While Gretchen and I were in Washington, D.C., to visit friends and take in some museum exhibits — the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture; the Vermeer and Calder shows at the National Gallery of Art; Ai Wei Wei’s “Trace” at the Hirschhorn; the Renwick Gallery; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in particular — I of course had my radar out for D.C. barbecue.
There wasn’t time for serious barbecue exploration, but amidst the splendor of a city full of culture, politics, tourists, eclectic palates and cheffy talents there was much to do and enjoy over a few days.
The video stream Bob Cronkleton has artfully put together from my clips shares glimpses of the story. The rest, as far as barbecue is concerned, is short and sweet.
Lunch at Sweet Home Café in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture was the first glimpse of hope for some real barbecue.
Never miss a local story.
I asked the server at the Western Range serving line if the “BBQ Buffalo Brisket” was smoked. She didn’t know for sure, so she went to the kitchen and asked a cook, who emerged from the kitchen and said “Yes,” and before I could get answers to my questions, “What kind of wood are you using? Are you smoking with an Ole Hickory, Southern Pride or …” she had drifted back to the kitchen, leaving my questions hanging in the air.
My low expectations were confirmed at first bite when I ate a cube of “BBQ Buffalo Brisket.” If that “BBQ” was touched by smoke, it was akin to the smoke politicians are blowing on Capitol Hill.
The meat was sauced south Florida-style: orange/red in color, thin, sweet, with a touch of zest — fitting for a place called Sweet Home.
Honestly, I loved the Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Slow Cooked Collards and Gullah-Style Hoppin’ John better than the “BBQ.”
Did I mention that our friend, Robert, said his “Lexington-Style BBQ Pork Sandwich” was delicious? It wasn’t kissed with smoke, but was tender and sauced sweet like the buffalo brisket — not quite Wayne Monk Lexington BBQ sauce sweet, but sweet.
We took a Saturday morning stroll to East City Book Shop for gift and personal purchases, then to the nearby Eastern Market to browse through a cornucopia of fresh produce, meats, fish, seasonings, breads, cheeses, nuts, flowers, crafts, clothing and more.
There we had a chance encounter with a local writer for HillRag.com, Celeste McCall, and her husband, Peter. It turned out that Peter, a barbecue aficionado, is a big fan of Arthur Bryant’s.
I didn’t find any barbecue in the market, but spied some good-looking “Baby Back Ribs” ($5.49 a pound) and “Baby Spare Ribs” ($3.39 a pound) in one of the meat market cases.
The next close call with DC “BBQ” was when we met Lawrence friends George and Mary for Saturday lunch at DCGC.
One of the weekend specials is “The Carolina BBQ” — cheddar blend with mac & cheese, BBQ pulled pork marinated & cooked in a sweet/sour sauce, bacon, jalapenos in grilled buttered white bread.
Although not real barbecue and not comparable in quality to Chuck Baker’s Barrel House BBQ “Grilled Cheese on Crack” in Lynchburg, Tenn., it’s delicious.
In fairness to the real pitmasters of metro D.C. — Rob Sonderman at Federalist Pig, Dan Farber at Hill Country, and Shawn McWhirter at DCity Smokehouse, for example — I didn’t get a chance to revisit or try some new places this trip.
I’m guessing that I could have found more than one pitmaster who would have told me that, “Contrary to the smoke the politicians blow in this city, we blow real smoke. You can taste the difference!”
Ardie Davis founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on food shows and writes for barbecue-related publications. He is author/co-author of 11 published barbecue books and is a 2016 inductee into the Barbecue Hall of Fame.