There was a time when candidates for office in Virginia wooed Virginia voters with barbecue, beer, and brandy. The voters wisely elected people like Washington, Madison, and Monroe. But where are the barbecues of yesteryear? By the late 20th century, when I moved to Washington, what little “barbecue” there was seemed to be cooked in ovens or crock pots, hardly a diet for another generation of Framers.
Virginia’s long and noble tradition of pork barbecue was a shadow of its former self. The time was out of joint, but people like Joe Haynes and Joshua Fitzwater of Southern Grit Magazine were born to set it right. You can now get very good pork all over Virginia, from north to south and east to west, and the national explosion of brisket has brought a delicious invasive species.
I recently was offended by Yelp’s posting a list of the Top Ten Barbecue Places in Eastern North Carolina. Why wait for Yelp to offend me again? Why not do a Virginia list? I’ve been driving all over Virginia checking out places on behalf of the Campaign for Real Barbecue, and there now are enough places worthy of recognition.
So here are my picks. As with North Carolina, they are divided into three categories for pork, brisket, and ribs, as I don’t think it makes sense to compare the foods to each other The best places in each category are listed alphabetically. I refuse to choose among my children. Finally, my policy is to include places in only one meat category. If you’re on the Best Pork list, you can’t be on the brisket or ribs list, and vice versa.
Allman’s Bar-B-Q in Fredericksburg is a leading exemplar of the Virginia barbecue revival. Allman’s had been a Fredericksburg institution for years, but they succumbed to the lure of ease and switched to a gas smoker, and quality and business suffered. Now, Matt Deaton has taken over Allman’s and brings his experience at the Skylight Inn and Sam Jones to Virginia.
The Barbecue Exchange in Gordonsville in Orange County is another top place. Craig Hartman knows how to cook pork, and his sauces complement the flavor of the rough-chopped meat. A sandwich and some of his Brunswick stew — there’s a meal! I need to get back out to try some of his ribs, not to mention some Gordonsville fried chicken.
I only recently discovered Bean’s BBQ in Edinburg in Shenandoah County, but the pork sandwich knocked my socks off. Figuratively. The smoke, the pork flavor, and the texture and moistness all were excellent. Justin Davis is a wizard, and it’s no surprise that he pulls hungry folks from Pennsylvania and DC to Edinburg over in the Shenandoah Valley. The barbecue is worth the trip.
Another top place is Northern Neck barbecue in Westmoreland County. Northern Neck, formally Northern Neck BBQ at the Barn, is set in a covered pavilion in Montross, a small town in Westmoreland County, birthplace of barbecue hounds George Washington and James Monroe. It’s a charming place, and Ben Hudson’s pork is wonderful, especially in a sandwich topped with their barely-dressed slaw on the sandwich for texture and tartness. Northern Neck is out of the way, but well worth the trip.
Redemption Barbecue in Henrico has very good pork. The owner, the Rev. Dr. Porkchop, also known as John Vest, is committed to complete local sourcing, including heritage pigs from a local operation, and to cooking foods by traditional methods. It pays off big, with smoky, succulent pork, even though he is an Auburn fan. The rest of the menu is inventive but also fiercely Old School in essentials. He fries with lard, friends. Most of you have never had food fried in lard. Some remember when McDonald’s cooked fries with beef tallow and were really good, but lard turns it up to 11. So good and, believe it or not, it’s so good for you.
Sloppy Mama’s in Arlington was a pioneer of good barbecue in the Washington area, and their pork easily earned a spot in the Best Barbecue Places in the Washington, DC, Area list. The pork is very good, lightly smoked with oak, and it’s ultra-fresh. Joe Neumann and his team chop it up as they serve it, so the meat never dries out. Neumann also offers other meats and some pleasant surprises — I once got some barbacoa there — and the best commercial pimiento cheese I’ve ever tasted.
The Redwood Smoke Shack in Norfolk has a lot of gimmick sandwiches, including one on a Krispy Kreme doughnut and a 2 1/2 pound assortment of meats. The Redwood Smoke Shack’s brisket doesn’t need gimmicks. It’s good, and that’s made it a magnet for Texans in Norfolk — that and their delicious corn puddin’ — enough that postmaster Bob Roberts opened a second location over in Virginia Beach.
I’ve already named Ruthie’s All Day in Arlington to my Best Barbecue Places in the Washington, DC, Area list for brisket. It’s flat good, with a good smoke flavor, and even lean end meat is as tender and flavorful as the moist end meat at most places Ruthie’s also offers a full menu for three meals, and Matt Hill and Todd Salvatore maintain a truly remarkably high quality across a very diverse range of foods.
Chris Fultz and his team have made ZZQ Texas Craft Barbecue a real star in Richmond. This really is Texas barbecue that would win prizes in Texas, it’s so good. They even make burnt ends the traditional way, without building the burn around sugar: just salt, pepper, and heat. And everything else is good as well, except the collards which include … not just sugar but molasses. Nothing under the sun is perfect.
Well, that’s nine so far. I’m not averse to listing 11 or 12 places in a Top Ten list, or eight as in Eastern North Carolina. How many teams are in the Big Ten now? Or the Pac 12? I’ve been discussing the ribs in Alabama lately, however, and it’s made me a tough grader. So far, only one Virginia place gets the laurel wreath: The Original Ronnie’s in Henrico County outside Richmond. Ronnie Logan and his extended family — four siblings and three offspring — make first class ribs, easily the best I’ve had in Virginia. And you won’t believe their green beans.
The list, like all such lists, is subject to change. I’ll be trying more ribs in the future. Places rise and fall, and I’m sure there are places I haven’t tried: two are on my to-eat list. And I need to get back to Shaffer’s BBQ and Market to give their meat a fair chance. (Their sides may be the best in Virginia, and beyond.) And I need to go back to Smokin’ Jarhead for their ribs. I’m especially hopeful that more barbecue places will open serving good honest Old School barbecue. BREAKING NEWS: Joe Haynes just told me about another one I need to try.
I welcome comments on the list (at least those that don’t use bad language), and I especially welcome places I haven’t tried (please search the name on the blog first), as well as your reports on places that have improved or fallen lately. Now, get out and try some barbecue!
And while you’re at it, click “follow” on our front page to receive blog posts in your email box. Or bookmark us and check in from time to time. If you’re planning a trip, you can “Search” the name of the destination city, state, or country for good restaurants (in Europe, often close to sites, like the Louvre or the Van Gogh Museum, that you’ll want to visit in any event). And stick around for news, all manner of recipes, hotels, and the occasional book or movie review and fine arts and architecture commentary. Comments, questions, and suggestions of places to eat or stories to cover are very welcome. And check out our Instagram page, johntannerbbq.