I went to Willard’s with Doug Jacobson, the Kansas City barbecue maven. (Calvin Trillin wears Doug Jacobson pajamas.) Doug brought along bottles of two Kansas City barbecue sauces –- one from Gates http://www.gatesbbq.com/GeneralInformation/Location.aspx, and the other from Hayward’s. http://haywards-bbq.com/?page_id=3651. Doug also often carries a bottle of sauce from Arthur Bryant’s, whose web site seems to have been taken over by a Canadian pharmaceutical company. It was a great trip.
Willard’s is set in one of those northern Virginia ex-urban shopping centers that seem to pop up after every heavy rain. Doug and Emily had been there for sandwiches (pork and burnt ends) a while back and had been favorably impressed, so our expectations were high.
I like the interior décor. It avoids the cutesy touches that sometimes infect new barbecue places. Instead, it has a wall of quiet homage to some great barbecue places. It brings back a lot of memories and gets you in the mood to eat.
Willard’s does a land office business. They recently expanded into the space next door, more than doubling the place’s size at the time of Doug’s prior visit. They also have an ambitious menu, veering into things like smoked meatloaf and smoked catfish.
You place your order and they call out when the order is ready, which is about the time you look around and get your self-serve coke. Willard’s has several sauces, which you can put in those little plastic cups. Doug was smart to bring his own sauces. Willard’s hot sauce uses habanero peppers, which means lots of heat and an off flavor. The only habanero sauce I’ve had that actually tasted good was at the Big Oak in Salter Path, North Carolina. Doug didn’t like it either. There was a pepper and vinegar sauce, which did not have much pepper or vinegar taste. I avoided the sweet sauce. Once you’ve picked up or passed up your sauce, you find a table, which is not a problem in the expanded space.
Doug and I decided to share two plates with a total of five different meats. One plate had the rib tips and brisket with baked beans and cole slaw , and the other plate had pork, chicken and sausage with collards and macaroni and cheese. It was plenty of food for four or five big hungry boys.
We dug in.
Doug really liked the burnt ends but overall was disappointed. He said the chicken as okay, but sighed that the brisket was on the dry side. We agreed that it tasted more like pot roast than smoked meat. We both liked the sausage, however, mildly spicy with a smoke flavor. I was a bit more forgiving than Doug about the chicken. The pork was not bad, and could have been better with a proper sauce. All of the meat had been pre-sauced, and that was a big mistake. Even the sausage had some (easily removed) glop on it. Doug felt more strongly than I that the cole slaw was bad –- I thought it was just tasteless — and said the beans tasted like they were right out of a can, so I din’t try them. We agreed that the greens were pretty good, though, and that the macaroni and cheese was good.
We sat next to a couple from Kansas City. They enjoy Willard’s and eat there often. Curiously, both were eating pork sandwiches, not the usual burnt ends or brisket one would expect from a Kansas City eater. The sandwiches were generous.
I suspect that Willard’s is stretching itself too thin. They seem to be cutting the meat in advance of serving and stirring in sauce to keep it moist rather than cutting it fresh to order. And the menu is too ambitious. The Rebel Yell sandwich (on the chalkboard above) is a model of badly considered 0ver-complication. Pimiento cheese and mustard? With beef and slaw? Braising beef in a barbecue place? They need to trim the menu and get back to basics.
Although it did not meet our high hopes, I can see why the place is popular. The portions are large and reasonably priced by DC standards. The DC area is a long drive from really good barbecue, so you take what you can get. The food was better than most DC area barbecue — better than no barbecue at all.
So with that faint praise, why was it a great trip? After lunch we went to the nearby Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum, https://airandspace.si.edu/visit/udvar-hazy-center/, which has the planes and spacecraft that are too big for the Air and Space building on the Mall, and much, much more. Udvar-Hazy is huge and absolutely wonderful.
The place is awe-inspiring. Start planning your trip to the Udvar–Hazy museum. I definitely will go out there for more visits, and I’ll probably give Willard’s another chance — asking for the meat without any sauce, and bringing my own. Or Doug’s.
By the way, Doug has a blog. http://www.tradelawnews.com You absolutely should consult it before trying to do business with, say, Iran or North Korea, and it has useful up-to-the-minute information on travel to Cuba, duty-free limits and the like.