The art form that is barbecue inspires battles, festivals and cook-offs to prove who has the chops (pun intended) to supply the best. On a few recent Sundays I traveled the Richmond area to find some unknown standouts, some well-knowns that stand up and a few that should stand down. Here goes:
A tiny spot in Chester comes in with the cheapest smoked meat. A minced or sliced pork sandwich at Brock's will set you back just $2.50. Texturally spot-on and smoked on-site, it's a stand-up sandwich for the price. Get the potato wedges on the side — fried close to the point of burnt disaster, they manage to taste crispy and sexy.
11310 Iron Bridge Road, Chester
B Blues BBQ
Surprisingly a strip-mall spot, B Blues in Montpelier has the most variety, with Memphis, North Carolina and Texas styles of barbecue ($5.50 per half-pound). I sample a bit of everything. I'm in love with the sauces, each atomically piquant, but find myself missing the gaminess of the pork. I'm also miffed by the lack of patrons. I mean, variety is the spice of life, people.
16618 Mountain Road, Montpelier
Phat Boyz BBQ
A trailer in Glen Allen, Phat Boyz BBQ (easily the cleanest barbecue trailer I've ever been in), suffers with too saturated a meat product. Moist and oddly chopped pork ($4.75 per half-pound) tastes more like minced hot dog than barbecue. The sauce has a creeping spice that would give even cardboard some gusto. Included with my order are a few different barbecue sauces, but I don't use them. The weird pork is enough.
10185 Washington Highway, Glen Allen
McCormack's Whisky Grill and Smokehouse
In Richmond proper, I hope for excellence at McCormack's Whisky Grill and Smokehouse. That doesn't happen. The pork is bland and tastes metallic, and is among the priciest of this tour at $8.95 for the plate with sides. The very sweet sauce only spotlights the reheating process that must have taken place before it's served to me. Candied baked beans and sugary collards make me reach for more whiskey. And the desert-dry dirty rice. ... Well, makes me reach for more whiskey.
204 N Robinson St.
Hickory Notch Grill
Knocking it out of my barbecue park is Hickory Notch Grill in Goochland County. Lacking gimmicky — on my travels, I see a ridiculous number of cartoon pigs and things on fire — the quaint country restaurant is an off-the-beaten-path surprise. Chunky and teeming with the smell of hickory, the tender hog shoulder ($7.75 a pound) assaults my nostrils with hardwood goodness. On your visit look for me; I'll be up to my ears in ribs out on the huge covered back deck.
2031 Broad Street Road, Maidens
TD's Smokehouse Barbecue
This place can't be missed, visually at least, because of the huge smoker parked directly outside. The inside is cluttered and dusty with zero space for eating in. I order the house pork ($8.95 per pound) and am happy with it. Leaning toward a honey vinegar flavor, this is a thicker shredded pork with North Carolina's subtle heat. Looking for a bonus? Grab an oil change with your sandwich. The owners also run the lube joint next door.
8919 Patterson Ave.
This time of year Alexander's on Westbriar caters to the pool crowd. Squishy pork with the texture of a wet paper towel is practically thrown at me through a window jammed with kids and soccer moms ($4.49 for a half-pound). I want to hate the taste because of how wet it is, but I don't. I find it bizarrely enticing with its sweet heat. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
1126 Westbriar Drive
Hillbilly Red's BBQ
A dressed-up barn is now one of my favorite Richmond barbecue places: Hillbilly Red's. I'm not into the rustic feel of the place (if you like your food with splinters, do it up) but I'm all about the meat they serve. Order one of the three seasonings — sweet, mild or vinegar — then prepare yourself for some fresh, Southern pride-smoked pork ($3.60 for a quarter-pound sandwich). I think they ripped the meat off the pig seconds before I ordered it. No additions needed. If anyone inquires though, I like the vinegar.
353 E. Williamsburg Road, Sandston
PG's BBQ #1
PG's touts itself as No. 1 but falls supremely short. My first mouthful has a curious incinerator flavor that affects the rest of the meal ($8.95 for sandwich and sides). I try for a few more bites but the smoke is so overwhelming I quit while ahead. The hush puppies, with their chopped jalapeAños and minced onion, could have a stellar showing except for the obvious microwave reheat. In porkless news: The restaurant has an Elvis on velvet.
9410 Jefferson Davis Highway, Chesterfield
If you're searching for good Texas barbecue (read: Tex-Mex), head to the repurposed gas station, Alamo BBQ in Church Hill. Because this is the only joint where I'm offered the option of barbecue in a taco, I take advantage. Huge and overflowing, each taco contains a zippy take on the traditional tomato-based sauce and woody, somewhat chewy pork ($3 each.) The only seating available is outdoors, so be prepared to muse, as I do, about a cold beer.
2202 Jefferson Ave.