Down in Texas, there’s a three-tier system for judging good barbeque. If the restaurant’s logo contains an animal, it’s good. If the logo shows an anthropomorphic animal (a cow in a chef’s hat, for instance), the ’cue is even better. And if you come across a restaurant wherein the logo has an animal cannibalizing itself (a chicken eating a drumstick, let’s say), well that’s the best barbeque there is.
Of course, that system doesn’t hold up ’round these parts—at least not according to the results of our first-ever barbeque judging contest. Neither the winners (it’s a tie!) nor the runners-up (yes, a tie there, too) have Hannibal Lecter-type porkers in their emblem. But that didn’t stop our judges from piggin’ out on top-quality BBQ.
Here’s how we did it
First, we identified all the restaurants in Charlottesville and its surrounding counties strictly devoted to serving barbeque (as opposed to, say, a pizzeria with a barbeque chicken topping option). From there, we ordered one pound of pulled pork from each of the eight spots—there are nine local BBQ spots total, but Mr. Chip’s was closed on the day of the contest—plus a container of the restaurant’s most popular sauce.
We transferred each of the restaurants’ samples to nondescript dishes and numbered them so our four judges could keep track.
Each sample of ’cue was judged on a 10-point scale for appearance, tenderness, texture, aroma, flavor and aftertaste. The sauce was optional. (Jinx Kern, of Jinx’s Pit’s Top, made this especially clear for his own sauce: “The barbeque speaks for itself,” he says.)
Even operating on a 240-point scale, we somehow ended up in a tie (honest!) for both first and second place. When it comes to local BBQ, we guess it’s just that hard to go wrong.
TOP HOGS (tie)
102 Martinsburg Ave., Gordonsville, (540) 832-0227
Good BBQ sells itself, but having a former executive chef from Keswick Hall as pitmaster certainly helps its credibility. Craig Hartman traded in his whites to realize his love for old-school BBQ at his eat-in or take-out place in downtown Gordonsville. The Beast, a custom BBQ cooker built by Hartman’s brother-in-law, can slow-cook 48 pork shoulders and hickory smoke 108 sides of spareribs at once. Keep your dry-rubbed pulled pork unadorned or choose from four different house-made sauces (we love the Colonel Bacon flavored with, yep, bacon and a blend of mustards). Coal-grilled chicken halves, brisket and hot wings with sides like Brunswick stew, hushpuppies, collard greens, fried pickles and pumpkin muffins will make decisions difficult but deliciously rewarding. A pulled pork platter comes with two sides and cornbread or a roll for $6.99.
What the judges said:
Blue Ridge Pig
2198 Rockfish Valley Hwy.,
The promise of a post-hike stop at this tiny roadside joint in Nellysford marked by a pink pig out front (with tons of “pigaphanalia” inside) could inspire a pretty brisk pace down the mountain. Pork shoulders, brisket and spareribs are dry-rubbed and then hickory-smoked in the smokehouse out back. The pulled pork is hand-pulled, not chopped, sauced in a tomato- and vinegar-based sauce and served on a big toasted Kaiser roll with vinegar-based slaw on top or on the side. Other sides include potato salad with onions, celery and dill, macaroni salad and sweet and savory baked beans. There’s no alcohol here, but the sweet tea and limeade won’t let you miss it. A pulled pork sandwich comes with two sides and costs $9.50.
What the judges said:
17 Elliewood Ave., 296-4227
Brilliantly named and situated on a side street off UVA’s Corner district, this relative newcomer to the Q scene is fulfilling its mission to drive people nuts with “buttz” by keeping it all about the meat. Using an eco-friendly smoker that blends hickory, apple, maple and cherry woods, Buttz’s style combines aspects of our country’s various BBQ meccas, making meats like pulled pork, ribs, pulled BBQ turkey, whole hams, pastrami, chicken and beef brisket (either sliced or chopped Texas-style). You choose your regional sauce on the side and two types of coleslaw (vinegar or mayo-based). Daily spoonbread and pickled veggies set their homemade sides apart. A two-meat platter with one side and cornbread costs $10.50.
What the judges said:
Yates: “Surprisingly tender. The smoky sauce is a delicious, vinegary, spicy addition.”
Hill: “Tenderness good; very little aftertaste. Sauce was good.”
Jinx’s Pit’s Top
1307 E. Market St., 293-6904
Smoking up hickory, pit-fired pork until it is succulent enough to fall off the bone and juicy enough to not need sauce (though a tomato-based one comes on the side) is Jinx Kern’s specialty. Eleven years in the same spot, he’ll tell you what real BBQ is (and why that stuff at Sam’s Club is really “stew”) and then let his pork (get it pulled or as ribs) speak for itself. The sandwiches come on slices of “Texas toast” and the menu of sides—coleslaw, cucumber salad or baked beans—is limited, but tasty. A pulled pork sammie with one side costs $6.
What the judges said:
Wagner: “Also very good. (Dude was right to discourage the sauce.)”
Yates: “Tender with a strong taste. The sauce kicks up the spiciness another level.”
816 Hinton Ave., 979-RIBS
A casual bastion in a neighborhood becoming better known for its upscale restaurants, Belmont Bar-B-Que has been the home of “crazy good BBQ” since 2006. Using a smoker that holds up to 700 pounds of meat, owner Wes Wright puts lessons learned in Memphis, Oklahoma, Kansas City and Texas to use in his pulled pork (sauces come on the side), ribs, brisket, chicken and turkey. Sides are traditional BBQ fare, but the house specialty is the cheesy potatoes. Those looking for a little bit of everything can order the Slop Bucket, which layers cheesy potatoes, BBQ beans, pulled pork and coleslaw, all topped with your favorite sauce. Carry-out or devour right there at an outdoor umbrella-shaded table watching the happenings on Belmont’s main drag. A pulled pork sammie on a Kaiser roll costs $5.50.
Buck Island BBQ
2243 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy., 872-0259
This pit stop just south of Monticello on Route 53 run by Bob and Helen Pitts (who met in seventh grade) opens at 9am every day but Sunday to serve up breakfast biscuit sandwiches, but it’s the serious ’cue that pays the bills. There’s the pulled pork with a 20-ingredient sauce (dubbed the CC Rider), dry-rubbed ribs smoked for 18 hours, Texas-style beef brisket and Cajun-baked chicken with potato salad, coleslaw, macaroni salad, mac-n-cheese and baked beans as sides. A one-stop shop for party-planning, Buck Island also sells wine and beer (even in kegs) and kits for brewing your own at home. For gatherings of more than 50 guests, the Pitts will bring their smoker to you. A CC Rider pulled pork platter with two sides costs $7.
Mr. Chip’s “Barbeque & More”
2153 Richmond Rd., inside Jarman’s Sportcycles, 566-6664
A motorbike place may seem an unlikely place to house a BBQ counter, but Ronnie “Chip” Mahanes dishes up top-notch Carolina-style slow-cooked ’cue (plus smoked sausages and Nathan’s hot dogs) to customers that come in for a bike and are pleasantly surprised to find lunch. Shop owner, James Jarman, met Chip when they both rode motorcross in the ’70s and then encouraged the biker-turned-restaurateur to open a place inside the shop where bikers could rest, eat, and chat. Whether you stay to chat or carry-out, you get your choice of three sauces—Chip’s Vinegar Sauce, Carolina Treat, or Sweet Baby Rays—and sides of chips, potato salad, baked beans, or coleslaw. A pulled pork sammie with slaw costs $4.75 (or $6.75 to add another side and a drink).
Paulie’s Pig Out
7376 Rockfish Valley Hwy., Afton,
Paulie opened his hole-in-the-wall carryout-only BBQ place on the road to Wintergreen two years ago. He smokes Boston butts over a combination of hickory and either apple or cherry wood for 14 to 16 hours and then tosses the hand-pulled pork in either a 20-ingredient tomato-based sauce or a Carolina vinegar-based sauce and piles it high on a Kaiser roll. The pork alone is worth the drive, but he also smokes dry-rubbed ribs, chicken (plus their livers and gizzards) and fries up cornmeal-crusted catfish for sandwiches. His baked mac-n-cheese, potato salad and his grandma’s mayo-based coleslaw (which uses cabbage from his dad’s garden) give you ample reason to pig out. The smoker is out front, so if you drive by and see it smokin’, Paulie’s in the house. A pulled pork sammie with two sides is $8.95.
Pig N’ Steak
313 Washington St., Madison, (540) 948-3130
Sixteen-hour, hickory-smoked pork shoulders, hams, chicken and beef are the Q mainstays of this carnivore’s dream that’s also known for burgers, steaks and BLTs. Sauces are described by your server and served on the side. A word of warning: the hot really is hot. It’s still got a down-home feel, but with more seating and atmosphere than a roadside BBQ joint, so you can slow down the pace of your meaty feast a bit more. Sides are plentiful and tempting with french fries (the super-duper crispy shoestring kind), baked beans, coleslaw, potato salad, macaroni salad, mac-n-cheese, applesauce, green beans and collards all on offer. Apple dumplings, funnel cake and assorted pies are there to ensure that you don’t leave hungry. A pulled pork platter with two sides costs $10.95.