Jim Shahin and I didn’t know each other when we lived in Texas. He was in Austin, I was in Houston. But we both spent years doing what so many Texans do: roaming the vast state to sample the best slices of smoked beef available, often marveling at how pit masters make so much out of so little—just brisket, rub, wood, and fire. When life brought both of us to the D.C. area and we became friends, we continued roaming for ’cue with a far more modest goal: We wanted to locate a barbecue joint, just one, that could smoke brisket like they do at markets in Lockhart or Luling or any number of smokehouses in Central Texas. But somewhere along the line, Jim and I basically gave up. The quest, we found out, was utterly pointless.
My search for quality brisket, in fact, has been so dispiriting that I didn’t even get excited when I called Texas Ribs and BBQ in Clinton and learned that its meats are wood-smoked for hours. I had, after all, heard this line before from other smokehouse hussies, only to push away from their tables with the taste of dry disappointment in my mouth.
My stopover in southern Prince George’s county began promising enough when the waitress at Texas Ribs placed the brisket sandwich before me. The sliced meat arrived without a drop of sauce, Texas-style. But more than that, the kitchen didn’t trim off the entire fat cap, that quarter-inch of goodness over the flat part of the brisket, once the meat emerged from the smoker; instead, they left a thin layer, just enough to flavor and moisten the beef. Even the smell was right; smoke rose from the plate and tantalized my nostrils. The first bite confirmed what my eyes and nose dared to suggest: This was smoky, succulent stuff, maybe not Lockhart level, but the best I’ve had around these parts.
Before I could sign off on the brisket, I wanted Jim’s stamp. Why? Because barbecue is not just food to him. He’s written about the subject for Texas Monthly, GQ, and Chili Pepper magazines. He’s visited many of the great barbecue temples, interviewed countless pit masters, and served as a judge at the Taylor International Barbecue Cookoff, the premier contest in Texas. He also smokes the best backyard brisket I’ve ever tasted in D.C.
“I’ve always made the argument that barbecue is America, you know, written in some sort of culinary smoke,” he says. “It’s race. It’s politics. It’s history.”
To prime for our journey to Clinton, Jim and I worked out a plan to sample a pair of local barbecue joints with ties to Texas. We wanted to see if our memories of these places are still accurate—as well as provide our taste buds with points of comparison for the ’cue to come in Clinton. One of our stops took us to Chinatown to retaste the brisket at Capital Q, opened by a former Texan trying to bring the real deal to Washington. It’s not. The pinkish-gray meat, with no trace of fat cap, looks too pretty to eat, which is just as well since it’s chewy and dry, though noticeably smoky.
Unlike so much citified ’cue, which relies on gas or electric ovens with only whiffs of wood smoke for flavor, the brisket at Capital Q owes its character to a full-on Ole Hickory smoker. This is important. With Texas barbecue, smoke is no flavoring agent; it’s an alchemic element that transforms a tough, once forgettable cut of beef into bold slabs of charred-and-tender meat tinted pink with smoke ring. A true pit master bends heat and smoke to his will, like some circus tamer with wild animals. But as Capital Q’s 13-hour-plus brisket proves, smoke sometimes defies human control.
The folks at O’Brien’s Pit Barbecue in Rockville seem to appreciate the fine art of smoking brisket. Their pits, built with the help of the late Dallas barbecue legend Sonny Bryan, burn 100 percent hickory wood. They put no rub, no seasonings, no nothing on their brisket and then slow cook the meat for hours, just like at Sonny Bryan’s. This kowtowing to a Texas master, Jim and I agree, doesn’t help. The tasteless brisket remains closely aligned with arid urban ’cue; the stuff looks and smells like Central Texas brisket, with a terrific smoke ring, but somewhere between Dallas and Rockville, Sonny Bryan’s secrets got lost.
Other than its name, Texas Ribs and BBQ can make no such claims to the Lone Star State. Its owner, a West Virginia native named Danny Sager, lived in Texas for only a few months as an infant. He moved into the barbecue business purely out of necessity. Retired from the floor-covering industry, Sager turned his hobby into a business when a recession ravaged his real-estate holdings. He has owned a number of smokehouses since the mid-’80s but sold all of them except the Clinton operation.
Brisket, believe it or not, is a relatively new item on Sager’s menu. He added the cut only two years ago after a number of Texas transplants asked for it instead of the restaurant’s usual top round. Sager’s ability to re-create Texas brisket is all the more startling once you realize he hasn’t tasted the real thing since a three-month visit to the South in the mid-’80s. He can’t even remember what Texas smokehouses he analyzed. “It was just so long ago—I can’t sit here and tell you names and places,” he says.
Even if his connections to the state are tenuous, Sager exudes a sort of weathered Texas charm. His skin is tan, his words direct, his hand usually wrapped around a bottle of beer. When Jim and I enter his place—a pinewood-heavy interior covered with vintage Texas license plates, boots, and cowboy gear—Sager is only too happy to show us his pit and his secret rub. The former is a giant Southern Pride machine that warms to temperature with gas, then shuts off to let the red-oak smoke do its work on the brisket for the next 16 hours. The latter is a sugar-heavy concoction cut with cayenne, salt, and sage.
The sugary sweetness, however, is not at all discernible to Jim. The first things that capture his attention are the smoke, the spice, and the thick cut of the brisket, the interior of which is crosshatched like a net and sealed on the outside with a blackened, savory char. It’s gritty and country, which Jim likes. It’s also a little dry and chewy for his tastes, maybe because the product came out of the smoker hours earlier. Still, he calls it the best he’s had in the area. “I love looking at it,” he says. “It looks like Texas. It’s a reasonable facsimile.”
But then I ask Jim perhaps the most important question: Is the brisket good enough, Texas enough, to make him travel all the way down here for it?
“Make me?” he responds quickly, “No. But I’d consider coming again.”
Texas Ribs and BBQ, 7701 Old Branch Ave., Clinton, (301) 877-0323.
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