North Carolina this is not. Nor is it Texas, Memphis or any other place where barbecue has a very distinct style. Here in DC, the city's a melting pot of different cultures, and that's starting to be reflected in the growing barbecue scene. But how would experts in the barbecue world describe DC's barbecue style? Eater talked to a few to get their take on the city's barbecue offerings.
Hill County is one of the big players in local barbecue and is all about Texas style barbecue. And according to its Director of Operations Jim Foss, that's been very popular with the masses at the Penn Quarter location. And from Hill Country came two barbecue veterans, who Foss calls "very good guys", who are branching out to do their own things: Rob Sonderman and Brendan Woody. Last year, Rob Sonderman opened up his own small barbecue spot called DCity Smokehouse in Bloomingdale a few storefronts from North Capitol Street. It features some Latin twists in his barbecue by using chipotle, cumin and coriander in his sauce. In Cleveland Park, Pit Master Brendan Woody is getting his hands dirty with the newly opened Fat Pete's where they're doing a bit of everything: Carolina, Memphis and Kansas City style barbecue.
While these guys are all doing different things, they seem to agree on one thing: DC's barbecue style does actually have elements of North Carolina's barbecue to it (which is characterized by, among other things, whole-hog pig and a vinegar-spiked sauce). According to Foss, "DC's barbecue is a mish mash of styles. There's some Carolina influence since we're closer geographically to those states. But many barbecue places are focusing on blends."
"DC doesn't have a style of barbecue," argues Woody. "If you go somewhere, you'll find North Carolina style at one place and Memphis at another. I noticed restaurants are kind of mixing it up. But all these places are opening up, and making people notice."
Sonderman thinks Kansas City style barbecue (home of "burnt ends" and focusing on a variety of proteins) and D.C. are similar in that they both incorporate aspects of different regions. The chef, who is working to develop a "DC barbecue flavor" of its own, also shows diversity in the items offered at his barbecue joint. DCity Smokehouse offers less traditional barbecue joint dishes like a torta similar to what's found on the streets of Mexico with chipotle, cumin and coriander.
At Fat Pete's, they are also incorporating many different flavor profiles for their barbecue and trying not to pigeon-hole themselves. The flavors will be featured in the six in-house sauces they make, such as the white, mayo-based Alabama sauce, which can be hard to find in D.C.
It's undeniable barbecue's appeal has been exploding throughout the region. "Barbecue is now the cool thing to do. It has its TV shows. It seems like a lot of people are leaning more towards barbecue," says Foss. And he thinks the love of barbecue is moving beyond its traditional working class roots, especially as the prices for meats goes up. Sonderman agrees saying that when people factor in the amount of labor, time, wood and other inputs that go into preparing barbecue, it's not a cheap affair.
And like pickles, chocolate and craft beers before it, barbecue is also becoming more artisanal. Fat Pete's website bills its cooks as "artisans of barbecue" on its website. Higher-end events are also turning to barbecue as an option more than ever before. Hill County has provided its barbecue services to a variety of events in recent months, including weddings.
Why so many recent entrants into the field? In Sonderman's opinion, it's because many of the places that came before the latest influx were mediocre. But there have always been exceptions, like Garden District, which has operated for several years now in Logan Circle.
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