We know, we know. Our neighbors to the South in North Carolina, and to the southwest in Tennessee, never think of barbecue north of their northern borders. And, to be sure, a lot of the best barbecue joints in Virginia like to advertise that they are "North Carolina style". On the other hand, there's a very ancient barbecue tradition in the Old Dominion, and we are older than our neighbors to the south (though we suppose the Lost Colony on Roanoke can be claimed to be the first North Carolina barbecuers).
We'll agree that they do it better farther south, and that the best Virginia barbecue claims to be North Carolina style. But from where we live, Lexington (North Carolina, not Massachusetts, which is barbecueless in terms of real pit barbecued pulled pork) is a good five or six hour drive, making it no day trip. And some very good barbecue is available here in the state. There's a particular style associated with the Tidewater areas of the southeast, and good pit barbecue available in parts of the Piedmont. Though we're personally very fond of the Shenandoah Valley, we've been disappointed in the barbecue there. Even the Washington area has a few isolated enclaves of real barbecue.
(Northern Virginia was Virginia before it was, uh, northern, if you know what we mean. It's not an accident that, going westward on I-66, that you don't come to a Virginia Welcome Center until you cross Bull Run into Prince William County. You've got all of Arlington and Fairfax Counties and the city of Alexandria behind you by then. Heading southward, the Welcome Center is somewhere around the Occoquan. On the other hand, if you enter Virginia from North Carolina, the welcome centers are right at the border. Richmond just doesn't want to welcome you till you enter unoccupied Virginia.)
The closer you get to North Carolina, the more
the locals are likely to understand barbecue, and there are famous places
like King's in Petersburg and Pierce's in Williamsburg, which always draw
a crowd. We'll talk about those, but we also want to single out some special
places north of the James River, where many barbecue afficianados would
not expect to find them.
(Those not currently underlined will appear soon)
Ben's Whole Hog, Manassas
Hog's Breath, Vienna
Three Pigs, McLean
Dixie Bones, Woodbridge
Red, Hot & Blue (multiple locations)
Pig 'N' Steak, Madison
Bill's (multiple locations)
North Carolina BBQ, Gloucester Point
Rawlings Little Pig, Petersburg
Ben's Whole Hog, Manassas
We had suspected long before we actually found it,
that there must be a good barbecue joint in Manassas. We finally found
it earlier this summer, and what a discovery. I will stick my neck out
here and say that it in my estimation, is THE BEST in the Washington metro
area. Why? Because the meat is so slow-cooked, patiently, lovingly and
respectfully--and it shows. Four visits have concentrated on the pulled
pork sandwich and two sides--we haven't yet had the ribs, but we hear they
are terrific too. The sides do equal justice to the barbecue: wonderful
sweet potato casserole, crunchy cole slaw, tasty baked beans. In the summer
season they also offer a vidalia onion and tomato side. We look forward
to trying that. They serve beer along with sodas and of course iced
tea, and offer live music nightly.
For Thanksgiving Ben's was offering smoked turkeys
to order, and pick up. Ben and the other men were so busy dealing with
the turkey orders that the staff invented a buffet table for other customers
to just pick their own barbecue (pork or chicken) with numerous sides.
It was so popular they intend to keep it as a feature permanently.
The waitress apologized for the missing sweet potato casserole on the buffet,
saying they were cleaned out with yesterday's business (yesterday being
Thanksgiving). A word about the sauces: they have a nice Carolina
gold and a more traditional red, not at all sticky or cloyingly sweet.
Bottles of pepper vinegar loaded with red and green peppers and garlic
cloves are on all the tables.
In short, if you can't drive to North Carolina every
weekend for barbecue, just go to Ben's. They are located at:
We've already said that we think the best barbecue in Northern Virginia is Ben's in Manassas, but that's the other side of the Virginia state welcome center and thus not "Occupied Northern Virginia". For barbecue INSIDE THE BELTWAY (though only by about a quarter mile) one should definitely depend on Bubba's on Lee Highway (Route 29) in the Merrifield area, in fact just a tad east of the Beltway.
Rest of review on the way.
Pig 'N' Steak, Madison
The Pig 'N' Steak in Madison, Virginia ranks very high on our list of barbecue joints in the state; often when we've found ourselves in the Shenandoah Valley, we've been willing to take the drive over the mountains (both the Massanutten and the Blue Ridge) to get to Madison just for the barbecue. And once, when we were wandering about in southern Maryland, we drove across a good part of Virginia for barbecue at the Pig 'N' Steak.
This is not to say that the pork is that exceptional: it's good, real southern pulled pig barbecue, pit-smoked, but so is the pork at many other places in Virginia. Some of the best North Carolina barbecue is superior to the Pig 'N' Steak; we don't deny that.
So why do we think so highly of the Pig 'N' Steak?
For one thing, it's prepared on a wood burning smoker--no gas grills here. The logs are stacked high and solid out back of the restaurant, next to the smoker. The restaurant itself is small-town unpretentious, the service is friendly and efficient. The front room has a bar besides tables and booths, the booths are along dark wood-panelled walls, decorated on one side by a mural of running horses.
Business has been so good that a few years ago, the owners opened up an adjoining room for service: it's always packed on Saturdays. Although the new room is nicer, we prefer the front room, even though it's for smokers. There's just a comfortable, down home relaxing atmosphere that continues to attract us.
The fries are another attraction: if you order a pulled pork sandwich platter, it comes with (literally) a mountain of fries: thin, crunchy sticks that go well with the sandwich and a cold pitcher of Foster's. I'm happy just dipping them in the baked beans, which are also really good! Drinks come in neat glass mugs that look somewhat like old-fashioned canning jars, perfect for the pitcher of Foster's.
The Pig N Steak also serves steaks, hand cut to order, and the ribs are also good. But we always go for the pork sandwiches. Pig N Steak barbecue, with a pitcher of Foster's: a nice way to end a beautiful day out in the country!