Too Much Pork For Just One Fork? Take the Richmond BBQ Tour And Experience A Slow-Roasted Renaissance.
Photos by Jim Pile
The dirty secret about barbecue restaurants in Richmond is that there are really no bad barbecue restaurants in Richmond.
The entire RVA region is operating in a kind of hand chopped, slow-roasted renaissance right now. Many longtime smokehouses are still in business, and there has been an explosion of wood pits and pig icons in recent years as upstart eateries—some emerging from food truck origins—have risen like smoke to become locally, and even nationally, famous. “You’d be hard pressed to find any people anywhere else in the country who love barbecue more than the people in Richmond,” says Joe Haynes, the author of Virginia Barbecue: A History (Arcadia Publishing), a fascinating book that charts those oak-smoked craftsmen who have created an authentic, “Virginia-style” meal, with indigenous sauces and techniques passed down through generations right here in the Old Dominion (hint: Virginians like a dollop of mustard, or even peanut butter, in the sauce). In Richmond, the capitol city, you can order it Memphis-style, Texas-style, Kansas City-style and North Carolina-style, but several grill masters serve up this genuine Virginia-style fare. And it’s not to be missed.
There’s another kind of barbecue, Haynes says, available at long-running area takeout spots like Dunn’s Drive In Barbecue and Hawks BBQ and Seafood. “You don’t hear about it on TV, but it’s this hashed barbecue,” he says. “It’s where you take barbecue pork, pull it and put it in a pot and add a flavorful sauce to it, and you let it simmer, and you serve it. It’s big in Richmond, and it’s delicious, and it’s straight out of these old family recipes that have been around for decades.”
Tangy, salty, tomato-y, sweet, hashed, pulled, minced or deliciously charred, it can all be found here. Some spots may be more authentic, others a bit more adventurous, or a little pricier, but RVA is filled with mouthwatering ‘que. Take the Richmond area BBQ tour, and don’t forget the bib.
The Rub: Smoking meat over wood dates back to 30,000 BC and Cro-Magnon man. So maybe in the grand scheme of things, 72 years isn’t that impressive. But for a family-owned business, serving a distinctive Virginia flavor of pulled meat and smoked butt, it’s quite the achievement. “You can’t hang around for that long without something going right,” maintains author Joe Haynes, who says that King’s has a passed-down vinegar-mustard-tomato sauce that goes back to the 19th century. “You’ll find many places across the region that serve a similar sauce.” (In fact, there is a commercial sauce available in supermarkets, Sawyer’s, that is derived from a very similar Virginia-based recipe.) King’s was actually a small chain at one time, operating three different locations in Petersburg and Colonial Heights. What was known as “King’s No. 2” is the one operating today. Passed along to a third generation, still using the same techniques and recipes that original founders John and Clinton King developed in the beginning, King’s slow smokes its pork for up to 14 hours, unsauced, and it prides itself on using Smithfield shoulders and Angus sirloin beef. They also make sumptuous buttermilk fried chicken and have specialized in tummy-fulfilling seafood (shrimp, flounder, wild catfish) from the very beginning, when the staff used to go fishing for the menu. Joe Haynes also notes that King’s is good for the budget eater—“Their BBQ sandwiches are like $2.99. I have no idea how they do that.” A little out of the way—a 30-minute drive from Richmond—King’s is a treasure and has set the standard.
The Choice: The pork sandwich, smoked beef butt, fried chicken
The Bones: Sandwiches: $3–$9, dinners: $6–$17, sides: $1.50–$4
2910 S Crater Rd., Petersburg
The Rub: Extra Billy’s best marketing device has been the smell of its outdoor wood pit, which spreads aromas that waft across the Willow Lawn shopping area, instantly luring carnivores into a lip-smacking crave for pork ribs and all the fixings. For the longest time, it also had a nice niche—it was a more comfortable, family restaurant alternative to Bill’s Barbecue, the longtime, iconic BBQ joint that once ruled the pulled pork (and Lime-Aid) business in RVA. But as years passed and newer spots emerged near city center, and out in the ‘burbs, this near-West End staple, serving up slow-cooked meat since 1985, seemed to get lost in the hubbub. Now, with a second location in the Southside (geared to more of a craft beer crowd), the restaurant still serves stellar barbecue sandwiches, succulent pork ribs and its trademark juicy 8-oz. “Billy Burger” and also offers one of the most delicious, and disgusting, appetizers in all of BBQ-Land: the to-die-for (and you just might) BBQ Potato skins, a maelstrom of goodness slathered with quartered potatoes, cheese, pork BBQ and Billy’s special sauce. A recent visit—coerced by that tantalizing Willow Lawn smoke—confirms that Extra Billy’s has kept up the fine quality—and that those potato skins are still heavenly and heart-clogging— even as this survivor rarely gets cited when outstanding ‘que in River City is ranked on restaurant critics’ lists. But consistency and longevity should count for something, right?
The Choice: Pork barbecue and grilled chicken sandwiches, the ribs, The Billy Burger, BBQ Potato Skins
The Bones: Sandwiches and burgers (w/ sides): $9–$11, ribs: $15–$24, dinners (w/ sides): $10–$20
5205 W. Broad St., Richmond
1110 Adverser Dr., Midlothian
The Rub: It’s funny to call Alexander’s a secret jewel. It’s been around for nearly 30 years in the far West End, near Goochland County, serving a singular slow-cooked, hand-chopped ‘que, but it often gets overlooked, tucked away in Tuckahoe. Started by Dan and Lori Alexander in 1989, who sold the place last year with no apparent loss of quality, Alexander’s offers up delicious pulled pork and chicken that is meticulously cooked, made special with a little of its signature mustard-dolloped sauce that—like King’s—can be traced back to longtime Virginia recipes—there’s also a hot sauce version that brave diners swear by. Alexander’s keeps it simple—they concentrate on barbecue, period, with the occasional (excellent) grilled cheese or corn dog on the menu. You can taste the focus. Alexander’s pulled pork sandwich—the Super Q version, for my hardier appetite—is among the best I’ve ever tasted, tender, smoky and melt-in-the-mouth. The rich, complex sauce brings all kinds of flavor out in the meat—it may even be better than its cousin at King’s. “When I go to Richmond, I eat at Alexander’s,” says BBQ historian Joe Haynes, the man who wrote the book on Virginia Barbecue. And he concurs: That pulled pork sandwich is a treasure.
The Choice: The sandwiches, the ribs, the corn dogs
The Bones: Sandwiches: $4–$5, dinners: $10–$19, sides: $1.50–$4
1126 Westbriar Dr., Richmond
Buz and Ned's Real Barbecue
The Rub: Buz Grossberg still calls himself the “Flay Slayer” after besting the notorious cable TV chef Bobby Flay in a pit-cooked spare ribs competition 11 years ago on the Food Network show “Throwdown.” It was a PR bonanza for his fledgling Buz and Ned’s, but since the smug Flay—more of a wrestling villain than a chef—loses twice as much as he wins on that show, the victory really isn’t that noteworthy. What’s more impressive is that Grossberg’s venture—originally operating out of a food truck—has been the linchpin behind the city’s current BBQ renaissance. Buz and Ned’s opened in 1995 in a ramshackle building no bigger than a three-car garage—with its wood pit emitting heavenly whiff along the Boulevard corridor—and has since expanded to a second, larger location along West Broad Street in nearby Henrico County (some diehards claim that the new spot doesn’t have the same quality smoked meat, but I’ve never found that to be true). Both locations can be pricier than your normal BBQ joint, but the menu is also more diverse—Grossberg says he owes his secrets to a shaman named Ned who drew his basting and cooking from all geographic styles (ahem). The place serves up the area staples (ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket), but there’s also fried catfish, shrimp skewers, and a delicious Brunswick Stew. Buz and Ned’s may have won its status on a TV gimmick, but it has remained a popular favorite because it consistently serves succulent, well-portioned barbecue that leaves diners happy, with sauce on their faces. That’s the real victory.
The Choice: The ribs, pork and chicken sandwiches, Kick ‘N Fried Okra, Cajun Fried Pickles
The Bones: Sandwiches: $5–7, ribs: $19–$33, dinners: $12–-$33, sides $2–$4
1119 N Blvd., Richmond
8205 W. Broad St., Richmond
The Rub: If the truism remains that the shabbier the joint, the better the ‘que, this is the best rib spot in Richmond. Alamo’s setup is no better than a glorified trailer with a takeout window and some picnic tables, but the moist ribs, chunky pulled pork and tender smoked sausage make up for the lack of comfort. (Hint: If the picnic table doesn’t suit, Alamo is near a wonderful urban park overlooking the city—why not take your brisket there?) Started in 2009 by grillers Christopher Davis (who remains behind the smoke) and Paul Hubbard, Alamo has emerged as the bearded VCU hipster’s pit of choice—a laid-back takeout spot that serves its pork, chicken and beef brisket “Texas-style.” Alamo’s addictive pork and chicken sandwiches are stacked with smoky pullings, and the kitchen offers a diverse menu that includes fish tacos, burritos and quesadillas as well as a couple of can’t-miss creations: a pressed Alamo Cuban BBQ sandwich and the Texas Train Wreck (mac & cheese, cowboy beans, cornbread, diced onions and jalapeños tossed together with preferred barbecue). Wonder of wonders, Alamo even offers a BBQ portobello mushroom sandwich that an actual vegetarian I know gave two thumbs up! Clearly Alamo has emerged as a strong favorite—many consider it the best in town—but if you find yourself near the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, or on the West End, and looking for a similar menu in a cozier space, co-founder Hubbard has since seceded from the Alamo and opened two locations of Deep Run Roadhouse, a dark horse favorite in the RVA barbecue wars that also serves it Texas-style.
The Choice: Texas Trainwreck, pulled pork sandwich, smoked Texas rope sausage, Jalapeno Mac & Cheese
The Bones: Sandwiches: $6–$8, platters: $12–$14, Ribs: $12–$23, sides: $3–$5.50
2202 Jefferson Ave., Richmond
The Rub: You’d never know by its unassuming takeout location along Rt. 5 in Varina, but Ronnie’s BBQ has created the hottest national buzz of all the Richmond-area smokehouses. Grillmaster Ronnie Logan Sr. has friends in high places—his ribs have been sampled and raved about by the ladies on The View, flown first class to the Seattle Seahawks locker room (quarterback Russell Wilson, who grew up in Richmond, is a fan), and—while Ronnie was still operating out of a Shockoe Bottom food truck—featured on the Food Network show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” Ronnie’s ribs are indeed some of the best—fall-off-the-bone goodness given extra oomph from one of the house’s signature North Carolina-influenced sauces. But it isn’t just the ribs. Several of the other menu offerings have devoted followings (like the fried fish basket, breaded with a delicious peppery coating, or those unforgettable collard greens, served up country-style and flavored with turkey). Extra note on the service: Ronnie’s pit crew and cashiers are some of the friendliest (and funniest) in the business. If anyone deserves a cable TV food show, it’s these guys. Plus, have I mentioned the ribs?
The Choice: The ribs, fried fish, pork and beef brisket sandwiches, hand-cut fries, collard greens
The Bones: Sandwiches: $5–7, combo meals: $4–$14, ribs: $15–$25, sides: $2–$4
2097 New Market Rd., Henrico
The Rub: It might be news to the neophyte, but barbecue can be a competitive sport as well as dinner. Within the world of competitive grilling, Virginia’s own Tuffy Stone, a former chef proficient in French cuisine, has become something of a legend, winning more Grand National and world championship grilling titles than anyone. The smoked and flavored meat this Food Network BBQ judge serves in the three locations of his restaurant, Q Barbeque, is different from his winning varieties, it should be said—competitive barbecue is concentrated and rich—but his exacting aesthetic can still be tasted. In the past year, I’ve sampled the food at all three Q locations in Richmond, and the rich, smoky tinge of the meats is consistently flavorful—and the eatery serves a burger that ain’t bad either. The care carries over to the sides, particularly the buttery collard greens, the drool-worthy hush puppies and the pork belly burnt ends, a Q specialty. It’s difficult to run a consistently good barbecue chain—Stone has had to close two stores in his regional empire, including one in Hampton—but Q seems to pull it off like tender pork. If I had a criticism, it is that Q locations have the forced formica ambiance of the worst kind of fast food chain. Say what you will about the dingy reputation of barbecue restaurant dining rooms, this is high-quality ‘que trapped inside a Burger King.
The Choice: Pork and brisket sandwiches, ribs, pork belly burnt ends, hush puppies, banana pudding
The Bones: Sandwiches: $5.50–$7, combo Plates: $10–$18, ribs: $17–$24, burgers: $5–7:50, sides: $2
2077 Walmart Way, Midlothian
1070 Virginia Center Pkwy., Glen Allen
13800 Fribble Way, Midlothian
The Rub: HogsHead ... who? This cozy/cramped West End diner—which is next door to arguably the city’s finest Chinese restaurant, Cheng Du—surprised a lot of folks by making TripAdvisor’s top 10 list of best-rated barbecue restaurants in the country. Think of a tiny, more homespun Hard Rock Cafe, and you’ve almost got the vibe, and, yes, the food is extremely good—if a bit pricy. Since 2012, owners Steve and Kim Logue have specialized in tender pulled pork, fall-off-the-fork beef brisket and “scratch-made” fixings—all done Memphis-style. They also excel at seafood offerings, especially the fried oyster po-boy and fried shrimp. But the HogsHead’s most potent attraction is their signature Hog Dog. It sounds like something out of your worst carnival food nightmare—a bacon-wrapped beef frank, deep fried and laden with the cafe’s hand-pulled pork and tangy, house-made sauce—but my mouth is watering just thinking about my next encounter with the smoky snap and delicious meld of that dog. There’s a larger version, the Big Boner, that supersizes the experience with an even bigger frankfurter and baby back rib meat. That might be too much hog heaven, even for me.