You have probably heard of Pork Barrel BBQ… You may have seen them at the DC Barbecue Battle or read about their sauce in Men’s Health Magazine, you could have seen them on ABC’s Shark Tank, or purchased their rub in a store a store near you. You may EVEN own a bottle of Que – their “eau du barbecue” cologne. If not, all you really need to know is that Pork Barrel BBQ was started by two former hill staffers with a passion for sauce, spice and smoke and a knack for building their brand.
The newest venture for this seemingly unstoppable team is the Pork Barrel BBQ Restaurant situated in the Del Ray district of Alexandria, VA. We stopped by this Sunday to watch playoff football with friends, and try the BBQ.
I walked in with no preconceptions, and was pleasantly surprised by the scene that greeted me. The dining area is open and sleek, punctuated with a long icy trough full of nostalgic and/or regional sodas (including Cheerwine, Coca-Cola made without corn syrup, and Nehi Grape soda). A counter for ordering your meal beckons from the back of the space, as does a collection of large trophies next to the counter.
Now – you have a decision to make… If you are looking for a quick bite to eat, grab a soda, walk back to the counter, place your order, and enjoy your meal in the dining room. If you are looking to enjoy your BBQ with an adult beverage or two, move into the large bar area to your left… Grab a seat at the bar and order up a cold one from the eclectic beer list before deciding what to eat.
Sitting at the bar affords the added privileged of being able to order your meal with the bartender instead of walking to the back counter. Heather, our tolerant bartender and BBQ ambassador for the day, helped guide us through the menus and made some great suggestions (including the suspicious but enjoyable Schlitz and Fruit Punch “cocktail” that one member of our party gamely sampled).
So – the ambiance is cool, the bar is great… the food is where things get tricky. BBQ preferences are deeply personal - opinions are shaped by family history, geographic location, travel experience, and individual palates. While the argument can be made that all food preferences are subjective, very few cuisines elicit such a strong visceral response as BBQ. People either LOVE Carolina BBQ or they HATE IT. Memphis ribs may be heaven for one person, and dry, sandy textured torture for another. The BBQ Boys at Pork Barrel have done their best to appeal to a wide range of BBQ fans. The meats are simply rubbed with their proprietary blend, smoked, and served with a variety of sauce options. We sampled the Brisket, Pulled Pork and (homemade) Beef Sausage:
The brisket has a bright smoke ring and was well trimmed. The texture and moisture are right-on, but the beefy slices rely heavily on the Pork Barren BBQ sauces to bring regional BBQ flavor to the dish. You can choose from the (award-winning) original, sweet or mustard versions of the sauce which are readily available at the bar and on tables in the dining room.
The pulled pork stands on its own. The meat it is tender, juicy, slightly smokey and beautifully pulled into bite size morsels. It is not overly seasoned as some BBQ can be, allowing the inherent porkyness of the meat to shine.
The beef sausage (made in-house) was delicious as well – fatty, juicy, smokey with nice bit of heat that sneaks up on you. The sausages can be ordered as an entrée, or you can add a link to your order.
BBQ Chicken and St. Louis style pork ribs are also on the menu, but sadly, were not sampled (or photographed) on this visit.
I am happy to report that the side dishes at Pork Barrel BBQ are VERY good. It is clear that a lot of time and attention went into this aspect of the menu. This is a refreshing change of pace as the side dishes are often treated as an afterthought at other establishments.
The Mac and Cheese is a must have – hot and creamy, soul satisfyingly cheesy – you can’t go wrong! If you are looking for something a little healthier (or cooler) the Texas Caviar is a satisfying mix of black eyed peas, diced onions, peppers, corn and tomatoes tossed together with vinaigrette and served cold. The cold Cucumber salad is spiked with onion and vinegar and offers a respite from the the rich meat flavors in the rest of your meal. The collard greens stand out as well. The greens have a distinct sweet/tart pickled flavor that really sets them apart from other collards I have tried. I was also able to try the creamy coleslaw which I LOVED, but did not get a picture of. The (somewhat) roughly cut slaw was dressed up with ribbons of colored sweet pepper and a nice creamy dressing that was not so thick or rich that you lost the flavor or crunch of the veggies. Baked Beans (with burnt ends of Brisket mixed in) and Potato Salad are available as well.
On your first visit – I suggest ordering a pork sandwich, topping it with slaw, and enjoying with sides of Collard Greens and/or Mac and Cheese… You’ll get a great feel for what Pork Barrel BBQ is all about. I’m going to try the chicken next!