Being the barbecue snob purist that I am, I’ve frequently found myself giving dismissive answers to friends’ questions about where to find good ‘cue in Washington. Hell…I’ve even said as much here at Capital Spice. But a few months back the City Paper’s Tim Carman spread the word that Rockville’s Urban Bar-B-Que had upgraded their smoker and that their brisket was much improved for the change. I had to check it out.
Sure, Urban’s smoked meats are done in the Texas style, so they were bound to be a bit different than the heavily sauced ribs I’ve come to know and love in Kansas City. But I was eager to see what their new XLR-600 Southern Pride smoker was turning out, so I joined up with Carman and a handful of other carnivores for a taste test. And since there are limits to how much meat even the most dedicated barbecue enthusiast can order in one sitting, I invited Nell to join me so we could try a broader range of items.
So how was it? On the whole, this was some of the best I’ve had in DC…but there were definitely some missteps in the mix, as well.
Details on Urban’s cooking method, tasty meats and “Ugly Bits” after the jump. “Controlled Chaos” is a pretty fair description of the interior at Urban. Walking in the front door, you’ll find yourself facing walls plastered with bumper stickers and signs that defy you to focus on any one of them for more than a few seconds. Beer paraphernalia and a wall of barbecue sauces round out the decor, and the seating is a no-frills arrangement of red vinyl chairs and metallic tabletops.
But if the dining area seems a bit disarrayed, it’s pretty clear that the kitchen is run in good order. Briskets go into the XLR-600 at night and are bathed in smoke from a steady supply of oak wood until they emerge with a deep, rich smokiness and a healthy crust of bark. Pork shoulders and ribs require shorter timeframes, but they soak in the smoke just as well. It all runs like clockwork – it has to.
Nell and I opted to pass on the appetizers, despite the allure of “Redneck Fondue” and “Soul Rolls,” to focus on the “Real Deal Bar-B-Que.” A two-meat combo plate, which comes with a side of your choice and bread, will only set you back $10.49. You can choose from pulled pork, pulled chicken, sliced brisket and sausage (a staple in Texas ‘cue that doesn’t get its fair share of attention). Or you can pair up a half-slab of ribs with any of those meats for $17.49. The sides are pretty much what you’d expect: simple fare like potato salad and cole slaw; comfort foods like mac & cheese and collard greens; and ranch-style bar-b-que beans.
Less likely to jump out at you from the menu – but well worth exploring – are a number of specialty items like the “Urban Legend” which layers Fritos, brisket, sausage, beans, cheese and onions. For us, the “Ugly Bits” were too tempting to ignore. These end cuts from racks of ribs are smoked, fried and then slathered in a sweet and tangy barbecue sauce. Served up hot, they offer a flavor and texture similar to Chinese spare ribs, but with a southern accent.
Among the basic meats, the brisket was definitely a hit. One of the toughest things to do when slow-cooking a brisket is to get it to the point where the connective tissue that runs throughout the cut liquefies and diffuses throughout the meat. Too short a cooking time, and you’ve got tough, stringy brisket. Too long, you’re looking at a dried out piece of beef that crumbles when you pick it up. The best brisket retains a certain elasticity, allowing you to pick it up and pull it apart with your hands, but not falling apart on its own. Urban’s hit the mark, and the flavor was deep and meaty.
The pulled pork, unfortunately, left a strange taste in my mouth. Though the smoker had once again worked its magic and turned out succulent pork with a bright pink smoke ring just below the skin, there was something not quite right about the flavor. An acrid, chemical aftertaste left me torn between wasting well-cooked barbecue and continuing to eat the unpleasant dish. I think it says a lot that I felt compelled to leave the pork unfinished (something I have rarely done in the past).
I had a taste for some sweet tea to go with my meal, and Urban can usually deliver with either sweet tea, peach tea, or both. Unfortunately, I ended up out of luck as both types were out. In the end, however, it was a blessing in disguise – I was able to indulge my love of root beer with Urban’s draft (made with Virginia honey).
After tasting our way through the most basic aspects of the menu (the barbecued meats and a few of the sides), we left with a really good feeling about Urban’s new take on Bar-B-Que. We can only hope that they’ll soon find themselves with plenty of worthy competition – the DC barbecue scene could surely use some fresh blood. For now, however, Urban seems to stand in a class by itself when it comes to smoking, serving and enjoying great low-and-slow cooking.
2007 Chapman Ave.