102 Martinsburg Avenue . Gordonsville, VA . (540) 832-0227
There are few better ways to start an argument in the South than to raise the topic of barbecue. Below the Mason-Dixon line, there are as many views on what makes good barbecue as there are mouths. The only views that might be stronger concern what does not make good barbecue.
Consider our two favorite local sources of pork barbecue. One is Jinx’s Pit’s Top, owned by mad genius Jinx Kern. Jinx runs his tiny Charlottesville shack all by himself, and cranks out pork that several publications say is among the nation’s best.
Almost as striking as Jinx’s pork are his opinions. Jinx’s website defines “real barbeque” as “meat, usually pork, roasted very slowly and gently over live coals.” In contrast, Jinx says, “BBQ” is “what you get everywhere else.” It is “dreck”, or “something not good to eat. “
Yet those very letters – “B B Q” – are displayed proudly and prominently on the awning of our favorite barbecue place in the area, BBQ Exchange.
So, who is right? Jinx or BBQ Exchange? Frankly, it doesn’t much matter. There are no losers in this debate. Both Jinx’s Pit’s Top and BBQ Exchange serve phenomenal barbecued meats. What sets BBQ Exchange apart from its peers, though, is the attention to detail it brings to everything else.
Attention to Detail
If you order a BLT at BBQ Exchange, the server will ask if you want it “crispy” or “chewy.” If you happen to say “chewy”, you will be served BBQ Exchange’s own house-made Red Eye Bacon. You will be very, very happy. (The crispy stuff is good, too, just not house-made.)
To make Red Eye Bacon, BBQ Exchange starts with a high quality pork belly, which they rub with their own dry cure, made of spices and freshly ground Shenandoah Joe coffee. The belly then sits to cure for seven days, after which it is rinsed and air dries for another seven days. Finally, the belly is smoked for up to eighteen hours over green hickory logs. The smoking requires constant monitoring, or else the fire could give the belly a harsh petroleum flavor, ruining a belly that has already received two weeks of care.
This single line item on the menu, then, requires more than two weeks to prepare, and hours of attention. Yet, many customers barely even notice it is there. Only customers who happen to choose a BLT at a barbecue joint in the first place, and then elect the “chewy” option will ever know its brilliance.
This same attention to detail goes into everything on BBQ Exchange’s menu: the ten different kinds of pickles, the three types of cabbage slaws, the macaroni and cheese, and every other side item. And, of course, the breads, the desserts, and even all six barbecue sauces. The Colonel Bacon sauce, which Hartman calls their signature, has more than a pound of bacon in every gallon.
All of this attention to detail is not surprising when you consider Hartman’s resume. Culinary Institute of America. Executive Chef at the Pinehurst Hotel at just 22 years old. Chef at the Williamsburg Lodge. The Governor’s Mansion. Sous Chef at Washington D.C.’s Mayflower Hotel. The opening Executive Chef at the Outer Banks’ Sanderling Inn. Executive Chef at Clifton Inn. The Cliff House, in Colorado Springs. The Morrison Clark, in D.C.. Podcast host. Inventor of microgreens. And, of course, Executive Chef at Keswick Hall’s Fossett’s restaurant.
While at Clifton Inn and Keswick Hall, for the better part of two decades Hartman presided over the kitchens of what many regarded as the area’s best fine dining restaurants. If there were a Mount Rushmore of Charlottesville area restaurant figures, Hartman’s place on it would be assured. Yet, if not for a twist of fate, Hartman might never have cooked a single meal in the area.
In our article on Zocalo, we noted how the University of Virginia had factored, albeit inadvertently, into Zocalo coming to Charlottesville. BBQ Exchange likewise traces its roots to UVa. In BBQ Exchange’s case, we have the UVa Mens’ soccer team to thank.
In 1991, Hartman was living in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A soccer fanatic who had received several college scholarship offers himself, Hartman had read about a soccer phenom at UVa named Claudio Reyna. Hartman wanted to see Reyna play, but soccer was rarely televised at the time. So, in December 1991, Hartman and his wife drove from the Outer Banks to Charlottesville to watch UVa’s NCAA tournament game against Hartford. While in town, they stayed at a place called Clifton Inn. A few weeks later, he and his wife returned to Clifton Inn to fill in for the innkeepers, who wanted a vacation. Hartman ended up staying for good, and almost overnight created the area’s best special occasion restaurant.
Had it not been for Reyna and the UVa Mens’ soccer team, then, Hartman may never have found his way to Charlottesville, and BBQ Exchange either would not have existed, or would have been somewhere else. (Go Hoos.) Yet, even after launching Clifton Inn’s restaurant in 1992, the 2010 launching of BBQ Exchange in Gordonsville was far from a sure thing.
A Dream and a Vision
BBQ Exchange was born out of a dream and a vision. The dream is simple. Hartman, who always enjoyed slow-cooking meats over a fire, had long dreamed of opening his own barbecue restaurant. Some chefs, Hartman says, dream of opening a little shack on the beach and serving fish tacos. Hartman wanted a barbecue place. So, in February 2010, while Executive Chef at Fossett’s restaurant, Hartman went for it.
The vision is more ambitious. Hartman envisions a restaurant that captures the essence of its location, Virginia. When you eat at the great restaurants in New Orleans, Hartman observes, from the food and experience you can feel that you are in New Orleans. Similarly, if you eat at many of the nation’s great barbecue places, you can feel and taste your location — whether it be Lockhart, TX, Memphis, TN, or somewhere else. The French have a similar concept for wine: terroir.
When tourists come to the Charlottesville area, their destinations may include vineyards, Monticello, and UVa, among others. Hartman wants BBQ Exchange to be the answer to the question: “where can they eat that makes them feel like they are in Virginia?”
So, how does Hartman think he is doing? He is halfway there, he says. The experience is there. The restaurant’s service and atmosphere, he thinks, are true to its location. Virginia is known for hospitality, Hartman says, and folks who come to BBQ Exchange will experience the “kindness and the love” that Virginians are known for. They will know that they are in Virginia.
The cuisine has proven more elusive. But, this may be because he is chasing the unattainable. As Hartman himself concedes, he has yet even to identify a true cuisine of Virginia, let alone replicate it. And that’s not for lack of trying. A food historian, Hartman has studied what Virginians eat – reading old cookbooks, menus, and anything else he can get his hands on. But, he remains stumped. “As long as I have done this, I have not been able to figure out a true Virginia cuisine.”
Whether true Virginia cuisine or not, the food at BBQ Exchange sure is good.
In about 77 A.D, in Naturalis historia, Pliny the Elder wrote of the many ways to enjoy pork:
There is no animal who furnishes more variety to the tongue:
its meat provides nearly fifty flavors,
but that of the other animals only one.
Nearly 2000 years later, BBQ Exchange is testament to Pliny the Elder’s words. The swine at BBQ Exchange is swell. And, there are lots of ways to enjoy it. Pulled pork. Pork belly BBQ. Pork belly pops. Hog wings. BLTs. Colonel Bacon barbecue sauce. Bacon donuts. A bacon and pecan cookie. And, one of the greatest ever porcine creations, the Heaven sandwich: pulled pork, fried egg, melted cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, Red Eye Bacon, and house-made “baconnaise”, or bacon mayonnaise.
Despite Hartman’s fondness for pig, a vegetarian can eat well at BBQ Exchange. Vegetables abound on the menu, whether fried, pickled, or tossed into slaws. There is also tofu barbecue, affectionately named Fu-Q. To capture the flavor of barbecue without using meat, Hartman uses a week-long process of brining and smoking. The result is pretty darned good, although not likely to sway us from the swine.
Pesce-vegetarians have even more options, with the recent addition of salmon barbecue to the menu. Hartman says that getting the salmon right was a delicate task, requiring lots of trial and error. We think the result was worth the wait.
Beyond the food, Hartman is right that BBQ Exchange has the experience down. Knowledgeable and friendly staff. A warm, low-key atmosphere, with indoor picnic tables topped with paper. And, an always smiling Chef Hartman who presides over the dining area, interacting with customers, and trying to ensure that no one leaves unhappy. The BBQ Exchange is so family-friendly that we consider it ideal for a Mother’s Day outing (although in each family this may turn on the mother’s fondness for barbecue).
Room for Improvement?
When BBQ Exchange opened in February 2010, not everything on the menu was stellar. The cornbread could sometimes be dry. The cole slaw was not always quite right. And, even the pork was hit-or-miss. Hartman admits that he was in over his head, particularly because he initially tried to split his time between BBQ Exchange and Fossett’s.
But, Hartman has since left Fossett’s. And, the food at BBQ Exchange has constantly improved, one menu item at a time. “Every day I am going to do better than yesterday,” Hartman says. While we think BBQ Exchange has now nailed just about everything on the menu, Hartman says that he has not even hit his stride yet. “If you really think you’re good,” Hartman says, “then there has got to be a problem.”
If there is one thing at BBQ Exchange we would improve, it would be the rolls, although we admit that this might just come down to personal preference. Nailing the bread to serve with barbecue can be so difficult that some barbecue legends just throw up their hands and use Wonder Bread. The bread must be hearty enough that it won’t disintegrate under wet, saucy, meat. But, it can’t be so hearty that it is dry and stodgy, lest it detract from the meats.
At BBQ Exchange, we find that the rolls can err on the side of being dry, although recent visits suggest that they are improving. Sometimes, we just buy pork and take it home to put in on Martin’s potato rolls.
One thing other customers would change is location. Some have told Hartman they wish BBQ Exchange were closer to Charlottesville. Hartman responds that, if it were, then Charlottesville customers would not enjoy the beautiful ride out to Gordonsville.
We agree. Part of the enjoyment of a good barbecue place is the pilgrimage. The pork pilgrimage. And, the drive from Charlottesville to Gordonsville is a particularly good one, having been cited as one of the most scenic stretches of road in America.
What to Order
BBQ Exchange’s pulled pork is excellent. One of our favorite ways to eat it is what you might call “Country Confit.” We take home a container of pork, chop it up very finely, pack it back into the take-out container, and then refrigerate it over night, taking care to include all of the pork grease. (If we are feeling fancy, we might press it into a ramekin.) The next day, we eat it cold, spread onto hunks of a baguette from Albemarle Baking Company. As garnishes, we like BBQ Exchange’s pickles, some cornichons and grainy mustard from Feast, and Jalapeno Jelly from Planet Earth Diversified. We wash it down with a crisp beer from Beer Run or a big glass of a hearty red wine.
- Barbecue: Pulled Pork, Ribs, Pulled Chicken
- Sandwich: “Heaven”, BLT with “chewy” bacon
- Pickles: Green Tomatoes, Sweet Peppers
- Sides: Home-style Cole slaw, Macaroni and Cheese
- Fried: Pickles, Green Tomatoes
- Bread: Pumpkin Muffins
Like us, Chef Hartman has an unusual way he likes to eat his pulled pork. He takes a big leaf of Romaine lettuce and wraps it around pulled pork, spicy cole slaw, and pickled hot peppers. It is one of his favorite snacks. Hartman, who samples BBQ Exchange’s meats every day, also likes:
- Red Eye Bacon (“I have a hard time not eating that bacon,” Hartman says.)
- Pork Belly
- Pumpkin Muffins