I don’t know whether it says more about Kerry Britt’s skill or about the state of barbecue in Washington that it took his KBQ Real Barbecue all of two months to establish itself as the best place to go for good-quality barbecue without lighting out for the territories—in this case Charles County, where open-pit grilling is permissible and where Johnny Boy’s Ribs beckons ’cue lovers to make the pilgrimage to La Plata to sit on picnic tables and chow down on messy, pulled-pork sandwiches suffused with smoke and topped with coleslaw.
KBQ, tucked into a new Bowie shopping center, can’t touch that kind of charm, and it doesn’t try. The sign outside could be advertising a toy store (there’s no mention of its mission), and the restaurant—splashed with bright yellow paint—stands at the opposite end of the barbecue spectrum from the roadside ideal of Johnny Boy’s.
The old-school album covers—Wes Montgomery, Marvin Gaye, Dave Brubeck—and the old-fashioned Coke dispenser are nice touches, and I could listen to the soundtrack all day, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re in a chain restaurant. Sure enough, Britt says he has plans to open more locations.
The sense that KBQ is just one more cookie-cutter barbecue spot lasts until your first taste, when you realize the cooking is as country as the atmosphere isn’t. Prince George’s, like most counties, forbids open pits, so Britt slow-smokes his meats before slapping them on the grill. A pink “smoke ring,” indicative of good smoke penetration into the flesh, is the first thing you notice about the ribs and the brisket.
The second thing you notice is that they don’t need any of Britt’s three sauces. The meat is luscious and flavorful without them; sauce is simply an enhancement.
The third thing? Close your eyes while working on one of these monster plates—a mound of meat and two heaping sides for a platter—and you’ll feel as if you’re at a rollicking backyard barbecue.
I’ve had mixed success with the meaty ribs—terrific on one visit, a tad dry on another. And the fish of the day—smoked salmon one time—wasn’t much of an inducement. But the pulled pork is a sure thing—a mound of soft, ropy strands, always moist—and the brisket is a testament to the way smoke and time can subdue the fibers in a tough piece of meat. The hot country sausage is their equal—great pop on the casing, great spicing.
Britt did a lot of barbecue catering before opening KBQ, and he seems to understand the importance of taking every dish seriously, even the sides. There are no throwaways here: The waffle fries come with skins on, one version of the cornbread includes jalapeños and cheddar, the beans are sweetened with molasses, and the eggy potato salad is studded with baby shrimp.
Britt has struck a smart balance between backwoods taste and suburban accessibility. And not even the chains can beat his prices—a complete dinner for less than $11? As a ’cue purist, I just hope he doesn’t spoil a good thing by copying his own template too much or too quickly.