The lamb shank ($14.99) was gorgeous, the bone clean and jutting, the meat coming off in tender strands. Its barbecue glaze not only set the mouth to tingling with spice; it also lent a balancing tang to the lamb’s richness. While a friend proceeded to strip the thing to its bone, refraining from all conversation save for the occasional “mmm,” I dug into the smoked-quail special ($14.99). Stuffed with quail sausage, then swaddled in bacon to add a kind of second skin to this delicate, dark-meat bird, it was doused with a sunset-colored sauce that tasted like a cross between Buffalo wings and country gravy.
These dishes would have been at home at any downtown DC bistro with a penchant for comfort food. But my friend and I were feasting on foil-lined paper plates along a stretch in Laurel dotted with thrift stores, honkytonks, and motels.
RG’s BBQ Cafe isn’t your typical ’cue joint, and Robert Gadsby isn’t your typical ’cue-joint proprietor. The copies of Bon Appétit by the door and the TV tuned to Food Network are clues. A former chef at LA’s Biltmore Hotel, Gadsby was last seen in this area at Bethesda’s Mussel Bar, where Robert Wiedmaier had tapped him to run the kitchen. When the Washington Post awarded the restaurant half a star, the two parted ways. Gadsby could hardly have picked a more unlikely venue to stage his return to the scene than a counter operation where you bus your own table. But if a barbecue restaurant in Laurel amounts to exile for a classically trained chef, Gadsby can’t be accused of slumming.
The cooking is imbued with smart, cheffy touches. Take his cornbread (99 cents), which isn’t the sweet, cakey variety. It actually tastes like corn—and Gadsby warms it on the grill to give it a hit of smoke. The collards ($2.49) boast flavor earned the hard way, without burying it under layers of pork fat. I loved the beans ($2.49) I ate one night; their admirable chew suggested they’d been soaked overnight, then simmered in a chunky sauce of tomatoes onions, and molasses. Inexplicably, the next time I ordered them, they tasted of having been purchased. They perked up, however, when I drizzled them with one of Gadsby’s barbecue sauces.
The chef produces three variations of his basic formula—mild, spicy, and hot. They elude easy classification. Gadsby has taken the signal characteristics of the various barbecue meccas and blended them into a sauce that tastes all at once of North Carolina (sharp), Texas (smoky), and Memphis/Kansas City (sweet and tomatoey). No one trait dominates. It’s a condiment that could probably make cardboard taste good.
Among its chief benefits to Gadsby is to temper the kitchen’s occasional miscues. One night’s smoked chicken ($9.99) was dry in places (it was wonderful in others). Another night, the ribs ($9.99) came off too easily from the bone. (Gadsby eschews baby backs in favor of spare ribs, which can be tougher but are also more flavorful.) I tried again two weeks later, though, and they were fabulous, with a dark, salty bark and a lusciousness hard to achieve without smoking them outdoors for half a day over an open pit. (He has an indoor smoker and finishes them on a grill.)
The past couple of years haven’t been easy on Gadsby. But his unexpected return is a triumph.
RG’s BBQ Cafe. 9990 Washington Blvd. N., Laurel; 301-604-2333. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, Sunday 11 to 5.
This article appears in the July 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.