Sat 24 May 2008
For the second year in a row, I’ve been fortunate enough to combine my position as a fundraiser with my love of all things barbecue in an event that celebrates the different ‘cue traditions of Kansas City, Memphis, Texas, South Carolina, East Tennessee and North Carolina. I know – sometimes it’s tough to be me.
But for those who haven’t noticed, finding good barbecue of ANY kind in Washington, let alone all six of these styles, is easier said than done. Thankfully, I had no shortage of help in identifying the “best” barbecue joints across the country. Shocker – ask a Congressional office for a recommendation, and you can rest assured that they won’t hesitate to tell you that three (or more) restaurants from their district are all “the best you’ll ever taste!” So I found myself with quite a few choices to start out.
Thankfully, I was able to narrow the field rather quickly in some cases…there are very few authentic barbecue establishments that have any kind of protocol for shipping to DC. But there are some places that couple tradition and taste with marketing and shipping savvy. Top marks in the field go to Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous (from Memphis), who package your order with sauce, spice rub, placemats, paper servers’ hats and their addictive barbecue-spiced popcorn; and Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue (from Kansas City). Jack Stack’s meat ships in branded styrofoam containers and provides comprehensive instructions for how to reheat anything you may have ordered on almost any type of heat source. What put them over the top for me, though, was a Customer Service department that went above and beyond the call of duty in handling a few hiccups with my order. This may have been the best customer service experience I’ve had in quite a long time, and that carries a lot of weight in my book.
When all was said and done, I was able to feature barbecue from nine establishments across the country this year. A run-down of the contenders and what we served after the jump.
This year we featured:
- Shealy’s Bar-B-Que House (Batesburg-Leesville, SC) – Shealy’s is the consensus favorite for South Carolina mustard-sauced pork. They don’t normally ship, but their pulled pork travels well and comes already sauced. The sauce itself is thin and vinegary, with a pronounced mustard flavor that coats (and overpowers) the meat. Tasty, but an acquired taste.
- King’s Barbecue – Oink Express (Kinston, NC) - A recommendation from the current issue of Details magazine, King’s is a solid representative of Eastern North Carolina’s vinegar-mop tradition, and their Oink Express is set up to ship with a minimum of fuss. Their ‘cue comes pre-sauced in one-pound containers and their pork ribs come slathered in a messy and tangy bright orange sauce. My biggest complaint? They’ll decide how much sauce should be on your pork, thank you very much. They shipped 5 pounds of pulled pork with a single, miniscule 5 oz. bottle of sauce.
- Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous (Memphis, TN) – Two-pound tubs of pulled pork and slabs of unsauced ribs came packaged to impress, showing that Rendezvous takes their role as an amabassador of Memphis-style ‘cue very seriously. The flavors are a bit on the sweet side for my taste, but I love the bark (the crispy skin pieces that permeate the pulled pork). Their barbecue popcorn didn’t quite make it to the event…
- The Firehouse Restaurant (Johnson City, TN) - For those who think Tennessee barbecue begins and ends in Memphis, the Firehouse is a revelation. Their hickory-smoked barbecue is a great introduction to East Tennessee flavors, which emphasize smoke and the pork itself over the sauces and rubs of the more prevalent Memphis style. Unfortunately, the Firehouse doesn’t normally ship, so you’ll have to file this one away for your next road trip.
- Oklahoma Joe’s (Kansas City, KS) - Two words: gas station. Oklahoma Joe’s built up a loyal following in Kansas City by serving up some of the best ribs you will ever taste – meaty, smoky, and sticky with a thick coating of sauce. Their original location in a gas station convenience store couldn’t keep away the crowds, so they’ve opened an actual restaurant in addition to the original. Some of my favorite ribs, hands-down, but they don’t ship so I had to rely on my in-laws to hand them off. A must-try when in Kansas City.
- Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue (Kansas City, MO) – Jack Stack is the de facto representative of Kansas City ‘cue because they have one of the most well-organized shipping programs in the country. Coupled with their customer service, this makes for a very pleasant ordering experience. And they represent the KC tradition well, with beef and pork burnt ends (cubed end pieces with a great smoke flavor) and smoked sausage to complement the traditional ribs, pork and brisket.
- Railhead Smokehouse BBQ (Fort Worth, TX) – Brisket and sausage tend to be the go-to meats in Texas barbecue, and Railhead’s pre-sliced brisket makes a strong statement with its assertive, salty flavor. Though it occasionally blurs the flavor line between brisket and corned beef, the taste is great and the rich tang of their sauce brings it back to the best of the low-and-slow cooking tradition. A definite favorite for ease of shipping and taste.
- The Salt Lick (Driftwood, TX – outside of Austin) – Self-described “Hill Country” barbecue, The Salt Lick’s family recipes have been drawing in crowds for almost 40 years. They ship their brisket and sausage uncut so you can slice them as thick or as thin as you’d like, and their spice rub is no joke when it comes to bringing the heat.
- Alfred & Charlie’s BBQ House (Gastonia, NC – outside of Charlotte) – The only one of the bunch without a website, Alfred & Charlie’s actually took delivery one step further, driving up from North Carolina to prepare their ‘cue on site. They smoked a 50-pound suckling pig, re-heated all the other establishments’ products, and provided us with baked beans, Brunswick stew (a Carolina specialty with beef, pork and chicken), shrimp and grits, and their signature ‘barbecue slaw.’ Their food is delicious and the owners, Alfred and Darlene, are terrific. I can’t wait to work with them again.
So who’s got the best ‘cue? What are your favorites, the joints that warrant a cross-country drive just for a smoky rack of ribs or a sopping-wet sandwich? As a KCBS-certified judge, I’m always on the lookout for great ribs, brisket, and pulled pork. I’m especially eager to hear about the best places that ship – it’s the only way to get good barbecue here in the District.