Red, White and Smoke 

Food Review: the West End’s Mission BBQ turns up the heat for a good cause.

click to enlarge Maryland-style “Bay-B-Back Ribs” are featured at Mission BBQ, a restaurant dedicated to soldiers, firefighters, police officers and first responders.

Scott Elmquist

Maryland-style “Bay-B-Back Ribs” are featured at Mission BBQ, a restaurant dedicated to soldiers, firefighters, police officers and first responders.

Businesses with political viewpoints have a way of making headlines. Hobby Lobby recently landed in the spotlight with its owners suing the government over Obamacare's birth-control mandate. Chick-fil-A stirred controversy for its founder's donations to anti-gay-marriage organizations. Many customers were surprised that their waffle fries came with a side of social agenda. Would it make a difference if business owners' values were more widely known, or better integrated throughout the company?

Mission BBQ announces its mission loudly and proudly: "We do what we do for the love of our soldiers, firefighters, police officers, first responders — all our loved ones in service." Military-themed décor crowds the walls. There's a military vehicle in the parking lot, outfitted with a smoker and spray-painted with the phrase "The American Way." At noon, diners stand to sing along with a recorded version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Dedicated parking and donations go to the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit that serves injured veterans.

Its location at Broad Street and Glenside Drive is the 10th for the Maryland-based chain. Maryland doesn't have a strong claim to a distinctive barbecue style, and accordingly, Mission's menu is wide-ranging. Brisket, pulled pork, two styles of ribs, chicken and turkey all are offered.

Experimenting with the regional variety of sauces may be the best part of the Mission BBQ food experience. The tables sport bottles of North Carolina-style vinegar and a six-pack of different sauces, from the sticky-sweet Memphis Belle to the Old Bay-infused Bay-B-Que. Don't miss the Georgia mustard sauce, Alabama white sauce and Piedmont vinegar that are grouped with the condiments at a separate station instead of on the tables.

The big thing that Mission consistently gets right­ is imparting smoke flavor to its meat. On every visit, no matter what you order, that wood smoke is present, although not overpowering in each bite. Unfortunately the restaurant hasn't achieved that level of consistency when it comes to keeping its meats moist. One visit delivers dry pulled pork; the next time it's perfect. Another time, a friend orders brisket that he declares akin to beef jerky.

Trying the platters — two meats ($8.99) or three ($13.49) — allows you to hedge your bets and sample the offerings. Don't overlook the turkey, which while untraditional, is smoky, juicy and light. Ribs become my favorite, with a slight preference for the baby back ($10.99 for five) over the spare ribs ($9.99 for five). Although barbecue aficionados debate the proper style for ribs — fall-off-the-bone tender vs. meat that still has texture and resistance to it — Mission seems to fall right in between, with both a textured bark and extremely tender meat underneath that separates easily from the bones.

Sides ($1.99) often are given short shrift in barbecue joints, and Mission BBQ is no different. Green beans arrive overcooked, and baked beans with brisket are cloyingly sweet and lack depth of flavor. Corn bread is gummy on one visit, dry on another. The fries are perfect, but unfortunately not my preferred addition to a barbecue meal.

The vibe is casual, a cleaned-up chain version of a barbecue dive. Kids are welcome, and the kids' menu has child-sized portions, including junior ribs — "Just like Dad's." (I guess Mom isn't firing up the grill at home?) At lunch the place is packed, while dinner seems calmer.

Mission BBQ's biggest innovation — barbecue as a truly fast-food option — isn't that easy to find in Richmond. Service is incredibly rapid, and even with a full house, my meal comes as quickly as any at McDonald's. Pair that speed with a popular and patriotic social mission, and Mission BBQ should be around a while. Hopefully, even with its expansion plans, it can keep the quality of the food as central as the mission. S

Mission BBQ
5440 Glenside Drive
Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday to Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m.


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