March 3, 2016
While technically a Southern city, Arlington isn’t really known for its barbecue. And at least on paper, Matt Lang, formerly of Fette Sau in Brooklyn, doesn’t seem like the logical choice to bring southern street cred to a northern Virginia barbecue joint. Lang definitely looks the part though. Heavily bearded and tattooed, he strikes the image of an appropriately grizzled pitmaster – especially when wearing his trademark fur hat on top. More importantly, he knows that sometimes, less is more. “I tend to go for pretty simple preparations. Sometimes just a little salt and pepper,” he says. “I try to let the flavor of the meat speak for itself.”
Texas Jack’s — which opened in early December — has embraced this minimalist philosophy across the board. Its design scheme, created by Akseizer Design Group, eschews the kind of Texas kitsch that typifies chains like Famous Dave’s, in favor of a more understated approach. It subtly evokes the old west, instead of hitting you over the head with hats and spurs. Much of the furniture and paneling is made from wooden planks refined and repurposed by local Virginia craftsmen. Even though “Texas” appears in the restaurant’s moniker, chosen by managing partner and co-owner Steve Roberts, its namesake is Virginia’s own Jack Omohundro, a real-life cowboy, entertainer, and friend to “Buffalo” Bill Cody.
The dining room’s overall look is on point, but more importantly, so is the meat. A good brisket ($22 per lb) is an absolute essential for any Texas barbecue joint, and Texas Jack’s is red-ringed and tender. Pork ribs (single rib $4.75, half rack $23, full rack $45), as smoky as they are flavorful, are another highlight. Lang jazzes up his pulled pork ($18 per lb) with a Mexican preparation that includes a paste made from achiote peppers, cinnamon and coriander, which gives a pleasantly spicy kick. The unsung hero is the smoked chicken ($26 for a whole). Sometimes an afterthought on barbecue menus, Lang’s variety is brined in tea, giving it a complex sweet and sour flavor that almost tastes more Asian than Texan. As is often the case at barbecue joints, the sampler platter is an excellent way to get the full culinary tour. The Meat Medley covers all the bases with servings of ribs, brisket, chicken and sausage ($30 for two, $50 for four).
A solid supporting cast of appetizers and sides complement this protein fest. Leading the way are the ’87 Cutlass Supreme Nachos ($6 for the “two-door,” $10 for the “four-door”), a messy pile of house-made chips topped with queso, fresh cilantro and scallions…and if you prefer to nibble on meat while you wait for your meat, pulled brisket or pork. Light and crispy Brussels Sprouts ($8/$11) sautéed in olive oil and lemon juice with crumbles of parmesan cheese are a worthy accompaniment to heavier entrees. An unexpectedly healthy and flavorful Kale Caesar Salad ($9) with fried capers is an appealing vegetarian option. A few other fresh veggie concoctions – like the Raw Carrot Salad ($5/$6) and the Smashed Cucumbers ($5/$7) – betray Lang’s affinity for interesting little relishes and salads.
Beverage Director Remzi Yilmaz presides over a bar that specializes in novel — sometimes western-tinted — takes on simple cocktails. The Smoked Whiskey Sour, for example, uses a drop of jalapeno-peppercorn syrup that echoes the pungent flavor found in several of the barbecue rubs. The Josephine, made with prosecco, Cointreau and various fruit juices is a heady bouquet, whose namesake is none other than Texas Jack’s wife. A large bourbon menu and full slate of interesting local micro-brews round out the versatile roster.
Although located in a relatively quiet area — a moderate distance from most of Arlington’s other bars and restaurants — Texas Jack’s has announced its intention to become an evening destination by keeping its door open until 2 AM every night of the week. Thanks to Lang and company, midnight brisket and bourbon is now a dangerously delicious option.