More Barrel Than Pork (Do You Like Dry Wood? I Have the Restaurant for You)

I had really crappy barbecue the other night. I wish I could say it was an accident. I can definitely say it was a mistake and I should have known better.

I may not an expert at barbecue, but I’m not exactly an amateur either. I am from Texas, so I know good barbecue. My Pitmaster Extraordinaire XFE and I do our homework. We go back to Texas at least once a year and gorge ourselves. I’ve got sauce-covered clothes to show for our last trip.

What I’m saying is, we know the difference between hickory and mesquite smoke. We know our way around a Big Green Egg. No party at our house is complete without a couple of briskets. We’ve spit roasted a whole pig, for crying out loud!!!!

Fine barbecue is kind of a passion around the PoeLog household.

And of course, I know that you cannot get decent barbecue in DC and Northern Virginia. I know this. I know from experience. They use vinegar-based sauce up here, for grill’s sake.

But, I was lured into a false sense of hope. I recently went to lunch at Hill Country BBQ here in DC (a second outpost of the popular New York eatery) and well, I did not hate it. There were things I hated about it, sure, such as the stupid ordering and paying system, and they had the worst pickles I’ve ever encountered, and the side dishes were suspiciously fancy, but the meat? The meat was pretty good.

Plus, XFE was out of town. So I figured, if I was ever going to try Pork Barrel BBQ, it would be a good time to go.

Pork Barrel exterior
Where there’s no smoke, there’s bad brisket.

XFE and I met the Pork Barrel boys a couple of years ago at a Beer, Bourbon and BBQ festival about three years ago. They were hawking their meat rub. We stopped and tasted and it was pretty good. They told us their story about how they both had worked up on the Hill and were turning a hobby into an occupation. It was a pretty neat story. We bought some rub, wished them luck and went in search of bourbon.

Pork Barrel
They’re such nice boys, but really bad pitmasters. Sorry.

We saw them mentioned a few more times over the years: they were apparently on that show Shark Tank and got some seed funding. They put out a cologne called Que. Pretty funny.

Then, we heard that they were opening a restaurant. Uh-oh, we thought. Just because you make a decent rub doesn’t mean you know jack about smoking meat. It took them more than two years to finally open their restaurant, and when they did, it was in our neck of the woods, not far from our house.

We’d driven past a few times and it looked fancy. But it’s in a residential neighborhood, which means no smoker. Big warning sign.

Nevertheless, since last week was Meat Week here in the DC Metro region (don’t even get me started on how sad it is that there’s only a week to celebrate meat. Why not Meat Month??), which means that local barbecue places were having specials. So, Running Buddy Amy (now to be renamed Eating Buddy Amy, because, let’s be honest. Neither one of us has been running much, and certainly not together these days.) and her fiancé Leland picked me up and we went down to Pork Barrel.

The place was mobbed! We were there around 8:30 or so on a Tuesday night, but as I mentioned, it was Meat Week. I don’t know if they’re normally that busy. The main problem with the place is immediately evident – the bar area is huge. More than half the space is bar focused. So, I guess what it’s trying to be is a neighborhood bar where you buy some barbecue on your way out.

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They have a sort of catering kitchen/expediting area at the back of the place where they are packing up orders (no sign of where the food is coming from), and then about seven or so booths/tables for those who stay in – no table service. If you want something, like a beer from the bar, you have to navigate through the long line waiting to order food and get your drinks at the bar.

We got the meat sampler, which was $21.95 and included brisket, Texas sausage, ribs, pulled pork, chicken and two sides. Tons of food, but no bread, no pickles. Weird.

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Pale, tasteless pulled pork. Made much better with gobs of sauce.

Again, the sides were really fancy, including “monster” mac and cheese, skin on potato salad, redneck ratatouille, collard greens, and the like. They had a lot of things labeled “gluten free,” which is good for my delicate Eating Buddy Amy. She can’t even look at gluten, poor thing.

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Dry brisket, dry sausage.

As I was ordering, I was told they were out of sausage but they’d substitute in another side. Now, a side dish is no substitute for meat, but whatever. I ordered the sampler plate with potato salad, mac and cheese and bbq beans.

It took a while for them to call our numbers. They were quite busy and seemed a bit overwhelmed. We got our BBQ sauces (sweet, regular and mustard), got our drinks and stalked some poor people until they finally gave us their booth.

Those people should have been slower. The food was horrible. The meat was so, so dry – especially the brisket. The ribs were inedible – charcoal black. I literally took one bite and threw the rest out. The pulled pork was not dried out, but totally flavorless. The chicken was the one highlight, but that’s not really a ringing endorsement. Oh, and there was a sausage in my bag. A dry, overcooked sausage.

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Decent chicken next to Worst Ribs Ever. Inedible. I mean it. Not good.

Without tons of the very good BBQ sauce, you really couldn’t choke anything down. They just seemed to have rushed the cooking on everything and as a result everything was bone dry. It’s impossible for me to believe that these guys are going slow and low on anything. They can’t possibly be basting either.

The sides weren’t much better. I did not get my beans. Instead I got some collard greens. The mac and cheese had good flavor with cumin and jalepeno spicing it up, but it was watery and bland. Yes, mac and cheese with jalepenos was bland. I will say the potato salad was very good – creamy and tangy. Amy went TO TOWN on the collard greens, so they must have been pretty good.

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My two sides. Meh.

It was all pretty disappointing, but I can’t say I’m surprised. I definitely won’t be returning or recommending that anyone else go there. Just buy the sauce online.

Also: Eating Buddy Amy wasn’t feeling too well the next day. She suspects gluten contamination. I suspect just bad barbecue.

Listen, I get that it’s hard to make large amounts of barbecue and have it all be consistently good. So maybe you just focus on one or two meats and perfect that? Let the fancy sides slide. There must be ways to salvage this place.

Thank the grill gods that XFE made ribs tonight for Super Bowl Sunday. Tons, and tons of delicious, smoky, made-with-love-and-patience ribs. That fell right off the bone, but not because they’d been charred into oblivious.

Texas style BBQ Ribs
Can you hear the angels singing?

Those Pork Barrel guys are nice and all, but they should leave the barbecueing to real pitmasters, like XFE.

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A thing of beauty.


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