The Fuchs family’s 90-year-old Wagshal’s empire has a new crown jewel: Pitmasters Back Alley BBQ.
The new venture, housed in an alley alongside Wagshal’s sprawling base in the Spring Valley Shopping Center, is unassuming but noticeable; the reclaimed wood entrance – in shades of amber, maroon and mahogany – stands out from the white walls and loading docks, announcing to passersby that something good is afoot.
And it really is. The literal hole-in-the-wall, 900 square feet with a rustic, pig-centric aesthetic throughout, serves up amazing barbecue, possibly the best in the District.
The quality is no surprise given that Bill Fuchs and his son Brian have been supplying renowned barbecue pitmasters with prime cuts of meat for competitions for years. In ramping up their own barbecue restaurant, they even got a few pitmaster pals to contribute recipes and cooking techniques – the equivalent of state secrets in the barbecue world. (The Washington Post reported that the Fuchses make the cooks at Pitmasters sign nondisclosure agreements.)
Additionally, their experience with Wagshal’s Market and Wagshal’s Deli has lent the Fuchs a unique perspective on meat. Brian takes great pride in the product quality, emphasizing that his team is intimately involved in the process, from farm to table (fear before slaughter can completely “change the taste of the meat,” he says). In the case of the “Kobe” of pork, their Ibérico de Bellota Costilla ribs, that involvement requires international travel, to Spain.
The care put into the meat shows, or, rather, comes through on the palate. The St. Louis ribs don’t fall off the bones – Fuchs says they really shouldn’t – until you take a bite. They feel like butter in between the teeth, but with a scrumptious and savory flavor. The half-smoke, which blows others in D.C. out of the water, is crispy on the outside and tender, with umami flavor, on the inside. The garnishments (chili, fries, cheese and onions) are the cherry on top of a near-perfect package.
Most barbecue joints serve up more pulled pork than you can wag your tail at. At Pitmasters, Fuchs opts for chopped pork, saying that competitors’ pulled pork is often overcooked. The resulting Carolina chopped pork shoulder is succulent and robust, excellent-tasting on its own, without any barbecue sauce. (There isn’t anything on the menu that needs sauce, despite how good the Pitmasters sauce tastes.) Flavor also carries the day for Pitmasters’ smoky, marbled brisket, which practically melts in your mouth as you chew.
As for sides, let’s start with the power players: the burnt ends. The beef and pork burnt ends are delectable little blackened bites rolled in sauce. They crunch before giving way to soft, delicious, slow-cooked meat.
Chef Trini’s “Mother in Law” salsa-cum-slaw – made with pickled veggies, Caribbean flavor (thanks to green mango) and a spicy kick – impresses right off the bat. One would be hard-pressed to find a similar taste elsewhere in the District, let alone the world. The staple sides, like the collard greens and baked beans, distinguish themselves with meat – bacon, that is. The rest of the sides, including the mac ‘n’ cheese and loaded fries (nachos on steroids: covered with cheese, burnt ends and pickled jalapenos), are sure to be crowd-pleasers in all their gluttonous glory.
This review may tempt you to tear up to Pitmasters to get in on all of this hot-meat action. But hold back: the restaurant only offers barbecue to order. You have to call it in, and you can’t eat it there.
Fuchs savors conversation about how his team prepares orders so that they are fresh for customers. Despite the trend of extending smoke times up to 24 hours, the meats are smoked for just a few hours, which Fuchs says is all they need. The restaurant even provides reheating instructions, because, Fuchs says, “you don’t want to microwave ribs.”