- by Gitabushi
I live in the DC area, in Northern Virginia (if you do, too, let’s get together for a beer or something?). While Virginia is “The South”, Virginia isn’t necessarily known for BBQ, and I don’t think anyone thinks of “DC” when they think of good BBQ. On the other hand, DC *is* known for good restaurants, so why would that not include BBQ?
I’ve been to a number of BBQ restaurants around this area. I haven’t been to Hill Country BBQ in the DC city center, mainly because I don’t really trust restaurants in that area…I’ve heard stories of roaches and rats, and had some experiences with both (albeit outside restaurants). I have heard that Urban BBQ is pretty good, but that’s all on the north suburbs of DC, which I don’t get to very often. I have heard that Pit BBQ has great BBQ sandwiches (pulled pork?), but that’s in Baltimore. I’m sure there are others I haven’t even heard of.
But let’s get a few things straight.
- Restaurants exist for a reason. So many restaurants go out of business, if a restaurant lasts for any length of time at all, it is probably pretty good. At the very least, enough people find it worthwhile to spend their hard-earned cash there. So don’t tell me “That restaurant is garbage” or “Their BBQ is crap.” I won’t listen, because you’re wrong. It might not be the taste you prefer, or you may have a place you like better for various reasons, but [unspecified restaurant] is probably not garbage.
- BBQ, by definition, cannot be bad. It can be badly made. It can be made significantly less enjoyable by overcooking to the point it is dry. But if that’s the case, call your waiter over and ask for a replacement. We did that our second visit to Famous Dave’s once, and they gave us additional brisket for free, and it was tender, juicy, and flavorful. It wiped out any bad experience of the first batch, which was edible, but dry. But even still, if we’d slathered it with some sauce, it would have been edibly non-bad. It’s *BBQ*.
- Meat is meat. Unless you are BBQing Wagyu, a brisket is a brisket. Heat is heat. It is generally known that a certain poundage of brisket, cooked over such and such a temperature for a specified amount of time will break down the connective tissue and result in a tender, juicy brisket. The margin of error when you are slow-cooking at low heat is broad. You may prefer a certain type of dry rub. Some place may be a little better about getting a thicker smoke ring on it, or a better bark. But if you follow directions, you end up with good BBQ. I’ve made roasted pork butt twice. In the oven. But I guaranteed you that you take a chunk of pork butt from your favorite BBQ restaurant, with all their experience, and if we cut off all the bark and just take a 1″ square chunk from the center, you will *not* be able to tell the difference. I’d risk some decent money that despite my inexperience at cooking pork butt, with my family’s secret recipe, I could make a pulled pork sandwich that you’d prefer to almost any professional BBQ pulled pork, anywhere. Which brings me to my final point:
- Since meat is meat, what makes good BBQ? I like to analyze and over-analyze everything so here’s what I think makes good BBQ:
- Good smoke flavor on the meat. Just heating meat for a few hours makes something you can call BBQ or can slather with BBQ sauce, but to be good BBQ, you need the red smoke ring and a smoky bark.
- Good sauce. Brisket and sausage are intended to be eaten without sauce, but Brisket is not the totality of BBQ. Pulled pork needs sauce. Ribs are better with sauce. Chicken needs sauce. You can’t have a great BBQ place without great sauce.
- Great sides. Anyone can make a meh potato salad. Anyone can open a can of bbq baked beans. Anyone can boil corn. Making cornbread isn’t difficult. Most coleslaw is the same. You need to make something special to stand out. There isn’t going to be much difference in the meat, as we talked about. Sauce can make a difference, but the experience of eating BBQ should be the entire experience. If you love the meat, but the sides are just filler, you’ve wasted some of your stomach space on “empty nutrition.”
- Value. All things being equal, spending $15/person to get stuffed with great BBQ is better than spending $20/person, and much better than spending $50/person. And a place that offers a reasonably-priced combo is going to better than a place that makes it difficult to get a range of meats for one or two people.
So based on these parameters, I have to declare Famous Dave’s the best BBQ in the DC area.
We went to Dixie Bones in Woodbridge last week. It was on Thrilllist or Yelp’s list as the best BBQ in DC and the #2 best restaurant in Woodbridge. Nope. They had a great potato salad that appeared to be sour cream based, rather than mayonaisse based. It worked so well. But that was it. They chopped their brisket, rather than slicing it. Their ribs were dry, and didn’t have much smoke flavor. They had 4 sauces to choose from, and not only were none that toothsome, the spiciest sauce they had available was Texas Pete’s Louisiana-Style Hot Sauce, which is like Tabasco with all the spiciness surgically removed. We won’t go back there.
We’ve been to Texas Jack’s in Arlington. There was nothing wrong with it. But I almost think of it as BBQ for people who don’t like BBQ. Or BBQ for people who think regular BBQ is for hicks and rednecks and they want nothing to do with *those* sorts of people. What I mean is, every dish was some sort of fusion flavor. It’s been a while, so I can’t remember exactly, but it was things like “Peach Habanero sauce,” “ginger whiskey,” “Sriracha pickles,” or “thai-spice french fries”. Things like that (although none of those specific flavors may be on the menu). It was all enjoyable, and we don’t regret going there or the money we spent (their prices moved them clearly out of the value category), and we didn’t vow never to go back, but when we have a choice, neither of us ever brings up Texas Jack’s.
We heard Willard’s BBQ in Chantilly was good. I went there for a business lunch, and enjoyed it. I brought my wife there a month later, and it was good. But it wasn’t memorable, it was difficult to get a combo that covered a wide spectrum of meats, and their sauces were average. They have great sides, though, particularly dessert. You probably have to try it to see if it hits your palate.
We stopped by Rocklands BBQ in Arlington, and for a long time this was our go-to BBQ. Their meats are excellent. Their sauce is very good on their ribs and chicken. My wife loves that they have 50 different hot sauce bottles you can choose from; she loves spicy sauce on BBQ, spicy enough that most people scramble for bread and milk to stop the pain. They have various ghost chili-based sauces that I use sparingly and she uses liberally. They are also probably the best value in BBQ in the DC area. We can get a decent combo variety with a Ribs & Chicken combo and a 3 meat combo that gives you 2 sides, and we get stuffed with a few leftovers for $30. But with that combination, we get a pulled chicken, which neither of us loves, and you get only 2 sides, and the sides are unremarkable. I’ve been to Rocklands in Alexandria, too, and it was equally excellent.
This brings us to Famous Dave’s BBQ. If you get the All-American Feast for Two, you get 3 meats (ribs, chicken, and brisket) and *five* sides: fries, corn, cornbread, coleslaw, and BBQ beans. We’ve had 3 people eat that with some left over. Other times we’ve had 3 people eat that and stretched our belts a little to finish it up. If two of us eat it, we have at least one extra meal for lunch from the take-home leftovers. $36 plus tip. If you get the full-on All-American Feast, which feeds 4-6, you get *four* meats (they add your choice of pulled pork or sausage) and an increase amount of all the meat and each of the sides. We’ve had 6 people eat that with 1-2 leftover meals. If I recall correctly, that is $56 plus tip and drinks. If, for some reason, the food isn’t quite enough for your posse, you can easily add in an extra meat, a la carte. We’ve given my mother a birthday party (so several had beers, all had drinks) there and had 6 people walk out, stuffed, for $80 total. You can’t beat that.
Their ribs are good. My wife loves their brisket. Good bark, good smoke flavor. I love their sausage. There is simply nothing wrong with their meats.
But they get extra bonus points for their sauces: they have six, but we usually stick to the three spicier ones. The Devil’s Spit is a nice, mildly (to me) hot sauce with good flavor. My favorite is the Texas Pit, which has about the same heat as the Devil’s Spit, but has a great peppery flavor that goes great with chicken and ribs. But I also like the Wilbur’s Revenge, which is hot enough to make me uncomfortable if I use it generously. It’s hot enough to make my wife happy, too.
And their sides are unique and amazing. The cornbread is simply the best I’ve ever had. it might be simply that they add enough sugar that it is almost like a cake, but it is unfailingly moist and flavorful. If there is one weakness to Famous Dave’s it is that we *always* have to ask for butter for the cornbread. The BBQ baked beans are also the best I’ve ever had, but the margin is much greater than with anything else, to the point that I will never willingly eat any other BBQ beans again. Rather than just being beans in an overly-sweet sauce like all other BBQ beans, Famous Dave’s bean sauce has some smokiness to it, some tang to it, and has large chunks of actual BBQ meat. I think I’ve found both pulled pork and brisket, but it might just be pulled pork. But the effect is really more like they took some sauce with significant chunks of meat and added some beans to it. My wife hates beans and will not eat them in any other context (no, not even chili!), but when I convinced her to try it once, she now eats some every time with zest. And the coleslaw has a little kick to it. I can’t identify it with certainty…it might be a touch of horseradish. But it makes it unique, enjoyable, and cuts any feel of greasiness from the BBQ. Even better, it never suffers from an excess of anise/fennel/celery seed, like some coleslaw I’ve had does.
The bottom line is that every single bite at Famous Dave’s is pure eating enjoyment. There is nothing that is filler. We look forward to every aspect of the meal with equal excitement. It is slightly more expensive than Rocklands, but we feel like we get a better spread of meat and sides. We still go to Rocklands when it is more convenient to enjoy a spicier BBQ, but all things being equal, we end up going to Famous Dave’s about 4-5 times for every one time we go to Rocklands.
We still need to try out Dickey’s BBQ here, and Mission BBQ, I guess.
Also, Famous Dave’s promised me free BBQ for the rest of the year if I get 1 million retweets, so help me out!