In late June of 2017, Washington Post food reporter Tim Carman’s list of the ten best barbecue joints in Washington D.C. was heard loud and clear in Texas. Of Hill Country BBQ, his pick for first place, Carman wrote that the brisket “is as good or better than Franklin’s,” referring to Franklin Barbecue in Austin. In Texas, we all knew exactly what he meant, and he soon received our scorn.
It took me a year to make the trip to the nation’s capital to verify his claim for myself. Luckily, Carman was in the midst of his yearly search to update that top ten list when I visited. We met at DCity Smokehouse, which made the top of Carman’s 2015 list before pitmaster Rob Sonderman left in 2016. The new location, with garage-style doors that open up onto Florida Avenue, was made for long lunches with plenty of drinks, but after a few bites of yesterday’s brisket and chicken wings too dried out for any barbecue sauce to save, we didn’t stay long.
Carman zoomed us through D.C. in his Mini Cooper, pointing out local sights and fulfilling my whim with a stop at Ben’s Chili Bowl. Strictly speaking, we didn’t need a chili dog in the midst of our fast-paced barbecue crawl, but it was worth it. After the appetizer, we walked into the new America Eats Tavern by chef Jose Andrés, a first visit for both of us. A special of smoked, pulled mushrooms sounded promising as a vegetarian take on a pulled pork sandwich, but the slimy mushrooms that didn’t squish out of the bun and onto the plate were overwhelmed by a sauce that was both too salty and sweet. The heavy glaze on the thin pork ribs couldn’t hide how badly they’d been dried out during their punishment under the broiler. The sliced brisket was so tender that it verged on mushy. There was a well-formed bark and smoke ring, but almost no smoky flavor. I loved the variety of spicy pickled greens beans and cauliflower served alongside, but the salsa verde, fine on its own, didn’t pair well with the lightly spiced beef.
Sonderman is still working hard on the D.C. barbecue scene from behind the counter at Federalist Pig, where a line had formed out to the sidewalk. The pitmaster welcomed us by name as we ordered an impressive sampling—we certainly weren’t an inconspicuous pair of barbecue eaters. Chicken wings flavored from smoke and crisped in the fryer were spectacular, as was a link of juicy jalapeño sausage made locally by Logan Sausage Company. Chunks of unsauced brisket burnt ends, mixed in with the fatty slices, had the advantage of more smoke and seasoning, and I preferred them to the sliced beef. I’m not even sure if there’s a designated menu item for burnt ends, but ask for plenty of bark on your brisket there.
A side of tomato and cucumber salad at Federalist Pig was a fresh respite from the heat. Still, I didn’t have any trouble with a few forks full of meaty pinto beans, the unusual barbecued green beans, or mac & cheese made with smoked cheddar. What nearly did me in were the ribs. I couldn’t stop. Each tender bite demanded another. The smoky bark glistened with a sweet glaze slathered over a black pepper rub. They were the best bite at the best barbecue joint I tried that day.
We both knew what was on the line when we entered Hill Country BBQ. Carman fought for his reputation at the counter seconds after we asked for some lean and fatty slices of brisket. The cutter took some lean brisket that had already been sliced and placed them on our tray. We both saw it. I wanted it to be a fair tasting, and we politely asked for fresh brisket. We were told gruffly, “this is fresh.” It wasn’t, and Carman pointed his camera at me after a few bites at the table. He asked for a thumbs up or down, but he knew what was coming. I had just one serving of Hill Country BBQ brisket on one day in D.C., but I’ve had better at Franklin Barbecue every single time I’ve eaten there.
I bid goodbye to Carman for some sightseeing before an evening flight. When it was delayed for a couple hours, I decided to check out Texas Jack’s Barbecue. Out of mercy or laziness, I didn’t even bother to post a photo of the thin, dry ribs, which had as much cracked black pepper as meat, or the crumbly slices of parched brisket before boarding my plane back home. Little of the barbecue I ate in D.C. would warrant a return visit, and I was glad to get back to Texas. A week later, Texas Jack’s was at the top of Carman’s revised barbecue list, and Federalist Pig was relegated to second. Let’s hope the slight keeps your wait a little shorter for the best barbecue joint in D.C.