We finally got home on Friday evening, January 2nd, about 5:30 pm, after driving a little over 3,000 miles over the previous two weeks. After doing a little unpacking, and generally just kicking back and relaxing for a little while, we decided to finish our BBQ Crawl with a relatively local joint that opened up in Columbia recently, Mission BBQ.
Mission BBQ is actually a chain of restaurants with thirteen locations ranging from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. So you might be immediately suspicious that this could turn out like our trip to The Pit “Authentic” BBQ in Raleigh. I’m absolutely geeked to say that nothing could be further from the truth! WE ACTUALLY HAVE A FANTASTIC BBQ JOINT NEAR HOME!!!! Woo-Hoo!!! (At this point, you have to visualize me doing the happy dance, because that’s how I felt when I left).
Despite the fact we were getting to their Columbia, MD location at 7:30 pm on a Friday night, the place wasn’t packed, which was both reassuring (we didn’t want to wait a long time, or deal with a really loud, crowded place) and disconcerting (really good BBQ joints are usually packed). Nonetheless, we eagerly made our way to the registers to place our order. We got the three meat sampler, with brisket, pulled pork, and their jalapeño cheese sausage. For sides, we chose mac and cheese (do you see a theme? I think we chose mac and cheese at every joint that offered it as a side – we love mac and cheese) and beans.
And here’s the first way that Mission BBQ distinguished themselves from every other BBQ joint we visited on our trip – they asked us whether we wanted “lean” or “moist” brisket. For those of you not familiar with the cut of meat that is brisket, understand that it is actually two separate and distinct muscles that make up (roughly) the chest of the cow. The upper part of the brisket is called “the point”, and the muscle fibers are interspersed with seams of wonderfully delicious fat – not the kind of fat that is chewy or grisly, but the kind of fat that melts when you cook it low and slow for a long time. As a result, the point muscle tends to be juicier and more tender than the other part of the brisket muscle, the flat. The flat is much more lean, and is the part of the brisket from which corned beef is made. Its texture is a bit more like steak, and can be a bit more chewy, unless it is cooked low and slow (as in BBQ) or is brined for a very long time (as in corned beef).
As I said, though, Mission BBQ was the very first place we visited on our BBQ crawl that actually asked us whether we wanted point (“moist”) or flat (“lean”) brisket. And that right there was enough to make me love them – because they get that there is a difference, and that people have a preference. We chose the point, by the way, and we were not disappointed (more on that below).
The second way that Mission BBQ distinguished themselves was that as soon as we had ordered, we started to move to our right to get our silverware and we were greeted by an associate who asked if we had ever been there before, and when we said no, she introduced herself as the manager, and explained how all their meats were smoked fresh every day, and how everything was scratch made and not from a can, and she described the variety of sauces, and showed us the smokers. In short, she was one of the most hospitable hosts we met on the entire trip! This place really wants you to love them, and it felt completely genuine and heartfelt. I worked in the restaurant business through most of my teens and twenties, and quite frankly, at some point in your restaurant career it gets really hard to give a shit anymore, but this manager wanted us to feel welcome and was obviously enthusiastic about how they ran their restaurant, and that is refreshing and heartening. Or maybe I’m just a grumpy, jaded old man and was surprised that the restaurant manager actually seemed to care whether or not we enjoyed our dining experience. :-)
We made our way through the restaurant to choose a table, and we picked one of the tall tables that had bar stools. The table was decked out with license plates under a glass top, which I thought was a really cool decorating motif. You can some of the license plates underneath our platter in the picture below. About the time we got seated (which might have taken two minutes since we ordered), our name was called, so I went up and picked up the tray that had our order (this is one of the other things I love about BBQ restaurants: it rarely takes very long to put together your order!).
We were so hungry and so enamored of our combo plate that I forgot to take a picture until after we had already started eating, so you have to understand that our plate came with about twice as much meat as what is shown here. So how was it? In short, it ranked among the best we had on our whole trip! The pork was tender and juicy and nicely smoky (the manager had mentioned that they use primarily oak for smoking), and had a great porky flavor. The smoke did not overpower the natural pork flavor, but it was prominent enough to seriously enhance it. In short, it was fantastic pork BBQ.
The brisket was nearly perfect, with a gorgeous smoke ring, an incredibly tasty bark, an awesome smokiness, and fantastic beef flavor. It’s amazing how many BBQ places we went to in the last two weeks where the brisket was good, but wasn’t sufficiently “beefy”. This was a beefy brisket. And deliciously tender – that’s another way in which Mission BBQ distinguished themselves – this was one of the most tender briskets we had the whole trip. Of course, it probably helped that we were having the point, whereas almost every other place served us flat (without asking us if we wanted point), but nonetheless, it was awesome!
As good as the pork and brisket were, I think my favorite might actually be the jalapeño cheese sausage. This stuff just rocked the house! Imagine a smoky beef sausage interspersed with little chunks of creamy cheese and small bits of diced jalapeños. Simply marvelous, and a perfect balance of smoky, beefy, meaty, creamy, cheesy, spicy wonderfulness! I loved it, and can’t wait to try it again.
The beans were good, and the mac and cheese was some of the best we had on this trip, with a crumbly topping and stringy gooey cheese – yum!
And now for the final way in which Mission BBQ distinguishes themselves – through their mission, their passion, and their patriotism. I won’t bother trying to describe it because the owners themselves have done it better than I can, but suffice to say that this place is dedicated to true American heroes – service men and women from all of the armed forces, fire fighters, law enforcement, and first responders, who everyday help serve and protect Americans. It really does give you a sense of patriotism when you look at the mementos on the walls – the medals, the insignias, the pictures, and the flags. As the owners point out, BBQ is a uniquely American cuisine (in my mind, probably the only uniquely American cuisine, other than perhaps creole and hamburgers, LOL), and they genuinely celebrate America and American heroes. It’s a pretty cool place, with a pretty cool mission, and I’m sure I’ll become a regular.