Perfect Pits

A geographic and culinary tour of some of Virginia’s best barbecue.

Photo courtesy of Sloppy Mama’s Barbecue

No matter where you are in Virginia, you’re always just a few minutes away from great barbecue.

When it comes to barbecue, other states might claim the mantle of the best in America—we hear you already, Texas and North Carolina—but Virginia barbecue is truly in a league of its own. Here in Virginia, we don’t just have one kind of barbecue; instead, the Commonwealth takes its influences from a variety of sources. Some swear by the sweet; others hanker for more vinegar. Some rank the rub above the sauce, others the exact opposite. 

But Virginia’s best pitmasters do have a few things in common—namely, deep-rooted traditions, a commitment to quality and flavor, loads of patience, and love for their customers and communities, something that’s more important now than ever. Here’s a tour of seven great barbecue places around the state, with a special emphasis on some of their signature plates. 

PORK

barbecue

You know you want some.

Buz and Ned’s

Central

Not everyone can say they’ve gone head-to-head with celebrity chef Bobby Flay and won, but Buz Grossberg can. In 2007, Buz was challenged to a rib cookoff on Flay’s Throwdown show, where Buz’s slow-smoked, thickly basted, pink-to-the-bone ribs were the clear winner. Since then, his restaurant, Buz and Ned’s, has shown up on the Food Network’s list of the nation’s best barbecue, and other “best of” lists, too. 

In a crowded field, Buz and Ned’s stands out because of its quality and consistency, Buz says, and the fact that he only cooks with wood. He cut his teeth in southwest Virginia cooking alongside his barbecue mentor, Ned, paying him the ultimate compliment by sharing the restaurant name with him when he opened his first location in downtown Richmond in 1992 (a second location on the city’s west end opened in 2012). 

The menu hasn’t changed all that much since, Buz says. The restaurant’s mainstays include ribs (spare, baby back, and beef) and barbecue pork and chicken sandwiches, along with sides including fried okra and beer-battered onion rings. Buz says that the secret to his BBQ pork sandwich, one of his most popular orders, is in the cut and the chop—the quality meat that he gets and the fact that he waits till the last possible second to chop it up. 

“We’re very particular about the pork butts we get,” he says. “They’re square cut, so one part doesn’t cook before another part. We marinate it for 24 to 48 hours, then we put it on a relatively high heat for 10 to 12 hours. We don’t chop it till we use it. Lots of people will chop it up and keep it in the pan, but once you do that it exposes it to oxygen and changes it.” 

Buz says his customers have stayed loyal despite the fact that Richmond has become a more experimental foodie town in the last decade. “There’s always a place for comfort food,” he says. “I want to serve food that I like to eat.” BuzAndNeds.com

BRISKET

Photo courtesy of Sloppy Mama’s Barbecue

sloppy mama’s barbecue

Sloppy Mama’s Barbecue in Arlington.

Sloppy Mama’s Barbeque

Northern

Just over ten years ago, Arlington-based Joe and Mandy Neuman decided to have a pig roast for their wedding, “a proper pig picking,” as Joe calls it. Although they considered themselves good home cooks, he says, this was the first time they’d ever roasted a whole pig themselves, and with a reception full of hungry people, the stakes were high. The roast was a success, and requests started rolling in for the Neumans to do the same thing for their friends. 

By 2014, they had started a food truck, and three years later, they had a stall at the Union Market food hall in Washington, D.C. When all of that proved successful, they brought their business back home to Arlington, opening another stall at the new Ballston Quarter food hall in early 2019, and a standalone restaurant in July of that same year. 

Among their traditional menu of barbecue beef, pork, and chicken dishes, their brisket is the standout—their number-one seller. (The menu even includes a “diablo brisket” for those who like it hot.) “We do a Texas-style brisket in that we do it whole,” Joe says. “We cook only with wood and smoke through the night”—a commitment to old-style barbecue that makes them stand out in the D.C. metro area. The Neumans’ secret is their “happy sprinkles” rub, which is a combination of spices, including guajillo and ancho chiles, that they toast and grind themselves. 

“When we set out to make barbecue, all we wanted to do is make people happy,” Joe says. “We try to do simple things very well. We’re a very traditional barbecue company and we start with good things.” SloppyMamas.com

Photo courtesy of Due South BBQ

due south bbq

Due South BBQ in Christiansburg.

CHICKEN

Due South BBQ

Southwest

When Marie and Jared March moved to Christiansburg from South Carolina, there was already family-style cooking nearby, and plenty of fast food chains along I-81, but to their surprise there was no barbecue. Determined to change that, Marie opened Due South BBQ in 2007. She says that her goal for the restaurant is to enrich the community with true southern cooking at a reasonable price. 

The menu includes slow-smoked pork barbecue, brisket, baby back ribs, chicken wings, and half and whole chickens, along with southern staples such as pimento cheese, fried green tomatoes, and hush puppies. She and her team make their own sauces in-house, and each meat has its own house-made rub. People love the restaurant’s signature sweet brown sauce, homemade banana pudding, mac and cheese, and baked beans, too, Marie says.

Due South’s chicken, in particular, is unusual in that it’s rubbed, smoked, and then fried, resulting in a crispy, moist combo with flavor that is deeply infused throughout. “It’s original and different,” Marie says. “We blend our own seasonings and hope we achieve a signature flavor.”

The restaurant is now undergoing a complete renovation—which gives the place a “totally new homegrown look,” Marie says—but don’t worry, the tried-and-true menu will stay exactly the same. DueSouthBBQ.com

Photo courtesy of Checked Pig BBQ & Ribs

checkered pig

Checkered Pig BBQ & Ribs in Martinsville.

RIBS

Checkered Pig BBQ & Ribs

Southwest

In southwest Virginia, there may not be any bigger trial by fire for local chefs than cooking for the Martinsville Speedway. But that’s exactly what Tommy and Lisa Houston did for many years when they got into the barbecue business, catering for major companies who had suites at the racetrack. Since then, they’ve cooked on an even larger “stage”—participating in the prestigious Best in the West Nugget Rib Cookoff in Sparks, Nevada, for many years—and winning or placing several times. 

Owners of Checkered Pig BBQ & Ribs, with locations in Martinsville (opened in 1997) and Danville (2009), the Houstons have gained this recognition through their focus on high-quality meats and sauces, homemade side dishes, and desserts. (Plus southern hospitality, Tommy adds.) Lisa points out that Checkered Pig uses fresh hams instead of the Boston butt that’s widely used, which results in a much leaner barbecue. The star of the show, however, is their St. Louis-style ribs, which are smoked and slow-roasted on the grill and slathered in sweet, sticky sauce. 

“We start off with a rib that’s meaty,” Tommy says. “A St. Louis rib is a spare rib that has been cut down. Those ribs—they’re very consistent in size, and they have just enough marbling on them to make them tasty. It’s all about the marbling.” They developed a rub called “Racing Dust” (remembering their speedway roots), and their own special sauce to go with it. 

“Lord knows how many test batches I made in the restaurant,” Tommy says with a laugh. “I poured a lot of pots of sauce down the drain till I figured out what we wanted.” And what a sizable portion of southern Virginia wants, too. CheckeredPig.com

Photo courtesy of Dave’s BBQ

Dave’s BBQ

Dave’s BBQ in Virginia Beach.

SAUSAGE

Dave’s BBQ

Eastern

Even in this day and age, when every business has a website and social media presence, Dave Brown says he draws in most new customers to his Virginia Beach restaurant, Dave’s BBQ, in a more low-tech way. “Most people see us by the smoke rolling,” he says. “We’ve never paid a dime to advertise. But you drive by, see the smoke, and you know someone’s in there pouring their heart out over the food.”

Like many barbecue masters, Brown got into smoking meat as a hobby, after learning the ropes at his pitmaster uncle’s feet when he was 12 years old. Brown then graduated to catering out of his house on weekends and holidays. Word of mouth quickly spread. His Facebook page had already gained thousands of followers before he opened his 12-seat restaurant in 2017, a laid-back place with a deck out front. 

Although his menu has barbecue staples such as pork ribs, brisket, and pulled pork and chicken—not to mention thick, sticky baked beans and rich banana pudding—Brown’s is known for its three types of sausage: sweet or spicy Italian that Brown sources himself from a local butcher, and a jalapeño cheddar that’s imported from Texas. A common way to get the sausage is via Brown’s three-meat platter, which comes with two heaping sides. 

Brown’s building on a Tidewater sausage tradition, with both the T.O. Williams and Edwards sausage-makers not far away. But he admits to getting inspiration from elsewhere, too. “We’re a Texas-influenced place,” Brown says. “We have an insane appreciation for food to be tasted as it is—the smoke, the wood, and the meat. Just slow, smoked food.” DavesBBQVB.com

Photo courtesy of Buddy’s BBQ

Buddy’s BBQ

Buddy’s BBQ in Rocky Mount.

SIDES

Buddy’s BBQ

Southwest

When you have spice, you need mild. When you have heat, you need sweet. Side dishes are not to be overlooked when it comes to barbecue; in fact, they are often essential to enjoying a meal that is well balanced and allows all the intense, smoky flavors in the meat to shine. Buddy Hancock, owner of Buddy’s BBQ in Rocky Mount, understands this deeply and puts a lot of effort into his side dishes, which include homemade hush puppies, macaroni and cheese, macaroni salad, collards, slaw, and chili (not to mention the homemade sauces made with moonshine). But the side dish he’s most famous for are what he calls “Buddy’s Banging Baked Beans.”

“I’ve had people who say they don’t like baked beans try them and like them,” Hancock says. “They’re sweet with a little heat. We start with canned baked beans and then I add some hamburger to them. I derived the original recipe from a church cookbook and tweaked it over the years. That sweet heat—the flavor of the beans complements the barbecue really well.”

And Buddy’s has barbecue. Like some other barbecue chefs, Hancock started in catering before opening the restaurant in June 2017. Now he offers a full complement of pulled pork, ribs, brisket, fried fish, chicken, and more. A family pack that includes meat, sides, slaw, buns, and hush puppies is popular. 

“I just love the whole process,” Hancock says. “Feeding people, the challenge of smoking meat and making the meats and sauces, the creativity of it.”

BuddysBBQVa.com

Photo courtesy of King’s Famous Barbecue

King’s Famous Barbecue in Petersburg.

SAUCES

King’s Famous Barbecue

Central

Matt Keeler was planning to work in computers before he was lured into his wife Alicia’s family business. Brothers John and Clinton King started their barbecue business after World War II, establishing the slow-cooked, homemade menu that has made King’s a Petersburg institution for nearly 75 years. Alicia took over the business in 1994, representing the third generation of family ownership, and Matt joined the family business “whole hog” once Alicia’s father passed away. 

King’s has a fairly large sit-down restaurant (by barbecue standards) with a full menu of pit-smoked barbecue pork, chicken, and beef, alongside other time-honored southern options like fried chicken, catfish, and shrimp. They have a loyal and large following, Keeler says, and the one thing that people talk about above all else is King’s sauce. 

The recipe, Keeler divulges, is probably well over 100 years old, cribbed from a sauce served at a barbecue joint Alicia’s grandfather worked at before the war started. It’s a tangy dark-orange sauce composed of vinegar, mustard, ketchup, and spices that perks up everything it douses. In fact, King’s sauce is virtually identical to Sauer’s bottled sauce, the result of a chain of business sales that originated with the King brothers (Sauer’s bottles say that theirs is an “old Southern recipe”). Now Keeler makes it in 50-gallon batches and sells it online by the bottle, in addition to in the restaurant. 

“People have been coming here for generations,” Keeler says. “Their grandparents have been coming here. People love that comfort food atmosphere. The world changes, but King’s Barbecue stays the same. It’s something to hold onto. We’re going to try to keep it going as long as we can.”

KingsFamousBarbecue.com 

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