I normally don't write reviews or rave about restaurants that I come across while traveling because the places that I end up eating at are usually unremarkable. There are rare exceptions to this rule and these places stand out boldly in my mind and are remembered fondly. On my recent trip to Washington, D.C. I was pleasantly surprised when I went to Rocklands BBQ on a customer recommendation.
Toward the end of my first day of work I asked for dinner recommendations. This is something that I regularly do and the results are generally mixed, sometimes I get sick, but sometimes I'm pleased beyond belief so I keep asking for recommendations from the locals. I was surprised when three of the four people I was working with suggested Rocklands almost in unison and without hesitation. Usually there is some debate on the various places that people are suggesting but with Rocklands there was no question, that was where I should go for dinner. They explained that Rocklands was a BBQ joint; I was sold.
It should be noted that I am quite fond of BBQ. I'm not fanatical about it, though I'm sure some people I know may disagree, but I do appreciate the slow cooked goodness of BBQ. It takes a lot of time and skill to properly smoke a brisket so I'm always pleased to find a place that does it right.
I will admit that when I think of Washington DC I imagine a melting pot of different cultures and foods but BBQ is not something that immediately pops to mind. This idea was changed forever that night.
After I dropped off my things at the hotel I headed up the street to where my group had told me Rocklands was located. They said to go North, past the grocery store and across from the baseball field, it would be on the left. Simple enough, I started walking. I hadn't walked a full block when I smelled the unmistakable smell of BBQ smoke. This hardwood smoky goodness becomes part of you once you eat enough BBQ, it's a magical smell. I knew that my destination was still a ways off but I couldn't help looking around for Rocklands prematurely.
I continued my walk and as I got closer the smell became stronger urging me to walk a little faster. With each step I became more and more excited at the prospects of a great meal, just based on the smell alone. Before the anticipation became too much to bare I saw it, a simple storefront that said Rocklands on the window, I stepped in.
Straight ahead was the counter, to my right stood a large communal table surrounded by stools. In the center of the table was a bucket of peanuts, a vessel to throw peanut shells into and a fairly nice selection of hot sauces. Against the window there were a few more stools and a shelf like table attached to the wall. One of the most important details that could easily be overlooked is the presence of paper towels. No napkins here, just no nonsense paper towels. I've got a theory about this:
Graham's First Rule of Paper Towels at a Restaurant
Paper Towels=Good Food
I'm sure this isn't 100% true but as I think back on places that have paper towels instead of napkins I can't think of one that I wouldn't want to go back to. Tommy's in Southern California for example has paper towels. They do serve chili burgers though so that might be part of it. Maybe I need to revise my theory a little bit:
Graham's First Rule of Paper Towels at a Restaurant (Revised)
Paper Towels=Good and Messy Food
To the left there was a wall of sauces to purchase, all kinds of hot sauces and BBQ sauces. There was one called "See Dick Burn" which had a crayon drawing of a stick man on fire running across the label, I didn't buy it. Behind the counter was the kitchen, completely built for business and full of activity. Above the kitchen was a collection of 30 or so meat cleavers of different sizes and styles hanging on the walls. Something about the utility of the humble gathering of meat cleavers struck me as wonderful. I'm not sure what it was but it made me smile. I think that the cleavers are up there as a gentle reminder of the labor that goes into good BBQ, and that we should be thankful that someone else knows how to do it so we don't have to. I love that kind of stuff.
I walked up to the counter, grabbed a menu and stood back. All the expected fare was there: Chicken, pulled pork, brisket, pork ribs, beef ribs, etc. but I didn't see the normal platter of pick 1-3 meats and 2 sides so it took me a minute to decide what I wanted. I settled on the belly buster (not pictured) which included 3 pork ribs, pulled pork, brisket, a smoked sausage and a quarter of a chicken (dark meat thank you). I figured that I could do without sides considering that this sounded like plenty of food, to drink I ordered a large sweet tea.
After a brief wait, which is never more than 8 minutes at Rocklands, I heard my name called and I claimed my food. It was a delicious pile of meat and it was beautiful. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me at the time. Instead of a the usual plastic dinner trays my food came on what appeared to be a 1/2 sheet baking pan. Instead of a plate on the tray was a piece of foil with the edges turned up lined with a piece of wax paper. The meat was arranged within the foil. The meal was served with a roll and some grilled onions so I guess that you could count those as sides.
It was quite a site and I started to regret not bringing my camera. This regret quickly turned to joy as I began to eat. I quickly abandoned my knife and fork, I'm not sure what I was thinking using those in the first place, and ate with my left hand leaving my right hand clean to grab my sweet tea when needed. With such a variety of meat I expected there to be a stand out in the crowd but everything was equally delicious. To be so consistent in the art of BBQ is a fairly impressive feat. I will admit that I wasn't quite as fond of the chicken as everything else but it was certainly worth trying.
I ate my meal at one of the stools against the window, I was happy to be an advertisement for Rocklands as their food was simply delicious. I noticed a father taking his children into the ice cream shop next door, I saw him hesitate slightly. I have a feeling that he wanted to come in for BBQ because I get the same feeling that I used to get going out for ice cream whenever I'm on my way to some great BBQ.
I did end up going back to Rocklands two days later, partly in order to take a picture of the food but mostly because of the excellent meal that I had enjoyed. It looks like my travel plans will have be in Washington, D.C. soon and I plan to go back once again.
If you've enjoyed this post please consider subscribing to the RSS feed.
Coming Soon: 10 Usable Tips for Greener Travel