The best barbecue joints in the D.C area
The other day, I was trading texts with Brian Monk Jenkins, the pit master and co-owner of Monk’s BBQ in Purcellville, Va., a perennial contender for a spot on my list of favorite barbecue joints. He was telling me that of the 300 or so employees who have worked with him over the years, only five have developed the necessary skills to run the smokers, and of those five, only three have earned “pit master” status in Jenkins’s estimation. That’s a 1 percent success rate, lower than the percentage of college football players who make it to the National Football League.
All of which is preamble to a question that was running through my head while dining at Hi/Fi Tex-Mex BBQ, an outdoor beer garden-cum-Texas smorgasbord situated behind Evening Star Cafe in Alexandria: Why would Nathan Anda, an accomplished chef who has little to prove at this stage of his career, sign up for such abuse?
Anda has his reasons. For starters, he’s spent much of his professional career around meats, sourcing them and manipulating them into a variety of inviting forms at places such as Red Apron, the Partisan (RIP) and other Neighborhood Restaurant Group properties. Think: Porkstrami and pancetta. Hot dogs coaxed from locally raised beef and pork. Forty-two-day dry-aged Black Angus rib-eye topped with a lemon-marrow-tarragon butter. Grass-fed and grass-finished beef burgers. Even a breakfast sandwich in which housemade bacon and a ground-beef patty are pressed between flapjack buns.
His facility with meats aside, Anda had a more pressing reason to enter the barbecue game: For months after Mountain Song — a short-lived collaboration between pit master Matthew Deaton and Neighborhood Restaurant Group — called it quits in 2020, its smokers sat idle, including a 1,000-gallon offset that NRG purchased from Austin Smoke Works. The smokers were turning into white elephants right before Anda’s eyes — until he decided to start messing with them. It was low-risk experimentation: Anda would smoke pork bellies, briskets and pork butts, which he could sell at Red Apron or the now-shuttered Neighborhood Provisions. Mistakes could be repurposed into other dishes among NRG restaurants.
The smokers, Anda jokes, were “calling me.”
“They were like, ‘You want to come play with us today?’”
Anda’s smoker IQ rose significantly when Shannon Bingham, a respected Louisiana chef and pit master, started the R&D process for Devil Moon Barbecue and Brewery Saint X, a pair of sister establishments that would mark Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s debut in New Orleans. Working on the smokers behind Evening Star, Bingham was not just prepping for his smokehouse in Crescent City; he was providing an education to Anda.
The lessons would all culminate in Hi/Fi Tex-Mex BBQ, an 84-seat patio concept that, like countless Texas establishments, seamlessly cross-pollinates between two of the Lone Star State’s most popular cuisines until the line between them is practically erased. When you order a platter at Hi/Fi, you can select a tray of smoked meats with two sides or a tray of smoked meats with housemade flour tortillas and the toppings and salsas necessary to construct your own soft tacos. Given the option, I’m going with the smoked meats platter 9 times out of 10, for one basic reason: Anda is producing some truly terrific barbecue, which I don’t want to diminish by tucking it inside a tortilla with a handful of acidic condiments, no matter how tasty the combination may be.
The line between Tex-Mex and barbecue can get blurry at Hi/Fi. Anda has developed a rub (used on his turkey, pork shoulders and spare ribs) that incorporates not one, not two, but four chile powders, including guajillo, jalapeño and chipotle. The chile combination makes for some singular barbecue, particularly with Anda’s crusty, slightly glazed spare ribs, which perform a cool trick: They effectively jump the species line, suggesting the flavors of carne asada as much as those of Central Texas barbecue.
Anda relies on prime beef for his brisket, and his crew, including Marvin “Grande” Rivera, often leave thick ribbons of softened fat on the slices. As such, the brisket, with a good half-inch of fat still clinging to the outer edges, can feel like a dare — like eating moist, well-rested ribbons of beef, along with a stick of butter. I’m not complaining, not really. Just observing. I’m also not devouring as many of those slices as I might like. I have no such hesitation when it comes to stuffing my face with Anda’s slices of turkey breast, at once succulent and smoky, and his pork, which is pulled and chopped before getting doused in what the chef calls Texalina vinegar sauce and more of the four-chile rub. The chopped pork has immediately earned a spot among my favorites.
The sides at Hi/Fi tend to stray beyond Tex-Mex and regional barbecue, incorporating pickled curtido from El Salvador and traditional Latin American dishes such as fried plantains and red pozole, each given a barbecue makeover in some shape or form, like the exquisite smoked crema that accompanies the caramelized plantains. The interesting thing is, Anda steers clear of the usual suspects, opting for sides with a more acidic or sweet profile, which help provide some sense of balance amid the onslaught of smoked meats. It’s a lesson, Anda tells me, that he learned from his many years of putting together charcuterie boards.
The 25 best tacos in the D.C. area
I should note that some of Hi/Fi Tex-Mex BBQ’s tacos are smoky variations on those available at the sister location inside the Roost, the food hall just east of Capitol Hill. This version of Taco Night in America — the original is one of the best handheld bites in Washington — features smoked brisket trim inside its crispy shell, while the orange-soda-braised carnitas incorporate smoked pork shoulder. Neither, I would argue, is necessarily an improvement over the original, but neither are they insults. If you want to double your pleasure by ordering a meaty starter to go with your meaty platter, you should dig into Anda’s smoked wings, these crackly specimens that pair well with the smoked crema. It probably goes without saying, but all of these bites will also pair well with a bottle from Greg Engert’s small but well-curated beer list.
As the days get shorter and the evenings colder, Anda will confront the obstacles unique to all smokehouses that operate outdoors: He will face the elements that will, no doubt, affect his barbecue. Perhaps this explains why he is still hesitant to officially call himself a pit master.
“I’m still a student of this, I think,” Anda says. “I’m still trying to perfect everything.”
2000 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, 703-549-5051. hifitexmexbbq.com.
Hours: 5 to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 2 to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with barbecue starting at 5 p.m. on both days.
Nearest Metro: Braddock, with about a mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $3 to $26 for all items on the menu.