There are people who practically dedicate their lives to rooting out the greatest American barbecue spots—and folks have gone many rounds debating whether North Carolina pulled pork beats Memphis style, or Texas brisket tops Kansas City’s.
But for the majority of Americans who simply enjoy the addictive marriage of smoke and rich meat, barbecue is kind of like pizza: Even the worst version is still pretty edible, and we’d happily line up for it, along with traditional Southern sides and a Rockettes-like row of every sauce in the joint.
All this is to say that when a well-respected barbecue purveyor serves up a dry pulled pork sandwich (or two), it’s still possible to leave happy—especially if you’ve cast the net wide and ordered a few other options. This was the case after a visit to the newish Arlington location of Sloppy Mama’s.
The smokers working out front prove that this is the spot where you’ll get the freshest batch of barbecue the mini local chain has to offer, but pulled pork at this location and the Ballston Quarter outpost paled in comparison to a Sloppy Mama’s pork sandwich once ordered at Union Market in DC that nearly triggered a religious experience. Instead, opt for the luscious brisket or—if at Lee Highway—a piping hot, nicely seasoned and wonderfully juicy fried chicken sandwich special.
Also only available at the Lee Highway location, open since July 4 of last year, are sides of tender, meaty greens laced with a pleasant amount of spice and a slightly zesty and very buttery mac and cheese that’s as comforting as any you’ll find at a church potluck.
Over at Ballston Quarter, it was tougher to find the hits among the dry cornbread, overly meaty (Who knew such a thing was possible?) Brunswick stew and baked beans, and the first of two dry pulled pork sandwiches. The star was a generous pile of diablo brisket, which turned out to be shredded beef bathed with a deep, smoky, rich sauce. It wasn’t terribly spicy, and it begged to be put on a sandwich rather than ordered as just the meat, but it was ultimately very tasty and satisfying.
Thankfully, both locations offer banana pudding, an ending that practically guarantees you’ll leave thinking not of the misses, but of all the compelling reasons to return.
The cheerful Lee Highway location doubles up on the family-friendly vibe with its bold red, black and white space filled with picnic-table-style seating, sprays of fresh flowers on the tables, friendly and helpful staff and even a play area for the wee ones. Butcher paper pinned to the wall heralds info like family night on Mondays, when kids eat free with an adult meal purchase.
Brisket; fried chicken sandwich; collard greens; banana pudding // 5731 Lee Highway, Arlington; Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday; Entrees: $10-27
This post originally appeared in our March 2020 print issue. For more food-focused features, subscribe to our weekly Food newsletter.