Lately, pitmasters have been reexamining the accepted barbecue wisdom and, as with dietary advice and family bromides, they have found it wanting.
Use cheaper cuts from cattle fattened with corn and antibiotics? Nope, top pitmasters these days buy “all-natural” and prime-grade beef. Serve meats straight from the smoker? Forget it. Cooks have discovered the rewards of resting and holding meats for hours. Search for the best barbecue only in backwoods burgs? Urban upstarts have all but buried that notion.
Now there’s Smokehouse Live, a sprawling Leesburg operation that, in its own way, both embraces and rejects much of the passed-down wisdom.
To reach Smokehouse Live from the District — or worse, Maryland — you must make an old-fashioned barbecue pilgrimage. Depending on the time of day and route, you will log dozens of miles, give your E-ZPass a workout and test your patience with the most aggressive drivers this side of Talladega. At the end of your trip, you’ll find a barbecue joint and honky-tonk that occupies more than 16,000 square feet at the Village at Leesburg, a pre-fab shopping, dining and residential district designed to cure all forms of suburban ennui.
It’s not exactly Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas.
But with its cavernous rooms, unadorned plywood walls and order counter in back, Smokehouse Live does a mean impression of a Texas meat market, which should come as no surprise. Co-owner Jim Foss is the former chef de cuisine and director of D.C. operations for Hill Country, that homage to Central Texas barbecue with its market-oriented approach to smoked meats.
Foss and executive chef Bryan Yealy are the kind of guys you want running a smokehouse: They’re obsessives, forever tinkering with recipes and approaches until they hit upon the right formula. Their house-made sausages provide a solid example: On two earlier visits I found the links, both the jalapeño-and-cheese sausage and the Shiner Bock brat, assertive but semi- arid, the beef-and-pork farce reduced to a crumbly consistency. Later, Foss and Yealy switched to brisket fat in their links, and the sausages suddenly assumed a richness that had previously disappeared in the cold-smoking process.
Foss and Yealy straddle a line between elemental, fire-and-wood tradition and modern, set-it-and-forget-it technology. They employ two large-capacity Ole Hickory smokers that burn white oak logs sourced from Virginia. The smokers are connected to gas lines, but the pitmasters use the heat source to ignite their wood, not to cook meats. Arguably, their most important machines can be found behind the meat-carving counters: the “controlled vapor technology” units, or CVaps, which create a humid environment to hold cooked meats for hours.
The pricey CVaps guarantee something that few ’cue joints can: a moist, consistent product no matter what time of day you dine at Smokehouse Live. I cannot emphasize this enough. One of the toughest calculations for a pitmaster is determining how much meat is needed for service. Place too much in the smoker and your food waste will soar; place too little, and your customers will Yelp like scalded cats, hissing about meats that sell out early. Many pitmasters will adopt a conservative calculation, desperately hoping to keep their morning batch of, say, spare ribs moist throughout the day. The approach is usually a one-way ticket to Dry Town.
But aside from those early incarnation sausages, everything I ordered at Smokehouse Live retained much of its natural moisture, even ornery cusses like pulled pork and lean brisket. This is not to say I loved all the barbecue. The Savannah chicken, with its notes of citrus and dry mustard, came protected in a skin more elastic than crispy. The beef clod, billed as a “farmer’s roast” in a similar flush of creative marketing that gave us the Chilean sea bass, went down like rare roast beef, often with a gnarly chew.
Barbecue may be among the most difficult cuisines to review, due to both freshness issues (see above about holding meats) and bias. Personally, I prefer my pork spare ribs cut St. Louis-style, in which pitmasters slice away the sternum section along with its hard, pencil-eraser-like nubbins of cartilage. Smokehouse Live basically serves the full monster bones, which are lovely, smoky, crusty, moist and all nubbin-y on one end. I ate around the cartilage with only modest complaint. The Texas short rib has no such issue: It’s approximately a one-pound cudgel of smoky, spicy beef, at once fleshy and succulent. It’s a bone designed to share, unless you’re a Serengeti lion.
Foss and Yealy take a pan- regional approach to meats, but they betray a Texas-esque paternalism when it comes to sauce: Their house-made condiments are not within arm’s reach at the table but found on a separate stand near the hand-washing stations. Don’t fret. The majority of meats require no added flavors, notably the wet brisket slices with their geologic layers of blackened bark and pink smoke ring, which conceal an inner core of juicy beef. Much to my surprise, the lightly smoked pulled pork can be enjoyed sans condiments, yet it benefits from a splash of the East Carolina vinegar sauce.
It’s best to surround your meat with sides, which Smokehouse Live offers both hot and cold. Among the latter, I dig the mustard-bite of the “loco” potato salad and the low-acid lure of the “Texas caviar,” a well-seasoned salad of black-eye peas, onions, roasted bell peppers and poblano pepper. The baked organic cheese grits (a polenta-like dish with a light nutmeg perfume) and the turkey-spiked collards stand out among the hot sides. I would have included a third, the “Route 7” mac and cheese, but I found the warm pasta overcooked and pasty.
Smokehouse Live may be the most ambitious barbecue joint I’ve experienced. As partners Foss and Kris Diemar explain, the place is actually three concepts under one roof: a smokehouse, a craft-cocktail bar (with a separate menu that includes a thick-cut bacon BLT with Sriracha mayo, perfect for the hipster smokehound) and a live music venue (booked mostly Thursday through Sunday). It also serves desserts with more imagination than your standard smokehouse sweets of pecan pie and peach cobbler. Then again, I’ll take pastry chef Jessika Yealy’s (daughter of chef Bryan) more conventional salted caramel pudding over her Dirt n’ Worms, in which the floral-chemical flavor of gummy worms contaminates the natural chocolate ecosystem of the dessert.
All this ambition, I should add, comes with a cost. This is cheap-eats fare by reputation only, not by the reality of your check. Barbecue of this level requires quality meat, large piles of seasoned wood and lots of time. You will pay for it.