Saturday, January 24, 2015

On Jamie Stachowski - Meeting His Meat

Writing about food is hardly ever an especially delicate enterprise. The food writer simply declares the food he’s just eaten as either delicious or not delicious, then quickly moves on to the next meal.  Rarely do post-strucuralist or proto-Derridan linguistic theories enter into describing something as commonplace as a sandwich. Unless, of course, that food writer has been tasked with describing Chef Jamie Stachowski’s sandwiches, and writing about his rather sizable meat. Then surely, all bets are off.  For in what more correlative terms can a food writer describe the John Holmes of sandwiches, artfully engineered to be crammed into a bodily orifice (that’s your mouth, boy-o), and masticated to maximize pure, unadulterated culinary joy?  How else can a writer grapple with decidedly indelicate phrases like: too big to fit into my mouth or too much meat for one guy to handle without giving in to the temptation of a well-timed dick joke?  Luckily, this food writer is fourteen years deep into a food career that sees daily speculation on my pinga, and exactly how much I like taking it in the culo.  The thought of treading a linguistic minefield of Freudian slips and double entendre is something we food careerists do at work every day. Not to worry.  I’m up for the task.  Eh, hem. 

For those of you unfamiliar with Chef Jamie Stachowski, he is the erstwhile chef ower/operator of Restaurant Kolumbia, and is now, without dispute, the reigning mac daddy of the Washington charcuterie scene.  Chef Stachowski is the man you go to see when your jones for, say, beef tongue blood sausage has jolted you awake, sweating, in the middle of the night.  His stuff is really that good.  But despite having the well-earned street-cred of the dude holding the purest, most buzz-producing charcuterie on the mean streets of culinary Washington, Chef Stachowski has been something of an elusive, almost mythical figure in the city.  Unless you knew, exactly, which local restauranteurs were sourcing from Stachowski, you were forced to stalk him at the better farmers’ markets around the region, and your chances of getting his sausages into your mouth were more a matter of chance than will or design. Eh, hem.

Carnivores and Stachowskian devotees can now rejoice, however, because Chef Stachowski has opened an aponymously named storefront in Georgetown where the Griffin Market once stood.  Both butchery and sandwich shop, Stachowski’s also offers grab-and-go meals ready for the oven or grill for busy Washington careerists.  My own visit was a quick, lunch time drive-by for Stachowski’s fabled 4 Meat Grinder, a sandwich made locally famous for the truly vast amount of meat it delivers in undeniably phallus-like form.  I entered the shop and ordered.  What I was given, moments later, was easily the biggest sandwich I’ve ever seen.  Layer after layer of cured meat:  soppressata, salami, copa, and mortadella; all of it stuffed into medium-crusted peasant bread and topped with red onion, tomato, provolone, lettuce, and peppers, then dressed with a liberal soaking of oil and vinegar.  It was the size of a football and bore the heft of culinary danger.  So I paid and left (there is no seating in Stachowski’s; it is, after all, a butchery) and found a small metal table, blocks away, where I could dispatch the 4 Meat Grinder in the relative obscurity of a Whole Foods sidewalk cafe.  And yes.  It was ugly getting it down.  My lap was covered with crumbs,  and sandwich oil dripped off my chin.  But it was also something else:  it was, at once, deeply satisfying and profoundly delicious.  It was, if nothing else, a truly great sandwich (a close second only, perhaps, to reigning Washington sandwich-making champion, A. Litteri).  And I ate the whole thing.  At a mere $11, when considering your meat-to-money ratio, Stachowski’s 4 Meat Grinder is a hell of a steal.  So forget the dick jokes and leave the phallic imagery to the Georgetown undergrads and go to Stachowski’s, because Chef Stachowski has lots of meat around, some of it quite large, certainly, but he’s a generous guy; he’s always happy to share.

Your link for Jaimie Stachowski:  Stachowski Brand Charcuterie

Strange Bedfellows - La Mexicana Bakery and Taqueria

Blink while you’re driving by and you’ll miss it.  But who could blame you.  Thousands of hungry motorists, no doubt, already have.  Secreted in a down-at-the-heels strip mall in the deeply unfashionable Hybla Valley section of Alexandria South, among a motley assembly of convenience stores, halal food purveyors, and kabab joints, sits the gastronomically unassuming and totally unpretentious La Mexicana Bakery and Taqueria, home to what are easily some of the best tacos in Northern Virginia.  Best tacos?  Really, you ask.  Big words, I know.  Write best in a blog and it’s game on.  Binary punches will be thrown.  There will be blood.  The taco blogosphere is fraught with the same kind of cultish and cut-throat fanaticism and fetishism one finds in the world of bar-b-que, where bloggers debate the virtues of smoked pig with the same kind of bug-eyed, vein-popping frenzy that early architects of the New Testament arm-wrestled over when considering which gospels were canonical, and which were heretical–the latter transgression being punishable by a roasting on the stake, of course.  This I understand.  But the tacos of La Mexicana have a unique leg-up on the competition insofar as they enjoy the rare pedigree (for DC area taco makers) of actually being made by a–gasp–real live Mexican.

On a recent and ill-advised sorte into Chipotle, I was asked by my friendly taco maker what kind of rice, and which kind of beans, I wanted on my taco.  Rice and beans on a taco?  The very idea that a person composed of purely Hispanic DNA, no matter the country of origin, no matter the fact that the taco is indigenous to a relatively small geographical area, would ask me this did what panic or, in my case, blind rage does to a person:  it calls blood away from his brain, and directs the liver to produce large amounts of cholesterol to help his blood clot when he reaches over the sneeze guard to throttle the Chipotle worker, only to have his arm slashed for his efforts (yes, the good folks of Chipotle do, on occasion, use knives).  Of course, that I would assume my taco maker at Chipotle is an expert on tacos simply because that person is Latino/a makes about as much sense as having the same indignant bile redirected at me because white boy here (yep, that’s me) couldn’t produce, on demand, some culinary riff on say, the importance of sauerkraut in the ascendency of Teutonic tribalism in Western Europe.  I get it.  But being from a place matters when you’re selling the food from that place.  In my experience, Mexicans serve the best Mexican food.  The same goes for Poles, Peruvians, and the French.  The tacos of La Mexicana may not altogether be more “authentic” than other local tacos (I, for one, no longer know, exactly, what that word means) but it sure as shooting makes them among DC’s best.

I went on a Sunday afternoon.  While the rest of the gringo world watched football on television and fattened themselves on wings and pizza (why not apply my racially-insensitve generalizing to white people as well, I ask), I entered this humble little strip-mall eatery and was amazed.  For what astonished me was not the handful of post-iglesia families in their Sunday best, quietly munching their food, eyes on the soccer match on Telemundo (with nary a hipster to be seen).  No.  What amazed me was the smell.  Gone was the savory bouquet of seared meats, of larded beans, of saffron-kissed rice.  La Mexicana smelled like, well, like a bakery.  Butter cream.  Confectionary sugar.  A cool smell.  A clean smell.  The kind of odor that lingers in Federal buildings and banks.  And I wondered, momentarily, if La Mexicana had given up the taco business altogether to concentrate their talents on pastry, but the proprietor, the fabulous Carlos Benitez (he’s Columbian; his lovely wife/cook, Alicia, is from Mexico), assured me otherwise.  The tacos were good, locally famous, and I should consider eating one or two.  As is my habit, I ordered three:  beef, chicken, and pork.  And to drink, Carlos wondered.  My response, proffered in the interrogative, sounded innocent enough.  Did they, I wondered, have horchata.  They did, Carlos told me, and immediately I went dizzy in the head and weak in the knees.  To the uninitiated, horchata is a kind of rice milk flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar.  It gives the eater courage to test the outer limits of culinary spice and heat not only because it’s delicious, but because it acts as a fire extinguisher to the 10-alarm blaze raging in your mouth.  Crack’s got nothing on this stuff, folks, it’s that good.  At La Mexicana, the horchata comes ready-made in cups set inside a repository made of a reach-in fridge, and I grabbed one and took a seat, happy as a boy at Christmas.

The tacos soon arrived, and I knew, instantly, that something special was going on at La Mexicana.  Not for what I saw on my plate, exactly, but for what I didn’t see.  I didn’t see any dairy on my food.  No cheese.  No sour cream.  Just seared protein piled atop a two-ply tortilla configuration (standard) and garnished with cilantro, onion, and a hint of lime juice.  That’s it.  In the taco world, less is more.  The caliber of the protein is not disguised by some Lincoln beard and Groucho nose of culinary hocus pocus.  Oh, no.  Not here.  Here, the protein must go before the eater naked, the way a patient stands before a doctor.  The time for bullshit is over.  Taco and eater are together in the truth-telling business.  The taco is either good, or it isn’t.  Rarely is there any in-between.

So I ate.  I moved around my plate, clockwise, in this order:  beef to chicken to pork.  All were good.  Really, really good.  Perfectly seasoned.  Perfectly seared.  Everything a taco should be.  But it was the pork, the carnitas, that really got my attention.  So much, in fact, that I ordered three more.  Carlos looked at me they way a bartender regards the red-nosed lush who has just bolted eight shots of warm Jager, and who begs for eight more.  But Carlos put the order in, and I was soon able to face-plant into what I consider (at this point in my eating career) greatest carnitas to ever grace a Washington-area corn tortilla.

I don’t know how they do it, Carlos and Alicia.  I don’t know how they can produce the kind of spectacular taqueria fare inside a bakery that smells like the inside of your grandmother’s refrigerator.  It defies logic.  There must be a trick.  So I will investigate.  I will suss out the seemingly impossible accomplishment of producing this caliber of Mexican cuisine inside a restaurant that evokes the redolence of Wonder bread.  And I will eat the tacos.  You know I will.  I will return to eat, time and time again, until I–we, dear reader, we–have our answer.  We will unriddle this mystery.  And one thing is for sure:  it will be my pleasure.

Your link:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Lost In Translation - Dirty Chinese

It began as a love affair: this young, farm boy, marooned in that middle-American food dessert, first discovering the exquisite culinary exotica that was Chinese food in the 1970s.  And not just any kind Chinese food, mind you.  This was utility Chinese, dirty Chinese, the lowest of the low:  the product of a central-Missouri chop suey joint that offered what even then was a compulsory set list of all-time greatest Chinese-American hits.  Beef with broccoli.  Sweet and sour chicken the color of Pepto-Bismol.  Moo shoo pork.  However pedestrian and laughably commonplace these dishes might now seem, they represented true gastronomic esoterica in a time and place when liberating the lone, maraschino cherry from a can of Libby’s fruit cocktail represented culinary high adventure.  The novelty of jarred baby corn, the exhilarating texture of a canned water chestnut, these were, for this young lad, articles of liberation from the tyranny of the hamburger, from the despotism of the chicken fried steak.  

My love of American Chinese food didn’t end with childhood.  There were my college days, smoke-addled, don’t-Bogart-that-joint days of youthful ebullience and skullduggery, when procuring Styrofoam clamshells of shrimp fried rice at three in the morning was tantamount to finding one’s very own salvation in the holy grail of stoner gastronomy.  To stumble back from five-dollar-pitcher-night and into the I’ve-been-waiting-for-you embrace of a carton of cold General Tso’s chicken was to fully and truly know culinary love.   This much I knew.

But after college, things changed.  Food changed.  I changed.  It was now the middle-90s, and the dominance and sheer ubiquity of American-styled Chinese food was suddenly (if wholly successfully) challenged by the emergence of other, far more invigorated Asian cuisines.  Laotian.  Vietnamese.  Thai.  These were authentic and not dumbed-down-for-the-masses foodways, whose always-bold, always-engaging flavor profiles suddenly exposed American Chinese food for the culinary flim-flam man it had always been.  Dirty Chinese food fled white neighborhoods.  It went underground.  It embarked on a kind of inverted gastronomic diaspora, making its way into America’s poorest cities, our most blighted of neighborhoods, where it would flourish, almost predatory in its practices of selling the basest of poorly-sourced, poorly-prepared ingredients to people too disenfranchised—as citizens, as eaters—to ever question the lucky gift of a hot meal.

I stopped eating dirty Chinese.  I stopped thinking about it.  Ever.  Because there was far, far too much to appreciate in real and authentic Chinese cooking to ever need cast a backwards glance to the bad old days of Kung Pao chicken.  To dine on, say, Cantonese dim sum was to now touch the rosetta stone of culinary wonder:  char sui baau (barbecued pork bun), fung zau (chicken feet), char siu (black-roasted spare ribs), each mind-blowing in the extraordinary complexity of its simplicity, if you get me in that what’s-the-sound-of-one-hand-clapping, zen koan kind of way, yo.  To later be lucky enough to personally spend several hours in a kitchen with legendary Szechuan chef, Peter Chang (as I did last January), watching him cook in perfect silence, was to witness the most profound culinary wizardry I’ve yet seen, and by the experience, I was forever changed.  I could never again go back to dirty Chinese.  As a cuisine, it was suddenly, and irrevocably, a bridge too far.

So imagine my reaction when a fellow food professional and neighbor recently asked me if I had ever tried the dirty Chinese place up the street from where we live.  Imagine me nonplussed while choking on my own indignation.  Image me drowning in my own bile.  Imagine me going pink in the face on my own spluttering rage.  When did finally regain my ability to speak, I unleashed upon this man a tirade of epic proportions, a withering and invective-filled verbal assault against all I found heretical and worthy of hating in dirty Chinese:  its aim-in-a-general-direction-and-fire approach to culinary technique; the one-size-fits-all ubiquity in its use corn starch as a thickening agent in all of its sauces; the way it forever insists on diminishing the collective culinary IQs of its eaters, a la American fast food, by offering two and only two flavor profiles in its cuisine, fat and salt; its incredibly short-sighted and deeply stupid decision to forsake (publically, at least, on its menus) the many charms, and invaluable gifts, of MSG.  My list of grievances went on and on.   And when I had finished my rant, my friend simply nodded and smiled, then repeated his original question:  had I tried the dirty Chinese place up the street?  They were the same words, spoken in the same order, sure, but they now asked something else entirely.  They asked:  if you haven’t eaten dirty Chinese in twenty years, then how the fuck could you possibly know what you’re talking about.

A hit.   A very palpable hit.

So I went.  I ate at Asian Wok.  The place he had mentioned.  Because I had been called out on my bullshit.  Because I didn’t know what I was talking about, because my distance from my subject was too great.  Because my industry friend was right.

Asian Wok occupies the unmistakable old bones of former White Castle restaurant in Old Town, Alexandria North, and it bills itself as “authentic” Hunan and Szechuan Cuisine—and sushi, of course.  Of course, sushi.  It has the faded and back-lit picture menu of house specialties hanging above the cash register that we’ve all come to love and expect, and it boasts a farewell tour-sized menu of every hit in the Chinese American playbook.  Crab rangoon.  Egg foo young.   Ocean treasure soup.  It’s got them all.   

I went for lunch.  I was friendly.  I was nice.  I smiled.  I asked the lady behind the counter what I should eat, what the cook in the open kitchen might really want to cook for me, and she suggested Curry Chicken.  I balked.  This was unexpected, because the use of yellow curry in Chinese cooking is typically Cantonese.  Not Hunan.  Not Szechuan.  Not in sushi.  Curry was a culinary curve ball at which I compelled to swing.  Of course I wanted a curry.  So I sat at a table and waited.  What arrived moments later was everything I had hitherto dreaded:  a Styrofoam clamshell packed with American Chinese food.  On one side of the clamshell:  my curry chicken.  On the other:  steamed white rice.  Gobs of the stuff.  The contempt I felt for this food was reflexive and, well, entirely misplaced.  Because I hadn’t actually tasted the dish yet, had I?  I hadn’t evaluated it with anything approaching clinical dispassion or a critical eye.  Instead, I had done the stupid thing.  I had gone straight to hate.  And this was patently unfair to the cook of Asian Wok.  That I would outright dismiss his better efforts to prepare a delicious lunch for me without first trying the dish was a food crime in the extreme.  I was the problem.  I was the food snob with a chip on my shoulder.  So I took up my plastic fork and poked around my food for a better glimpse into my curry.  True, the ratio of vegetables to protein suggested a cook deeply mindful of his food-cost margins.  True, the chop of vegetables suggested someone in the kitchen might have skipped one too many Knife Skill classes at culinary school.  True, the application of cooking oil might have been a wee bit heavy handed.  But when I actually put the food in my mouth, when I remembered to concentrate on flavor, when I remembered to chew, what I tasted was…good.  The chicken had been perfectly cooked (food pornographers note:  succulent), and the curry struck at perfect equipoise among milky and acidic and hot.  The on-my-table red pepper paste I added to the mix only heightened this interplay of flavors.  That I now found myself really and truly enjoying my food raised more questions than answers. 

Why had I not allowed this American Chinese food to ever be its own entity, its own thing, unfettered and unbeholden to so-called “authenticity,” as I had Italian red sauce joints in Chicago and New York?  Why could I not celebrate a population coopting and changing Asian cuisine the way I now celebrate the African-American population of New Orleans and how they've transformed the food of Chinese railroad workers into their own—and profoundly unique—yaka mein?  Why could I not pull my head out of my own ass long enough to see that $6.75 had bought me what was easily two pounds of hot, freshly-prepared food, and that every other patron of Asian Wok—roofers, landscapers, house painters—understood the need for inexpensive, delicious, and calorically-dense food to drive their day’s labor, which was infinitely more productive than writing food snark at home on their MacBook Pro?  After all, American Chinese has never, ever pretended to be something it’s not.  It’s never fetishized itself.  It’s never used words like local or seasonal or artisanal when talking about itself.  It’s never grown a beard or ordered Warby-Parker black rims off the internet.  It’s never done anything as insidious as have a cartoon king or a laughing clown pimp ammonia-bleached beef pucks tainted with bovine fecal matter to millions upon millions of unsuspecting American schoolchildren.  It’s only committed the crime of being itself:  that tired old war-horse of Pan Asian cuisine that succeeds in the daily feeding of a laudable percentage of America’s none-too-flush but still-very-hungry masses.

My epiphany, there at the Asian Wok table, was an all-too-familiar refrain in my life:  the problem wasn’t the food; the problem was me.  I can forgive American Chinese its sins:  the corn starch, the culinary purgatory of a never-changing menu.  I can only hope it can forgive mine.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner - Wayside Takeout

The idea was to impress the girl.  Not just any girl, mind you, but the girl to whom I had, this last summer, professed my truest love.  Because this girl (whom we’ll yet call X) was traveling from Chicago see me and discover all that is great and good about my hometown-for-now of Washington, D.C.  This trip would effectively be her first visit to D.C. in over twenty years, and it was up to me to present D.C. at its capitol best—its coolest museums, its finest restaurants, its hippest watering holes.  All in the span of a way-too-brief forty-eight hours.

What to do.

Planning X’s first twenty-four hours in D.C. was a no-brainer:  there would be a trip to the National Portrait Gallery, followed by Chef-pal Hamilton Johnson’s five-course tasting menu at Vidalia, followed by cocktails composed by master-mixologist and friend, Jeff Faile, at Partisan, in Washington’s newly reminted Penn Quarter.  The day would be perfect.  Pure magic.  One for the ages.  This much I knew.  But how could I possibly improve on this?  How could I best such fun? 

I had my doubts.  I had a beer.

Then I had my answer.

We would avoid D.C. altogether. 
Instead, I would offer X Virginia in its purest form, the Virginia we, here, dream about:  a rolling October’s drive through horse country.  Autumnal foliage.  Golden, sun-dappled light.  Wood smoke in the air.  I would offer a glorious, two-hour drive down to Monticello to there mutually delight in Mister Jefferson’s hilltop home, and all the views of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia those splendid gardens and grounds would surely afford.

So we went.  To Monticello.

To here and now undertake any discussion on the confoundingly contradictory nature of Thomas Jefferson (as we know it) is a fool’s errand in the extreme, with the subject being too highly nuanced to be sufficiently redressed in this silly little blog about food (buy me a beer, however, and I’ll speak ad infinitum on the syntactical shell game the estate’s docents deploy when describing Jefferson’s relationship with slave and lover, Sally Hemmings).  Suffice it to say that X and I had a perfectly delightful time marveling at the apotheosis of Virginia’s greatest mind.  The Colonial-era technological marvels atop Jefferson’s desk.  His books.  His gardens.  The dumb waiter he built specifically for wine.  Pure genius.  All of it.  But these delights were expected.  It was Thomas Jefferson, after all.  What X and I found so extraordinary was what happened just after we left Monticello. 

Because lunch happened.  That’s what.  And not just anywhere, boy-o, but at Charlottesville’s truly remarkable Wayside Takeout.

Wayside Takeout is an aberration in the current zeitgeist of culinary branding, which demands every purveyor of truly authentic regional cuisine—be it a long-cherished, deeply-enshrined area institution, or a tarpaper shack on the side of the road—incessantly remind its eaters of just how truly authentic its food really is, until the meaning of “authenticity” becomes lost in that linguistic funhouse of Derridaian post-structuralism found in food media and Yelp reviews.  Wayside is different.  It’s refreshingly—almost shockingly—old school.  Because Wayside’s décor maintains a classic, dino-era theme that has nothing to do with food.  Walk into Wayside, and you’ll see counter staff and cooks alike festooned in t-shirts of Cavalier orange.  Gaze upon its walls and you’ll see it papered with every manner of school banner, team calendar, and greater campus announcement, as if Wayside had been commandeered and annexed as outpost of the University of Virginia’s Student Union.  It’s not until you notice what’s offered on its letter-board menu behind the counter that there is any indication of Wayside’s deeply serious culinary intent.  Fried chicken.  Fried clams.  Fried livers.  Sides galore.  This profusion of Tidewater classics will be a familiar gastronomic litany to anyone who has visited Virginia, to be sure, but what’s not mentioned on the menu, and what X and I discovered upon ordering our own shared five-piece box, is that everything at Wayside is fried-to-order.  Fried.  To.  Order.  No pre-cooked yardbird.  No heat lamps where flavor crawls up to die.  Not here.  Here, you order.  They cook.  In that order.  And when you are served, moments later, your chicken arrives perfectly moist, perfectly crispy, and most importantly, having magically attained, for this eater at least, that death-row-last-meal state of absolute culinary perfection.

X and I sat in a booth with our chicken, our Cheerwine, our hushpuppies, our two sides of greens and slaw, and there we quietly devoured our food in the kind of happy and stunned silence that attends all truly great meals, where no one is compelled to speak because there simply are no words, and where only a quick smile is required to convey one’s own deeply satisfied culinary bliss. 

The importance of fried chicken to American gastronomy, in general, and to African-American foodways, in particular, can hardly be overstated.  Frying was used as the primary method of preserving chicken by generations of African-Americans, particularly those traveling across the segregated American South.  Fried chicken eaten cold—as it would have been eaten by entire populations of hungry travelers denied access by Jim Crow to white-owned restaurants—is the best and truest measure of its greatness, I believe.  So X and I ordered an extra piece of chicken to take with us on the road, and headed back home.  Hours later, just before midnight, and after the chicken had endured miles of travel and a stint in my fridge, we shared that piece, in the space on the bed between us, still in its paper box.

And it was freaking great.

That the good people of Wayside Takeout fry and serve chicken with all the quiet and masterful reverence the dish deserves speaks admirably of them.  That they fry chicken so well and with absolutely none of the pretense that usually accompanies such culinary greatness, is nothing short of miraculous. 

Go there.  Order the five-piece box.  Order some Cheerwine.  And share it with the person you love.  She just might be impressed.  Maybe.

 Your links:  Wayside Takeout:


Post Script:  For the record, our meal at Vidalia was a minor masterpiece of gastronomy, and our         cocktails at Partisan were pure genius.  Hamilton Johnson and Jeff Faile are incredibly gifted at what they do, and I am honored to bathe in their light.  -C         

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Barbecue at Night - Petersburg & Saucy's

Pity the Old Dominion.  In the world of food, Virginia is, and remains, that middle child of culinary accomplishments, that long-suffering Jan Brady of gastronomic provinces that necessarily (if haplessly) occupies that contiguous and fixed line of demarcation between itself and the far, far more celebrated gastronomic triumphs of North Carolina.  Because North Carolina boasts two of the most lauded of American culinary achievements—its eastern-style, whole-hog, vinegary barbecue goodness, and its (almost) equally great Lexington (aka Piedmont) shoulder-only, catsup-in-the-mix style found in its central and western counties—Virginia, poor, poor, Virginia, is remanded to the loneliest of familial exiles of watching its closest, Southern sibling garner the kind of acclaim that have made its own attempts at barbecue greatness seem knock-kneed, ham-fisted, and altogether foolish for the trying.  So great is the disparity between these two respective reputations—Carolina and Virginia—that Virginia might easily be forgiven if it suddenly and collectively abandoned the business of barbecue altogether and endeavored to refashion its own culinary identity through the appropriation of some entirely alien food form like, say, fish tacos or deep fried Mars bars; anything to remove, even conquer, the ever-persistent Marsha, Marsha, Marsha aspect of its relationship with the supremely superior-in-every-way barbecue of North Carolina.

And yet, in its never-ending, and seemingly Promethean quest for parity in barbecue achievement with North Carolina, some of Virginia’s finest culinarians doggedly persist.  Some who fight the good fight.  Some like the good folks of Saucy’s Walk-Up BBQ in Petersburg, Virginia.   

For Saucy’s and me, this was purely a chance encounter.  For on a very recent return from North Carolina barbecue country (a trip of mine which featured beautifully triumphant visits to the highly celebrated—and deservedly so—Parker’s Barbecue and Bob Ellis’ Barbecue, both of Wilson, North Carolina) I stopped for gas in Petersburg, thirty miles south of Richmond, and there, amid the gas fumes of the Shell station, and badly flickering florescent lighting, just happened to catch the slightest whiff of wood smoke and melting pork fat on the wind, that olfactory signature of my own culinary nirvana.  So around Petersburg I drove, windows down, face out the window, pursuing the smell of dripping pig through its Southern streets like a madman, wet with fop sweat, jonesing for his culinary fix.

Located in what the parlance of our times calls a “transitional” and “mixed use” neighborhood of actual working industrial warehouses and now-former industrial warehouses-turned-yuppie-filing-cabinets, Saucy’s is itself a post-industrial architectural marvel of erstwhile-shipping-container-turned-restaurant, and it was lit, the night of my visit, like some beacon of culinary hope against a darkness purely post-apocalyptic in its depth, and almost Jarmusch-like in its lunar, last-man-left-on-the-moon sense of desolation.  Barbecue being the most collaborative and convivial of American cuisines, it was strange to arrive in Saucy’s gravel lot, plunged into darkness, and so very and palpably alone.  But on exiting my pickup (because that’s how we roll these days, yo), I discovered a smoker, two of them, in fact, loaded with pork shoulder and brisket, and nearby, piled against the back wall of the restaurant, stacks of hickory and oak.  Better still was the greeting I received from the lone Saucy’s employee:  spritely, verging on the ebullient, like some last survivor of the End of Days, blissfully unaware the world around her has forever turned to ash.  I nodded hello and smiled back. 

Saucy’s succeeds by offering only what it does well:  pulled pork, brisket, chicken, ribs.  These are your only options for protein.  Sides are equally (re: wisely) utilitarian in scope:  potato salad, cole slaw, and a sweet, three bean salad.  Because the barbecue purist knows better than to require anything more than the possible addition of greens.  My own order was unimaginative in the extreme.  But that was the point:  it would, I knew, reveal Saucy’s ability—be it nascent or inept—to rival the efforts of their culinary brethren in that ever-so-close, and yet oh-so-far-away Carolinian south.

I ordered what is inarguably gold standard of the mid-Atlantic barbecue world:  a pulled pork sandwich, topped with slaw.  It arrived straight-backed and immaculate as a preacher on Sunday, and as the pure, Aristotelian form of what every barbecue sandwich, everywhere, should aspire to be.  But what the sandwich delivered, flavor-wise, was purely Virginian in all aspects.  It borrowed little from Carolina, east or west, nor from Texas, nor from Kansas City or Memphis in any of its approach.  The pork was singularly Old Dominion through and through: a slightly tangy tomato sauce, perfectly complimented by the considerable smoke of the meat, which, in turn, was expertly offset by the pleasing acidity of the cole slaw.  A magnificent little sandwich.  For Virginia.  For Carolina.  For anywhere.  Truly good barbecue.  But here, in this post-apocalyptic industrial darkness of the Petersburgian night, a sandwich of this savor seemed almost miraculous.  The pork was good, deeply and deliciously good, and I left Saucy’s, and its city of Petersburg, truly convinced that Virginia does have a dog in this barbecue fight.

To think this contest over barbecue supremacy just might be far from decided is a novel idea to any barbecue enthusiast who has believed the results have long been determined.  But maybe not.  Maybe Virginia has something to say, something of importance, after all.  And if the cuisine coming from Saucy’s is any indication, Virginia cooks just might be at the vanguard of this push from the north.  Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.  And Carolina, you’ve been served.   

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