I had a post on 13 “unbeatable” barbecue places in Virginia a couple of weeks ago, https://johntannersbbqblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/10/some-barbecue-possibilities-in-virginia/, and I was finally prodded by my friend, Jon Breul, to take the plunge and drive the two hours to Gordonsville to try the BBQ exchange. Actually, Jon drove, which was really nice of him.
I picked the BBQ Exchange because it was closer than the other places, and because I remembered that it had been touted in Garden and Gun: they placed it on their Barbecue Bucket List as one of two Virginia entries. I forgot to look at the list, and that was a mistake. The other Virginia spot on the Bucket List was the heart-breaking, execrable Pierce’s Pitt. See https://johntannersbbqblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/pierces-pitt-bar-b-que-williamsburg-virginia/.
I did read a review that Jon sent me. This was from the Charlottesville 29, https://charlottesville29.com/bbq-exchange/, a list of the top 29 restaurants in Charlottesville, or, in the case of the BBQ Exchange, a list of six restaurants worth the drive from Charlottesville. The BBQ Exchange is the product of a trained chef who, after a career at high-end restaurants, fell in love with Charlottesville and decided to start a restaurant that reflected a sense of place — the special quality of Charlottesville — along the lines that, say, Commander’s Palace reflects New Orleans. The review spent a lot of time touting the BLT at the BBQ exchange. They cure their own Red Eye Bacon in a coffee and spice rub for two weeks before smoking it. The reviewer was really impressed, and stressed that you need to order the bacon “chewy” rather than crisp, which gets you only ordinary bacon.
Our two-hour drive was pleasant, and we arrived at a nice looking place.
As you can see, there are tables on a front porch for nice days, and the interior is also pleasant.
Jon ordered a large pork sandwich with hush puppies and broccoli salad. The order prompted an incomprehensible eldritch shriek from the server in the general direction of the kitchen. I ordered a small pork sandwich and a BLT with chewy bacon. I was asked if I wanted hush puppies, which really isn’t fair. I said I did, and there was another shriek, which may have been “PUPS!” As an afterthought I asked for their spicy cole slaw — on the side rather than on the sandwich.
Our pork sandwiches were ready immediately, as the server simply scooped it out of a pan in front of her. Here’s Jon’s large sandwich,
and my small sandwich.
The first thing you notice is the bun. It is big and sturdy. The up side is that it doesn’t fall apart while you’re trying to eat your sandwich. The down side is that your sandwich has way too much bread, and each bite is more bread than meat. Fail. I regard barbecue sandwiches falling apart as one of those things you deal with in life; but a barbecue sandwich with too much bread is a problem of cosmic dimensions. Jon and I both solved the problem by not eating the bread.
I was picking at the pork, taking bites and trying to analyze the texture and the presence of smoke when Jon, with a clarity of thought and language seldom seen in a Washingtonian, said, “It doesn’t have much taste.” Exactly! I could taste precious little smoke and even less pork, try though I might.
They have five different sauces to make up for the absence of taste.
Craig’s Carolina sauce — vinegar and pepper and way too much water — really lacked flavor and didn’t do a thing for the pork. They have a couple of sweet sauces that I didn’t try, and a Hog Fire hot sauce with a habanero flavor that I don’t like: only the Big Oak in Salter Path, NC, has made a tasty habanero sauce. The best sauce — a very good thick sauce, Colonel Bacon — didn’t taste like bacon, but it had a good, spicy taste. IT would be good on fries. You can also see a shaker of Bacon Dust, which is better in the concept than the execution.
Ah, here’s the BLT.
Again, the bread-to-bacon ratio is all wrong. And for all their effort, the bacon wasn’t that good. I’m country enough to be OK with the red eye gravy: I used to put peanuts in my Coke. But it really isn’t that good, and it works better with country ham and grits and eggs than with bacon. When you get right down to it, while bacon improves many things, there aren’t many things that improve bacon: hickory smoke is about it. And there was no mayonnaise. But then the tomato is what I will call (this being a family blog) a Safeway tomato, so who cares about mayonnaise? Truly, the time they spent seasoning and curing the bacon would have been better spent finding a source of local tomatoes and a loaf of white bread that they could toast. And a jar of Hellman’s or Duke’s would help. How hard is that?
We both got PUPS! They were cooked to order (thus the eldritch scream), and very crusty, as they should be. Jon observed that if you just popped one in your mouth, you could hurt yourself. Jon got some broccoli salad, which was good — with cheese, peanuts (two different people ask you if you have peanut allergies when you order it), raisins, and red onions. Nice. I had a little of their spicy slaw, which is pretty much just cabbage and cayenne. Meh.
Curious as to how they could produce flavorless pork, we checked out the cooking operation. They cook with real wood.
Nice license tag. They have a congeries of grills, the star of which they call The Beast.
It’s that big drum-like thing. Inside are racks for the meat.
There is a firebox offset in the rear where they put the logs after they get some charcoal coals going. And that’s a motor on the front, which rotates the racks on a central pivot.
It’s big and it’s fancy, but it doesn’t do much for the flavor of the pork. All of the pork fat drains out rather than dripping down onto the coals to create pork fat smoke. What a waste!
I appears that they cook the meat for 8-10 hours during the business day. No one gets up early to start cooking so that the meat will be ready for lunch. After cooking, they wrap the cooked pieces and refrigerate them overnight, or for longer. (Thursday is a big day for cooking in anticipation of the weekend.) They re-heat the meat in the oven the next day or so before serving it. At that point, it seems that someone chops it up and puts it into the pan from which the meat is scooped for sandwiches.
That’s a hell of a way to run a railroad. I’m not sure what a sense of place for the Virginia Piedmont might be in terms of food, but if the BBQ Exchange is capturing it, they ought to let it go. I imagine that the real sense of place there involves more bourbon than red-eye gravy.
So the Gordonsville expedition turned into a long drive for a disappointing meal. But it was a nice drive, against traffic, and, after the suburbs thinned out, through beautiful country. Gordonsville itself is no bigger than a minute, but it has some attractive old homes and a Tastee Freez that serves the largest small cones I’ve ever seen. (Jon got one, so I got one just to be polite.) It would be a nice place to grow up. There’s a Civil War Medical Museum right across the railroad tracks from the BBQ Exchange. The museum is housed on a former hotel that served as a medical aid station during that war, and over 70,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were treated there. (It was one of 53 such hospitals: the rest were burned down during the course of the conflict, which seems pretty tacky to me.) For a time before the War, Gordonsville claimed to be the Fried Chicken Capital of the World. It’s not far from Montpelier, which you can tour, and from the town of Orange, home of Woodberry Forest and Pomme, a good French restaurant. It’s beautiful area, and one I’d like to tour more closely, perhaps staying a night or two. And eat at Pomme.