In September of 2009, we reached out to a couple of guys named Heath and Brett whose locally-made barbecue sauce had earned them a chance to appear on ABC’s Shark Tank.  Since then, we’ve worked with the Pork Barrel BBQ team to participate in two DC Meat Weeks, each time offering attendees a taste of what they could expect at the “soon-to-open” restaurant in Del Ray.  And they’ve been more than a little busy themselves, winning the Perdue National Chicken Championship and taking the title of Grand Champion at the Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle in June.

But the wait ends tonight.

Pork Barrel BBQ officially opens its doors at 5 PM, and when we took a look around this weekend the restaurant gave every indication of being worth the wait.  As Heath Hall put it, “This is barbecue.  We wanted to make sure everything was just right.  You can’t rush good barbecue, no matter how much you might want to.”  With five smoked meats and more than half a dozen sides on offer, that meant a lot of testing and retesting of recipes while the restaurant space was finished to everyone’s satisfaction.

All the dirty details on the smoker, the sides and the space after the jump.

Walk in the door and you’ll find a restaurant divided into two sections.  On your left, you’ll see a large communal table carved from a single slab of maple and a bar area with an unfinished, industrial feel.  The design was inspired by the main sprinkler pipe.  Rather than try to hide the pipe as it ran through the middle of their space, they incorporated similar piping into the counter seating by the windows, the footrests along the bar and – most impressively – the bar tower with its six vertical taps.  Ostrich seats and a unique-in-America soapstone bar with a “leather” finish add some polish, and the fully stocked bar indicates that Pork Barrel wants you to feel right at home while you’re tucking into your ‘cue.

To your right as you enter, you’ll find the dining room and the line to place your all-important barbecue order.  You’ll pass handmade tubs featuring regional and small-batch sodas that will either bring you back to your childhood or leave you scratching your head: Moxie, Nehi, Cheerwine and RC Cola are all represented, as are rarer gems like Frostop Root Beer, Sun Drop and Cool Mountain.  They’re a nod to the regional flavors (and feuds) found throughout the barbecue world, and we dare you to resist their allure.

As you approach the counter, you’ll see a plasma screen television featuring the menu.  You’ve got a few big choices to make here:

  • Meats: Pork ribs, pulled pork, brisket, smoked chicken or a brisket sausage made specially for Pork Barrel BBQ by Alexandria’s own Logan’s Sausage.
  • Hot sides: Chipotle cheddar macaroni and cheese, collard greens in homemade pork pot liquor, baked beans, and a smoked vegetable ratatouille.
  • Cold sides: Potato salad, Texas caviar (black-eyed pea salad), Cole slaw spiced with Pork Barrel BBQ rub

There may even be a few additional options by the time the doors open tonight.  You can even order beer here and then pick it up at the bar once you’ve got your food!

Your barbecue selections will be sliced to order at a counter to the right of where you order, taken from full shoulders and briskets in hot holding units (instead of inside the smoker where they would more easily dry out) right before your eyes.  Don’t worry about the servers drowning your meat in BBQ sauce.  As any KCBS Certified Barbecue Judge will tell you, pooled sauce can get a team disqualified – they’ll leave it to you to sauce to your taste.

Meanwhile, that gigantic Southern Pride smoker will just keep chugging away in the kitchen, using a combination of oak and hickory to provide the smoke while gas allows it to maintain a constant temperature as it cooks up to 500 pounds of meat at a time.  As you might guess, it takes a while to learn the quirks of a smoker this big – the random hot and cold spots, the exact timing to hit the sweet spot on everything from chicken and sausage to pork shoulder and brisket.  Pork Barrel has been testing to get things just right, and even with all those tests under their belts they know that the product they serve tonight is just the first in a long line of “best evers.”

“A smoker is like a giant cast iron skillet,” explained Hall.  ”Every time you use it, you season it a little bit more.  Your first five times you use it are always going to pale in comparison to the next five, which will be surpassed by the five after them.  It just keeps getting better the more you use it.”

Pork Barrel’s Hall and Brett Thompson aren’t the only two talents invested in making the Del Ray restaurant a success.  They partnered with Bill Blackburn and “Mango” Mike Anderson to make the move from products to dining, and a long-time Del Ray favorite has joined the team here in the home stretch.  Chef Will Artley, who recently departed Evening Star Cafe, has struck out on his own as “The Restaurant Sage.”  He’s a chef consultant, and he is working with the Pork Barrel team to put the finishing touches on everything and to oversee operations for the first few weeks.

Everyone involved knows that two years is a long time to have expectations out there building up.  ”Anticipation is high, and we expect word to spread quickly as soon as we’re open,” Hall told us as we tasted the latest brisket to come out of the smoker (great smoke and spice, but still a bit chewy…a solid 7 of 9 on the KCBS scale).  ”At the end of the day, the food is going to be there; it has to be.  We have  beautiful space, but if we don’t get the food right it doesn’t matter if we’re serving it in a lean-to or the Taj Mahal.”

Now that opening day has arrived, they’re ready to face thousands of new judges every week.

Pork Barrel BBQ
2312 Mount Vernon Ave.
Alexandria (Del Ray), VA
Pork Barrel BBQ on Urbanspoon