Five years ago, I took a trek to Washington, D.C., to verify a claim that sounded too good to be true. Tim Carman of the Washington Post, who compiles a biannual ranking of area barbecue joints, had said the local Hill Country Barbecue Market’s brisket was as good as Franklin Barbecue’s. The tray we shared at Hill Country didn’t reach the heights of his claim, but I still used his list as the basis for a tour of the city’s offerings. Returning home to Texas, I wrote, “Little of the barbecue I ate in D.C. would warrant a return visit.” Things have changed.
A three-day trip to the nation’s capital last month was bookended by two of my favorite recent Texas-style barbecue stops. Maryland joints Bark Barbecue Café and 2Fifty Texas BBQ are both newish to the scene. The wife-and-husband team of Debby Portillo and Fernando González opened 2Fifty in 2020, and Berj Ghazarian and his father, Boris, opened Bark Barbecue a year later. Carman’s latest list, published last February, had them at number one and number two, respectively (2Fifty was also number one on the 2020 list), and this time I couldn’t agree more.
I realized how generous Carman was with his definition of the D.C. area while driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Kent Island, an hour away. It was here, in Stevensville, that the Ghazarians opened Bark Barbecue Café in an unassuming industrial park. Berj originally saw it as a way to feed the employees of his food flavoring–manufacturing business, Itaberco, next door. Community support followed, and it’s now a destination for barbecue lovers in the capital.
As a kid growing up in Maryland, Berj didn’t have much access to American barbecue. “Growing up, barbecue was Outback Steakhouse baby back ribs,” he explained. His Armenian parents would grill chicken skewers over coals, but Berj wouldn’t find brisket until a college trip to visit a friend at the University of Texas at Austin. They visited the Salt Lick, and Berj was immediately taken with the experience. He couldn’t stop thinking about it after he got home, and he eventually bought an Oklahoma Joe’s smoker. When he invited friends over for his first batch of smoked ribs, they were kind with compliments, but Ghazarian knew: “I cooked the worst barbecue of my life that night.”
After a few more-successful cooks, Ghazarian entered D.C.’s Giant National Capital Barbecue Battle in 2015 and took eighteenth out of forty teams. He came away from the experience knowing he didn’t want to cook in competitions. He wanted to replicate Texas barbecue as best he could. He needed practice, so he introduced himself to the chefs of fine-dining restaurants like Reverie and Maydān. Those restaurants offer a family meal to employees before dinner service begins, and Ghazarian offered to provide barbecue for them. They accepted, and he made some powerful professional connections.
When I visited Bark, I was running late for a flight and still a long way from the airport, so I ordered quickly. The Pitmaster Platter of brisket, pork ribs, chicken, and four sides for just $37 was an obvious choice. Bark threw on several slices of smoked pork belly for a few dollars more.
I didn’t get more than five minutes with my platter, but it was enough to taste the expertise of Ghazarian and his pitmaster, Arturo Araujo. The brisket was some of the best I’ve had outside of the Lone Star State. The hefty bark and hint of smoke in every bite took me back to Texas.
The ribs were from another universe. As his restaurant’s name suggests, Ghazarian craves the bark on his barbecue. For this reason, he divides the racks of spares into individual ribs before smoking and seasons them with salt, black pepper, and garlic. He smokes them over oak for an hour, then braises them for ninety minutes in a mix of gochujang, ginger, garlic, oil, and rice wine vinegar. Another hour on the smoker sets the bark. For service, he glazes each rib with honey, ginger, and gochugaru (Korean red chile flakes) and broils it to caramelize the sauce. It’s an explosion of flavors, and—more importantly—each rib is tender.
Armenians “cook the living crap out of their meat,” Ghazarian explained, so some in his family are suspicious of the juicy smoked chicken thighs he serves. He smokes several batches throughout the day to ensure freshness. While the photo of the PBLT (Ghazarian’s favorite menu item) on the wall looked incredible, I stuck with the simple slices of pork belly that stuff it. The cooks smoke the pork belly whole like a brisket, then slice it and sear it on the flattop just before serving. The searing gives the pork belly some structure and additional texture. It’s like a juicy version of bacon.
In the kitchen of Albi in D.C., chef Michael Rafidi showed Ghazarian how to make Lebanese batata harra with multiple layers of sliced potatoes. Ghazarian calls his version Laser Potatoes. He bakes thirty layers of thinly sliced potatoes slowly with a weighted tray on top. He then chills, cuts, and deep-fries the potatoes to a golden brown. It’s an incredibly labor-intensive dish for a barbecue joint. “It’s a loss leader,” Ghazarian said, but it has a fan base of its own.
Karmir pilaf is a traditional Armenian main course made with beef, beef fat, onion, and tomato. The red-tinted rice “is the comfort food of my youth,” Ghazarian said, and he has a version on the menu without the beef. There’s still some beef tallow in there, and it’s topped with fried shallots and garlic. It looks humble but is packed with layers of flavor. An Armenian country stew will soon hit the menu as a winter dish. This mix of heritage and passion is what Ghazarian envisioned when conceptualizing the restaurant. “I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing,” he said.
Before 2Ffity Texas BBQ, Fernando González knew about as much about Texas barbecue as Ghazarian did prior to his visit to the Lone Star State—which was nothing. González recalls standing in line at Franklin Barbecue, in Austin, in 2016, not knowing what or how to order. He saw brisket on the menu, but he had no idea what the word meant. “I had no barbecue knowledge,” González said. Back then, he and his wife, Debby Portillo, ran a small shipping company out of their home in Santa Tecla, El Salvador. He was stuck in Austin for two days while waiting on a delivery, and a quick Google search of what to do in the city brought up some barbecue-joint results.
González befriended bachelor party guests in line at Franklin, who ordered for him so he wouldn’t miss any of the hits. He bought Franklin’s first cookbook and got a pit-room tour, during which Aaron Franklin signed his book. While in town, González also tried La Barbecue and Terry Black’s Barbecue and drove up to Taylor for a beef rib at Louie Mueller Barbecue. All the smoked meats made a lasting impression, as did the hospitality González experienced. Life in El Salvador was a daily struggle to avoid gang violence for him and his family. “I was trying to escape a country that was so aggressive against my human condition, so all this hospitality was a culture shock,” González said.
When he returned home, Portillo met him at the front door of their apartment. González held a Franklin Barbecue brisket he’d carried from Austin and announced they needed to open a barbecue restaurant. “This is what we are going to do for the rest of our lives,” he told her earnestly. He prepared the potato salad and coleslaw from the cookbook and served it to family and friends a couple days later. “I had no idea what this black thing that looked like a stone was doing in our kitchen,” Portillo said of the brisket, but she loved it and agreed that they should introduce their hometown to Texas-style barbecue.
The progression from barbecue start-up in Santa Tecla to full-blown restaurant in Maryland was a whirlwind. The couple went from sending barbecue orders to the U.S. embassy in El Salvador in 2017 to filing paperwork for their visas the following year. The original plan was to open a location of the Portillo family’s restaurant business that sold pupusas, a stuffed Salvadoran flatbread. “We were burning cash,” González said of their first dismal month in business in D.C. The most important thing for their visa renewals was that their business was producing tax revenue and hiring employees. It was doing neither. A rapid pivot was the only thing that would allow them to stay.
Gonzalez reached out to the late Rene “Ray” Ramirez, a fellow Salvadoran who founded Ray’s Texas BBQ in Huntington Park, California. Ray encouraged him to go all in on barbecue. “We needed that push,” Portillo said, and by the end of 2018 they were serving brisket and ribs at a local farmers market. In April 2020, the 2Fifty brick-and-mortar opened in the quiet community of Riverdale Park, northeast of D.C.
The food can get lost in a story like 2Fifty’s, but González and Portillo have that part down. “We’re a Texas-style barbecue joint with a pinch of the tropics,” González said. There are two menus for sides: one labeled “Traditional,” which includes slaw and potato salad, and one labeled “Heritage,” which shows off the couple’s Salvadoran roots. González and Portillo buy only red beans grown in Central America and simmer them with beef tallow and chopped brisket for a savory answer to the baked beans favored by folks in the area. I loved the side’s simplicity. Golden fried plantains served with a side of sour cream were pleasantly chewy and sweet, but the green beans sprinkled with Tajín needed more salt, and the “caramelized” pineapple chunks weren’t quite caramelized, as they came from a can.
Prime-grade smoked brisket from Creekstone Farms and Wagyu brisket from Snake River Farms are available daily ($32 per pound and $45 per pound, respectively). Both were juicy and well-seasoned with just the right amount of white oak smoke, though I wish they hadn’t been sliced so thick. A barbecue class González and Portillo attended at Goldee’s, in Fort Worth, gave them some solid direction for their pork ribs, which were rubbed with a bold mix of savory spices and had a great bark.
The couple brought in barbecue consultant Mauro Chiefari, of Texicana BBQ, to help develop their house-made sausage, and the extra effort shows. Both the poblano and a spicy cheddar variety have a coarse grind, are loaded with spices that go beyond the basics, and are bursting with juices. After a customer orders, the meatcutter hits the sausages with the high heat of a small kitchen torch. “I want to make sure that every casing is crisp and snappy,” González said. 2Fifty does the same to the skin of the smoked chicken leg quarters.
Witnessing the current influence of immigrants and their cuisines on barbecue in Texas is exciting, but it’s especially rewarding to see immigrants touched by the flavors and hospitality of Texas barbecue introducing those traditions to customers in the nation’s capital. Earlier this year, 2Fifty’s efforts were recognized by the U.S. Department of State when both Portillo and González were added to the American Culinary Corps, which practices “culinary diplomacy” through cross-cultural exchange abroad.
Still, suspicion remains about the bark on their briskets among some of their friends and family members. Portillo said they sent a whole chilled brisket to a friend, who sent back photos to thank them for their meal. “She ended up peeling [the brisket] like a mango,” Portillo said, laughing.
The couple opened a small barbecue counter inside D.C.’s Union Market food hall in 2021, and they will open another full-scale 2Fifty restaurant early next year in the city. It’s nearly unthinkable to Portillo and González, who struggled through the takeout-only days of 2020. “We owe everything to barbecue,” Portillo said. It has given them friends, money, stability, and safety. González added, “Barbecue really saved our lives.”