Old Town’s wait for barbecue is over
Celebrity pitmaster’s outpost serves as a meaty mecca
The smoker originally installed at Myron Mixon’s Pitmaster Barbeque in Alexandria is not the one that now squats in the kitchen. The first one, a Mixon-branded pellet smoker, didn’t cut it with the culinary team. The machine couldn’t handle the expected volume of the 200-seat restaurant and, worse, its compressed sawdust pellets weren’t producing the kind of smoke that you need for, you know, barbecue.
So the owners ditched the cooker in favor of a large-capacity box from Mixon’s line of water smokers, the same contraption that has helped the pitmaster, author and reality-TV star win enough competition trophies to fill an airport hangar. Installing the new machine delayed the restaurant’s opening by more than four months.
The decision to switch out smokers, weeks before a projected opening in August, gives a glimpse into the psyches of the men behind the Old Town operation. Namesake Mixon, majority co-owner Joe Corey (a certified barbecue judge) and pitmaster/ partner John Bennett would rather lose money or face — or both — than produce lackluster meats. This kind of all-in mentality does not come naturally to the gardenvariety restaurant owner, whose nose is better at sniffing out problems with the bottom line. But it’s the principal value — fear? — that animates those souls hopelessly devoted to barbecue. It’s easy to spot these folks: They always smell of smoke.
Their clothes, though, probably reek less at Mixon’s Pitmaster Barbeque. That’s because the water smoker here burns cleaner, without the dark, acrid clouds that can put a bitter edge on barbecue, says Bennett, a chefcum-pitmaster who helped open Overwood, the restaurant that previously occupied this space. “I don’t get that carbon-y, charcoal taste,” he says.
No, he doesn’t. Part of that has to do with Mixon’s wellestablished cooking method: The pitmaster dismisses the low-andslow orthodoxy and burns his
sticks at higher temperatures. The pit in Alexandria runs about 275 degrees Fahrenheit, about 50 degrees hotter than many smokers, Bennett says, which means the briskets cook in about six hours, a fraction of the normal time for those hefty hunks of beef. They are then rested at room temperature for hours before being held in warming units.
The method can produce some mighty fine beef. The Black Angus brisket has a deep-red racing stripe running along the top of each slice, the smoke ring, a pitmaster’s badge of honor. But more important than this cosmetic blush, the brisket remains mostly tender even when dining late at night after the meat has presumably been held for hours, potentially vaporizing its essential juiciness. You’ll rarely find a strip of desiccated brisket, even on the lean side. The kitchen combats arid beef by dunking the slices in a mixture of meat drippings, apple juice and butter.
Adding butter, Bennett notes, is a classic competition trick that pitmasters use to score points with judges. Is it a cheat? Of course, especially to the backyard purist who wants to evaluate barbecue purely on a pitmaster’s skill to manipulate meat, heat, smoke and spice. But in terms of restaurant cooking, the technique is no worse than, say, the chef who bastes the bejesus out of a fillet and then boasts about the fish’s sweet, flaky flesh. In the end, your palate cares only about flavor, not purity.
Even though you’ll probably never see the unmistakable Mixon — he with the meaty forearms, the neatly trimmed beard and the graying mop of hair — working the pits at his smokehouse, his presence is everywhere. His smoker sits in the kitchen. His commercial rubs season the chicken and ribs. His image graces the menus and walls. His sauces are available in squirt bottles, should you need them, which you mostly won’t.
There’s not a dud among the barbecue staples, all served on paper-lined jellyroll trays. The moist, if undistinguished, Berkshire pulled pork benefits from its mix of picnic shoulder and outside brown, those exterior hunks of sweet, mahogany-colored meat. The salt-and-pepper pork belly, also cut from Berkshire hogs, has more complexity than its description would lead you to believe; better yet, it’s smoked until the fat turns to butter. The pulled chicken, rubbed with Mixon’s custom Honey Muney Cluck blend, tastes as if it’s sauced and reheated on a grill, but if so, I don’t care. The bird rocks.
Mixon stands up to the tyranny of spare ribs, the pork bone of choice at many smokehouses. He prefers the small, arched baby backs instead. When fresh, the glazed baby-back meat doesn’t surrender its bone without a fight, providing some resistance along with a little salty sweetness. The dry-rubbed wings are bones worth chewing on, too, their exterior crisp and coated with a seasoning that has more balance than a gyroscope.
Those wings align well with the restaurant’s secondary purpose: serving as Old Town’s unofficial man cave. Flat-screens beam sports from all directions, a promise that doubles as a warning to those who are easily distracted (a demographic that basically includes everyone who can’t put their phone down for five minutes). The draft beer and cocktail lists are robust enough to satisfy the more craft-conscious among us.
Should you want only a snack or a sandwich to watch the game, Mixon has you covered. The Wagyu burger packs a surprising amount of flavor even when the kitchen pushes the internal temperature way, way past your desired medium-rare. The Buffalo pork rinds add a new element — an adrenaline-pumping crunch — to the hot-sauce-and-bluecheese flavors that threaten a hostile takeover of bar food everywhere. And the barbecue deviled eggs conceal a bite of cool rib meat under their pinwheels of piped filling, perfect for those days when a combo platter sounds more like a dare than dinner.
Sides are Mixon’s weak spot, and that includes his apparently popular peach barbecue baked beans, which taste as if they were dumped from a can and sweetened with another can of fruit filling. The “Southern staple coleslaw” is so creamy it borders on soup, while the limp mac-andcheese sports no discernible sharpness. But let’s get real: Myron Mixon didn’t win those 200plus grand championships based on his side dishes.
Pitmaster John Bennett, top, says that the smokers at Myron Mixon’s Pitmaster Barbeque in Alexandria burn clean and don’t impart an acrid bitterness on the meats, including the brisket, left.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Myron Mixon’s Pitmaster Barbeque in Alexandria seats 200, and the team delayed opening until the smokers could accommodate the expected crowds; pork rinds get the Buffalo treatment, with hot sauce and blue cheese; pork belly is the star of a B.L.T. sandwich.