Although the good eats at Buz & Ned's Real Barbecue have snagged national headlines in recent years, a new crop of grill masters have quietly been logging in long hours over the pits. George "Tuffy" Stone, the kitchen whiz behind A Sharper Palate catering fame, is one to watch. Perfecting his take on barbecue for the past five years, Stone has traveled the World Championship Barbecue circuit with his "Cool Smoke" team, racking up more than 100 awards, 10 state championships and a third-place finish at the World Championship Jack Daniels BBQ Contest.
Stone has brought his creations back to the masses and recently opened Q, (2077 Wal-Mart Way, 897-9007, qbarbeque.com), a home base that enables him to further sharpen his techniques and allow Richmonders in on the ride. "We've been having a blast with it … we just keep trying to make it better, and keep trying to push the envelope," says Stone, whose Midlothian restaurant is earning rave reviews.
Stone says that his goal is to take a food that is centuries old and add his own modern-day twist to it. Always up for a new challenge, he admits that he wanted to turn his attention back to the basics and learn to cook with nothing more than wood fire: "Barbecue is a slow cooking process and cannot be rushed." The resulting flavor profile most characteristic of Stone's version of barbecue is balanced — a proper blend of smoke, spice, sweetness and tang.
"We cook with hickory so the presence of smoke is there, but I think the key is to have the flavor of smoke to only be a supporting flavor," says Stone. He explains that the crucial element to good barbecue, when cooking with real wood, is fire or smoke management. Complementing his dedication to the process are Q's side items, a hefty helping of corn pudding, hush puppies, onion rings, slaw and the like.
Across town, at Hillbilly Red's (353 E. Williamsburg Road, 737-2007, hillbillyredsbbq.com) in Sandston, owner Mark "Red" Thomas has been covertly gaining a fan base since opening shop two years ago. Not afraid to go toe-to-toe with anyone in River City, Thomas challenges barbecue connoisseurs to personally sit down with him and give his version of barbecue a shot. A former construction worker, Thomas changed careers in recent years and built not only a solid barbecue recipe, but also the four walls that now house his creations. "We're starting to get people from all around … when you get people who like your barbecue, they'll drive 30 or 40 minutes for it without any problem," he says.
Proud of his Southern Pride cooker, Thomas cooks all night — for 13 hours — with hickory wood. "It's the Cadillac of the barbecue business," he insists, pointing to his no-fuss combo meals as evidence. Thomas encourages customers to experiment with a variety of North Carolina- and Virginia-inspired sauces that he offers on the side, one of which is his own Hillbilly Red's "house" sauce. As for the burning question of which is the best, he laughs, "One day we were just sitting around here and put all of them on, and it was pretty good … so I like to just take all three of them now and mix them together."
Also expanding is The Virginia Barbeque Company (800-429-9965, virginiabbq.com), proving that 16 locations across the country aren't quite enough. Founder and CEO Rick Ivey is offering a crack at his take on barbecue at a newly opened Courthouse Plaza location. The restaurant takes its name from its traditional approach to Virginia-style hand-pulled barbecue, but fans equally seek out its classic North Carolina barbecue sandwich, Texas beef sandwich and St. Louis smoked slab of ribs.
Also on the South Side is Big Daddy's Barbecue & Ribs (6359 Jahnke Road, 560-1570), a longtime barbecue joint that has dished up the 'cue in a hidden Jahnke Road shopping center for years. Loyal customers seek out owner John Richardson's eastern North Carolina pork barbecue, Texas beef brisket and Memphis-style baby back ribs.
"I was a tractor-trailer driver for about 17 years, so I had a lot of barbecue road experience in checking out barbecue places in different sections of the country," Richardson says, "especially across the Gulf and down into Texas … that's where I used to like to run."
Such experience came in handy when Richardson brought his road-warrior palate back to Richmond and opened up shop. However, not until recently has his barbecue hit a larger audience when he debuted it at the South of the James Farmers Market, and plans to bring his ᾽cue to a new farmers' market in Bryan Park this spring. His "Family Pack" combo deal, complete with North Carolina barbecue and sides for a family of four, has proven a popular item.
Richardson's growing success has led to a new endeavor, an outdoor catering side gig called Gail's Gumbo House (560-1570). His wife, Gail Richardson, dishes up a New Orleans-inspired menu that has quickly become known for its gumbo and jambalaya. However, the husband-and-wife team are quick to point out that barbecue is always available at both homegrown businesses.