Old Town’s wait for bar­be­cue is over

Celebrity pit­mas­ter’s out­post serves as a meaty mecca

The Washington Post - - $20 DINER - BY TIM CAR­MAN

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.

PHOTOS BY RICKY CARIOTI/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

PHOTOS BY RICKY CARIOTI/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

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