brined for several days and briefly soaked in smoked garlic butter before serving. Side dishes are equally loved on — particularly the addictively savory Brussels sprouts (think: salt, sugar, hot stuff and flash frying) that Sonderman wisely resurrected.
“I had been doing that dish at the country club I worked at in the Boston area mostly for [the] staff meal. I always planned on bringing those back when I got a chance,” he said.
The Meaty Palmer proves massive, heaping together unctuous pork belly, the amazing smoked turkey and buttery avocado spread into a carnivorous masterpiece.
Pork ribs wear their tongue-teasing spice rub with pride —each smoke-infused morsel relays mildly sweet yet earthy flavors.
The chopped pork sandwich is a workhorse; well-seasoned swine (no visible saucing, yet delivers a smoldering burn) is nestled into a cottony roll and complemented by cooling slaw.
Minced green chilis ignite each spoonful of thick, cheddar-cheese-spiked Southern grits.
Next up for Sonderman: perfecting a Baltimore-style pit beef sandwich bolstered by horseradish sauce and crispy onions.
“Tacos might make an appearance as well,” he hinted.
Hogs on the Hill
Years ago, a Hogs on the Hill occupied the space that currently houses Kenny’s Smokehouse. These days, dueling Hogs dot the Maryland landscape.
But the one closest to our neck of the woods on Bladensburg Road Northeast appears to have a cult following all its own.
During one visit, the unassuming carryout — where cars battle to escape the tiny, awkwardly shaped parking lot and order takers stand behind bullet-proof plate glass — was packed with barbecue loyalists. D.C police officers, suit-and-tie-clad businessmen and blue-collar workers all stood side-by-side awaiting their turn to claim Styrofoam clamshells full of featured proteins.
Barbecue spare ribs were sticky-sweet and dripping in tomato-based barbecue sauce, but also juicy in their own right.
The barbecue chicken was more of a puzzler. The bird we got (granted: we ordered the sauce on the side) tasted like every roast chicken we’ve ever tried, displaying no discernible smoke or signature rub to distinguish it from the many pollos a la brasa that litter the local dining universe.
A minced barbecue sandwich, on the other hand, delivered pleasing bites of fork-tender beef impregnated with a fiery kick.
One companion appreciated the braised-till-tender collards (“No bitterness,” our pal pointed out), while this hired mouth loved the cake-like cornbread.
Mr. P’s Ribs
In a previous life, Fate Pittman spent his days hammering out automotive indiscretions in a body shop.
Yet the man everyone here affectionately refers to as Mr. P has been tending to locals’ barbecue needs for almost half a century.
Pittman said he’s been steering various iterations of his iconic barbecue bus all over town since 1977. The oversized barbecue den has bounced around between the Maryland suburbs (Prince George’s County, Hyattsville) and D.C. proper for years; another bus remains stationed in a strip mall parking lot on Rhode Island Avenue Northeast.
Per Pittman, business has been slow going this winter. But he’s expecting things to pick back up once the weather warms up a bit.
He’s scaled back his seafood offerings of fish and shrimp until then. But, with the help of grill man Robert Dortch and long-standing (30-plus years) counterwoman Linda Roberson, the crew continues turning out the type of barbecue Pittman grew up with.
“We’re from North Carolina, so the pork is our thing,” he said. He only added in beef ribs “because people kept asking for it.”
We’re glad they did.
The gorgeous slabs of carefully fired cow release rivulets of juice that dribble down the chin as you tear flesh from bone.
His signature pork ribs are swabbed in tangy-sweet barbecue sauce (Pittman sticks with a hot-pepper-packed vinegar base); the underlying meat was a tad too salty for our tastes, but the sauce added welcome zing.
The chopped pork barbecue was more satisfying, yielding lusty meat drenched in that telltale acid.
DCity Smokehouse: 8 Florida Ave. NW; 202-733-1919; dcitysmokehouse.com
Average entree: under $12 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
Hogs on the Hill: 2003 Bladensburg Road NE; 202-526-2027
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday.
Mr. P’s Ribs and Seafood: 514 Rhode Island Ave. NE; 202-438-3215
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner Friday through Sunday.