By Warren Rojas
Smokehouse Live lights up the local barbecue scene
“This is probably the wrong place to be a vegetarian,” a folksy singer joked to the crowd assembled within Smokehouse Live for a taste of local barbecue.
Her set filler may qualify as the understatement of the year.
The cavernous eatery—which boasts an open-air patio, curbside seating, dedicated stage for live music, interior bar and full-service barbecue market—has been vying to keep Northern Virginia bellies full of tempting proteins since rolling out the welcome mat in early June.
Cofounders Kris Diemar and Jim Foss, the latter a veteran of Penn Quarter’s Hill Country, devoted roughly a year and a half to developing the dining establishment of their dreams.
The decor is pretty basic. There are scattered picnic tables, corrugated metal walls and plywood dividers.
The one thing you’ll wish they’d invested in: screens. I swatted away more flies at Smokehouse Live than I did during the more than seven hours I spent waiting outside Franklin’s Barbecue in Austin.
Then again, the place is supposed to appeal to our primal selves, transporting us back to a time when feasting took place around smoldering embers.
The 40 minute-plus wait times I encountered during weekend trips to Smokehouse Live suggest that local carnivores have no qualms about getting back to nature.
“You can have meat AND sides,” one excited little girl informed a friend evidently new to the cafeteria-style ordering process. “I just want mac and cheese,” her gal pal opined. “No meat? I don’t think you can do that,” the incredulous host sputtered out.
And who can blame her?
Foss and executive chef Bryan Yealy—he’s the one in the Denver Broncos cap dishing out Texas-style grub in Loudoun County—have set the table with a slew of hand-carved meats that spend anywhere from a few hours (up to three for the signature Savannah chicken) to the better part of a day (the pork shoulder takes 18) basking in the glow of slowly exhausted timber.
Tougher-than-expected burnt ends are slathered in zesty barbecue sauce, enrobed in lusty bacon and sprinkled with crunchy potato sticks in one uneven opener. House pork belly (Foss says all the swine is supplied by Smithfield) steals the show in a self-styled bahn mi composed of unctuous piggy, fiery Sriracha mayo and cooling cabbage slaw stuffed into a crusty baguette.
Beef shoulder is lean; a thin ring of fat surrounds an otherwise muscular cut that should sate aficionados of traditional roast beef.
“Oh, that looks guuuuud,” a meat lover who apparently hadn’t yet figured on what to order opined upon spotting the slab of sanguine prime rib a market aide was shepherding onto my serving tray. The no-nonsense steak displays only trace amounts of salt and pepper.
Brisket sports a man-made bark (the product, Foss says, of 10 hours spent in a proprietary rub) while the inherent marbling produces bites of melt-in-your-mouth bliss.
Buttermilk-soaked turkey breast is tasty while warm but works wonders the day after as sandwich fodder. Conversely, the sweet tea-brined chicken offered at brunch is served cold, greeting hungry mouths with fried bird laced with syrupy undertones. Ladle on a spoonful of the spectacularly rich sausage gravy for a killer counterbalance.
Smoked chicken begs to be devoured. The fork-tender bird is basted in mustardy sauce and speckled with baked-on herbs that elicit a tangy-sweet, jerk-like zing.
Pork spare ribs play coy, revealing just a hint of caramelized brown sugar before the heat from the signature spice blend sticks you in the back of the throat. Brawny short ribs clobber hunger, yielding mouthfuls of succulent beef that smacks of cumin, pepper and smoke.
Artisan meat packer Lothar Erbe initially played an essential link in the Smokehouse Live food chain, feeding the fledgling joint traditional brats and jalapeno-cheddar specimens that were greedily snatched up by pork lovers. By the end of the summer, Yealy et al. had seized control of the sausage-making operation, cranking out Shiner Bock-spiked brats and cheddar-laced Red Hots now handcrafted in-house.
Extra chunky pimento dip, layered with shredded cheese and diced sweet peppers, opens up the appetite better than curiously bland pulled pork-bacon hush puppies (which conjured up neither). Lightly scorched grits bolstered by sharp cheddar and hot peppers left a more lasting impression than the appropriately gooey but not particularly distinctive mac and cheese.
Greenery is scarce but worth seeking out. My favorite garden fare would have to be split between the refreshing spring pea-pearl onion salad (love the tongue-teasing mint and squishy noodles) and the wonderfully tart whiskey-dill pickles.
Early risers who trek out that way on the Lord’s day are rewarded with an all-you-can-eat spread populated by myriad egg dishes (a chorizo and mixed peppers medley went from good to great courtesy of a spoonful of guacamole forged from buttery avocados), brown sugared-ham (s’aright) and pulled pork (rather dry; rescue it with a hit of the vinegary Carolina sauce).
Skip all that and load up on the hearty casseroles.
One lasagna-like breakfast bake weaves together crumbled ground beef, chopped brisket and melted cheese beneath a canopy of tender noodles. A Thanksgiving-themed selection brings the best of turkey day to your lips in heaping spoonfuls loaded with smoked bird, mashed potatoes, cornbread and gravy.
Staff floats around at all hours dispensing freshly baked sweets.
“May I offer you a cinnamon roll with candied bacon?” a server, hoisting aloft a tray lined with glazed buns studded with glistening pig, posits in what must be the absolute easiest sales pitch of all time. (The bacon is crunchy and the spice-filled center velvety smooth.)
A young woman carrying bite-sized caramel apple tarts (scrumptious) sidled up another time, while happy hour guests made short work of the chewy chocolate chip cookies a manager waved under their collective noses.
What left this hired mouth all shook up was the Elvis cake. The King-sized confection intersperses chocolate cake with layers of peanut butter filling and banana pudding, then crowns everything with silky chocolate frosting, crushed nuts and smoky-sweet strips of glazed bacon.
Uh-huh, you sweet delight!
The massive smokers are stoked with hunks of oak procured right down the road in Leesburg.
Appetizers: $5-$12; Entrees: $12-$26
Lunch Monday through Saturday, dinner daily, brunch Sunday.
1602 Village Market Blvd., Leesburg; smokehouse-live.com