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What style of barbecue do you make?
“That’s the question I get asked more than anything—and that I dodge more than anything,” says Federalist Pig pit master Rob Sonderman, a Washington native who serves everything from Carolina-style pork to smoked tofu at his Adams Morgan storefront. “It’s United Nations, pan-American barbecue.”
The answer isn’t a simple one—not just for Sonderman but for anyone at the many new barbecue places in our area. Unlike Memphis or Kansas City, DC doesn’t have a distinct style or long barbecue history—and it’s a cuisine that has always been rooted in region and tradition.
That’s changing, both here and around the country. But while in Texas that might mean joints are drawing influences from the Southwest or the large Asian immigrant communities, local pit masters feel free to draw from the whole melting pot. “Because we’re in the nation’s capital, we started out thinking, ‘Let’s bring the best of America here,’ ” says Sloppy Mama’s owner Joe Neuman, who wood-smokes meats such as Memphis-style ribs and central-Texas brisket.
Now even at the Washington spots that lean toward one locale, you’ll find more than the classic chopped meat on bread, and you’ll even see the kind of seasonal specials that diners have come to expect from higher-end restaurants—take the honey-ginger duck that’s been featured at Texas-focused Hill Country.
People from deep-seated barbecue regions are quick to criticize the new ’cue scene in ours, but those who tend the smokers will argue that the lack of tradition can be liberating—and ultimately better for the diner.
“There are two kinds of barbecue: good barbecue where the people care and bad barbecue where they don’t,” says Sonderman. “As long as I’m on the good side of things, I don’t care about style.”
This article appeared in the May 2018 issue of Washingtonian.