I alluded to the fact that Virginia is void of her own unique style of barbecue in an earlier post but now I feel it appropriate to properly rant. What the heck is that?! Virginia, the place where the first Jamestown started what would become the US, the home of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Poe, Maury (that guy with the globe monument on the Ave. Not Povich.), R.E. Lee, Maggie Walker, and Ashe does NOT have its own barbecue style. BOTH Carolinas, Tennessee, Kansas, Texas but NOT Virginia. It is one of the great American injustices!
Ranting aside, Richmond does offer some great choices in terms of barbecue. In fact, not having a unique Virginia style barbecue gives us a great opportunity to eat whatever we want and not feel like a trader to the Commonwealth for slow smoking ribs with a dry rub versus a mustard base or tomato based sauce. Here, we just eat what’s best.
And what is best? I was hoping I wouldn’t ask that. Again we are confronted with the pizza dilemma. What IS barbecue? What are the types of barbecue? Who does which type best? Since we are in Virginia, who has no barbecue parameters within which one must stay, how do we define who does the best of what type? Sometimes I hate thinking to rhetorically but I cannot avoid it when it comes to questions of the palate.
Let’s begin with definitions. To barbecue is, “to roast or broil on a rack or revolving spit over or before a source of heat (as hot coal)” according to Merriam-Webster. The USDA goes a bit further only qualifying foods cooked over wood or coals from wood as real barbecue. Richmond’s Buz and Ned’s makes a point to mention this government definition on their website. I’ll talk more about Buz and Ned’s in a moment.
And what are the different types of barbecue, classified by state? Aside from differences in cooking techniques, though we established all types of cooking other than over wood or coals are not real barbecue, the difference between barbecue styles is in the sauce.
In Memphis, pork is covered in a sweet and spicy tomato sauce. There are regions within North Carolina that usevarying amounts of tomato and vinegar in their sauce and in South Carolina, they make a golden sauce of mustard, vinegar and spices. Kansas barbecue uses a sweet molasses and tomato sauce. Think K.C. Masterpiece. In Texas, it’s more common to see beef brisket that has a rub and a sauce. Even Maryland has pit beef, slow cooked hunks of beef that are shaved off into sandwiches.
So what do we have here in the old Capital of the Confederacy? Several barbecue houses come to mind, some chains others a single restaurant. Thinking of chains, Virginia chain Bill’s Barbecue comes to mind. Specializing in Carolina barbecue, Bill’s serves up wet, what seems like boiled and minced pork with a side of North Carolina style hot sauce. What makes something “good” barbecue is obviously subjective, but Bill’s doesn’t do it for me. Maybe it’s that I don’t really like the vinegar based sauces as much as something sweeter or more complex, but every time I’ve had Bill’s, it has been a soggy bun with soggy, flavorless white meat that only begins to have flavor, although just slightly spicy vinegar flavor, when hot sauce is dumped all over it. I will say that the hush puppies are top notch though. A creamy center and a crispy outside. They even give you honey butter to dip in—not for the faint of heart, literally.
Another interesting Richmond barbecue joint is Double-T’s in Carytown. While they do smoke their meat, when served, you get a bun with what I have always experienced to be dry pulled pork and your choice of sauces. Double T’s is one of those places that smells a thousand times better than it tastes. I appreciate what they do for the aroma in eastern Carytown, but not much else.
Another honorable mention in terms of chains, Famous Dave’s. The sauces are solid and a very descriptive display of sauce varieties I spoke on earlier categorized by state. They had a celebration for their birthday where offered a free meal to anyone named Dave. Silly promotions tend to win me over. They do serve decent food all silliness aside. It’s a safe bet for barbecue standards, much like Ruby Tuesdays is a safe standard for a salad with cheddar cheese and ranch dressing. Nothing to write home about but worth a mention.
And who is local? The aforementioned Buz and Ned’s smokes up some of the best barbecue around—and they know it. Picnic style patio seating and a great beer and bourbon selection make a visit to Buz and Ned’s the perfect place to bring a crowd or hungry folks. The TV in the indoor dinning room plays a constant loop of the episode of Bobby Flay’s Throwdown where Buz beat Bobby in a head to head rib-off. The ribs are great, no question but the pulled pork and chicken are fantastic too. A large combo will get you two gigantic sandwiches for under $10. It’s another Richmond hotspot that leaves you singing their praises.
A trip across the river will bring you to Benny’s BBQ at Hathaway Rd. off of Forest Hill. I can’t say that I’ve been there,
but I’ve seen consistent good reviews and heard from people whose taste I trust that it is one of the best in Richmond. Give it a shot. I know I will soon.
I know I’ve established that unless it has been smoked or cooked over coals or wood it’s not real barbecue, but I must mention my favorite quasi barbecue or barbecue style pork outside of the classic American regional fare.
I never had any desire to visit Jamaica until I ate at the Jerk Pit on Broad and tried a yard style jerk pork with a side of made-in-house ginger beer. One of my favorite lunches, two chunks of the most tender melt in your mouth pork with a spicy sweet jerk sauce, a heap of fresh crisp coleslaw with nuts and spices and two rolls is $5.50. The homebrew ginger beer is sweet and thick followed by a back-of-the-mouth spiciness that is unique to a strong ginger beverage.
So there are options a-plenty to explore in our great city—“great” like quality, not quantity. One day I’ll have enough time and money to make a barbecue crusade and venture from state to state, trying different styles and seeing what this country has to offer in flame-cooked meat—and consequently cholesterol medications. Until that dream becomes a reality, I have plenty of places in my own back yard to taste my way around the country and get an idea of the true scope of one of the only truly American-born foods.
By David Mattera
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