The Dish: Pork Barrel Gets Cooking

Pork Barrel BBQ fires up the smoker in Del Ray Alexandria.
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At the groundbreaking of Pork Barrel BBQ in the Del Ray section of Alexandria, high school seniors from Bishop Ireton High School show off their allegiance to pork. (Photo by John Arundel)

The Barbeque Boys are on a tear.

Two former Capitol Hill staffers, and , founders of what may just be the nation’s fastest-growing barbecue sauce company, have opened their much-anticipated Pork Barrel BBQ restaurant at 2312 Mount Vernon Ave. in the Del Ray section of Alexandria, firing up the smoker after two years of permitting hell.

“We’re thrilled to finally be open,” said Hall, beaming from ear to skillet. “Barbecue is more than just the food. In many ways, it is the story of America with each region adding its flavor to the melting pot. It’s about community and fellowship. We want this restaurant to be a gathering place for this neighborhood and the entire D.C. community.”

The mouth-watering menu is designed for the supreme BBQ aficionado. Just about everything is here, including Pork Barrel’s take on traditional barbecue meats and side dishes.

Customers can order ribs, brisket, pulled pork, chicken and sausage as a sandwich, platter, on nachos, or by the pound. Side dishes include BBQ baked beans, coleslaw, mac and cheese, smoked Ratatouille, collard greens, Texas caviar, potato salad and corn pudding. The menu does not focus on a specific style of barbecue, instead offering approaches ranging from Kansas City barbecue to Carolina-style.

The swank new eatery features tables made of reclaimed barn wood and a Brazilian soapstone bar. Also housed in the same building are two other two restaurants, including a sushi and sake bar called Dragon and an Asian fusion restaurant called Chop Chop. Both are scheduled to open within a few months.

The two co-founders partnered with veteran restaurateurs “Mango” Mike Anderson and in 2009 with the goal of realizing their Horatio Alger dream of creating a gathering place for the Del Ray community which centered around their wondrous ‘que.

The attention to detail is very much evident in their first restaurant. The owners said they took painstaking care in every detail, from the hand-laid rock walls and columns to the unique beer tower that Blackburn constructed from sprinkler pipe. The 70-seat restaurant was designed by Walter Gagliano, who designed Cafe Atlantico and three Jaleo restaurants.

The owners received their certificate of occupancy in early December, more than two years after their ground breaking was featured on national television, as contestants on ABC’s prime time “Shark Tank.”

It wasn’t an easy wait for two eager entrepreneurs who at the groundbreaking in October 2009 gave eight months as an initial estimate to open.

According to The Washington Post, there were long, protracted negotiations with their neighbors over the anticipated smoke and increased traffic. There was the construction of a building that was to be located on the site of a former Exxon station, and a building and permitting process that was complicated by the fact that Pork Barrel is one of three restaurants under a single roof.

The owners also had to become familiarized with the special requirements of a barbecue restaurant, which meant fitting the massive smoker properly into an expensive ventilation system. Not to mention their fondness for specialty materials, like custom-made faux limestone.

For the smart and charismatic Hall and Thompson, last week’s opening was still a rather short and most unlikely culmination to entreprenurial success.

After suffering one too many late nights in pork barrel spending mark ups on the Senate side of Capitol Hill, the two quit their Congressional jobs as policy aides during the height of the 2008 economic crisis and founded the company in December 2008.

“We did it to prove that a company not owned or operated by the federal government could succeed, and that – if you had a good idea – it was still possible to grab a piece of the American Dream,” Hall said.

The two entrepreneurs initially ran the company out of the basement of their houses, selling their BBQ products a bottle at a time. Within a year, their Pork Barrel BBQ Sauces and Spice Rub were carried in 1,000 stores in 40 states.

Since then, the two have climbed to the peak of the professional competition barbecue circuit and racked up numerous awards for their BBQ and sauces.

“We’ve earned a reputation for consistency in producing high quality barbecue and side dishes alongside some of the world’s top pitmasters in the competition barbecue community,” Thompson said.  “We take great pride in serving quality barbecue that will please barbecue lovers from the Carolinas to Memphis and Texas to Kansas City. All meats are seasoned with Pork Barrel BBQ’s award winning All-American Spice Rub and slow smoked over oak and hickory.”

The barbeque innovators became nationally recognized entrepreneurs after being chosen for an ABC hit reality show and made scores of other high-profile appearances on TV and radio, sharing their BBQ tips with other backyard barbecuers.

They made news again last month after they launched the world’s first barbecue-scented fragrance, called Que cologne, and started BBQ Backyard, a social media site and forum for the barbecue enthusiast. Their sauces and spice rub are now carried in 1,500 grocery stores nationwide.

Their Pork Barrel BBQ Competition Barbecue Team, led by pitmasters Hall and Thompson, racked up scores of trophies, walking away with two trophies, Second Place in the “Nations Best BBQ Sauce Contest” and Fourth Place for their pulled pork in the Memphis portion of the contest.

Last Spring, they were named Grand Champion at the 2011 Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle and placed first at the 2011 Perdue National Chicken Championship. Men’s Health Magazine named their BBQ sauce nation’s best and one of the “125 Best Foods for Men.”

“Throughout this journey, we feel we’ve stayed true to our mission, to unite the nation through the great tradition of BBQ, and bring bipartisan flavor to the meal table,” Hall said.

The journey has not been without at least one amusing dose of controversy.

On November 22, in response to an open letter from PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman calling on Turkey, Texas to change its name to “Tofurky” Texas, Hall and Thompson countered by presenting Turkey, Texas’ Mayor Pat Carson with what they felt was a more appetizing offer to temporarily change the town’s name to “Barbecue, Texas.”

They offered to fork over $1,000 immediately and $5 from every Picnic Pack or Party Pack sold on its web site from over the past month in exchange for the town changing its name to “Barbecue” for 16 hours. The money would be split evenly between three Turkey, TX. charities.

It’s the kind of showmanship that might have made even P.T. Barnum blush.

The menu does not focus on a specific style of barbecue, instead offering approaches ranging from Kansas City barbecue to Carolina-style. Photo by John Arundel.

Two former Capitol Hill staffers, Heath Hall and Brett Thompson, founders of what may just be the nation’s fastest-growing barbecue sauce company. Photo by .

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