Tuffy Stone wins awards for his barbecue all over the country. With his Cool Smoke Team, he is an undisputed master, and luckily for us he decided to park a couple of smokers in Midlothian and let the locals get a taste.
The average barbecue place is an aging, idiosyncratic fast-food joint, with a counter at one end where you pick up your food, and tables with lots of paper napkins at the other. You're there for the food, and not a lot else.
Q Barbeque is a different kind of animal. Designer Helen Reed overlays a very modern, slick veneer upon the bare bones of the usual takeout place. It's clearly a prototype for potential Q siblings elsewhere. Stone's ribbons and trophies from triumphs on the barbecue circuit are everywhere. And very impressive some of them are too, as they tower 6 feet or more. It's all reds and oranges with the occasional blue. Oversized, arty, black-and-white photos of down-home, quirky pastoral scenes hang on the walls.
Big stainless steel smokers line one wall against a backdrop of blocky tile in bright colors. While I was there, I saw the cooks getting ready for the following day and loading up the smokers with 10 pork butts that would smoke during the next 12 hours.
What might go into the spice rub that Stone applies to the pork before smoking is anyone's guess. Barbecue champions don't share their secrets. Nonetheless, every minute of that long smoking time, I think, renders the barbecue even more irresistible. It's salty with just a little spice, and pulled apart by hand into large meaty chunks, instead of chopped. On the table are three sauces: one with a honey base; a more standard, fruity, Kansas City version; and a vinegar-based North Carolina sauce with red pepper flakes and slices of garlic settled at the bottom of a cruet.
Coleslaw is mandatory with barbecue and this one is comprised of slender little slices of cabbage. My only complaint would be that the standard white roll that sits on the side of your plate isn't a standard size at all. It's far too small to handle all that barbecue you're going to want to pile onto it. The big rack of ribs is perfect, with just a bit of a crust and tender, smoky meat that pulls away from the bone with no effort.
And the sides! Most barbecue places don't do a lot of thinking about anything other than the main attraction, so you might get some frozen french fries or canned beans, unenthusiastically reheated. It's different at Q Barbeque. The corn pudding is airy custard atop a light cornmeal base, and the onion rings are crunchy and grease-free. You can actually taste the cream and butter in the homemade macaroni and cheese, and the greens are true to their Southern roots. They're cooked until tender, with lots of bacon, and Stone makes them slightly sweet and slightly spicy, with lots of vinegar to bind all the flavors together.
It's easy to stack up your plate with an intimidating amount of food while intoxicated with the smoky smell of long-cooked meats. I didn't think I could cram in much of the apple crisp, but the nuts and cinnamon combined with its soft apples persuaded me otherwise. I had to try a bite of the banana pudding as well, and was relieved that it tasted as traditional as it looked.
I didn't like having to order at the counter, however. The setting is so lovely and the food is so memorable, it's hard to believe you have don't have a server catering to your every whim. Still, with its ring of tables facing a large-screen television, it has sports bar written all over, and maybe I just need to get over my sense of entitlement. That won't be too hard to do if Tuffy Stone promises me that his barbecue will be available somewhere close by, in the near future, whenever my heart desires it. S
2077 Wal-Mart Way; the Shops at Stonehenge behind Sam's Club
Open daily, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.