Restaurant Review: Liberty Barbecue
The Liberty Tavern guys have a new barbecue joint in Falls Church.
When it comes to fatty meats, I say, Smoke ’em if you got ’em! So I was giddy with anticipation when I heard that the seasoned team behind The Liberty Tavern, Lyon Hall and Northside Social Coffee & Wine was venturing into the barbecue game. Liberty Barbecue opened Dec. 16, smack dab in the middle of the holiday season, in the former Famous Dave’s space in Falls Church. Throngs of diners showed up on day one and continued into the new year, making that debut a literal trial by fire.
The building’s handsome new façade—a medley of horizontal pine planks, white bricks and a logo whose typeface will ring familiar to fans of the original Liberty in Arlington—signals a modern look its predecessor lacked. Gone, too, are the dreary drop ceilings and checkerboard linoleum that previously defined the interior. Instead, one finds high ceilings, polished concrete floors and reclaimed wood furniture. And of course, no hipster hive would be complete without pendant lamps with Edison bulbs.
It’s now a restaurant that appeals to millennials on dates, foodies and families with kids, all at the same time. Pitchers of beer and plastic tumblers of sweet tea have been replaced with locally brewed lager, Oregon pinot noir, prosecco and cocktails with ingredients such as clementine juice, Aperol and cilantro syrup.
But let’s get to the meat of the matter. Chef Matt Hill, a 2000 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America Hyde Park, is the real deal. Locally, he was the chef at Charlie Palmer Steak and Range, both in Washington, D.C., before teaming up with Liberty co-owners Steve and Mark Fedorchak and Brian Normile in 2014 as executive chef of their growing empire.
To boot, Hill is a North Carolinian, born and raised. He’s joined by pitmaster Dan Till, a fellow Culinary Institute grad who previously cut his chops at Evening Star Café and Pork Barrel Barbecue in Del Ray.
Barbecue is all about smoke, and generating that key ingredient requires a pit that runs on fire, gas or electricity—plus enough wood to provide the smoke. The advantage of Hill’s chosen fuel, electricity (in what’s known as a hybrid smoker), is that you can maintain a low-and-slow temperature just north of 200 degrees without having to be in the room, monitoring the heat source. The disadvantage is that it’s more difficult to create a dark, crunchy exterior (known as the bark) while still achieving the telltale pink inner rings that indicate rich smoking.
Hill uses half white oak and half hickory in a Southern Pride hybrid smoker. Whole beef briskets and pork shoulders are smoked for roughly 12 hours, starting at 5:30 a.m. Ribs go for four to five hours, while other options such as pork belly, turkey breast, chickens and house-made beef sausage require less time.
The rubs are simple: salt and cracked black pepper for pork ribs, pork shoulder and beef; five-spice powder for lacquered Chinese pork belly (char siu); paprika, cumin, brown sugar, onion, garlic, salt and pepper for poultry.
If you’re a sauce person, there are three excellent ones on the table: a sweet-and-tangy, ketchup-based Boss sauce; Carolina vinegar sauce; and a creamy mustard-based Georgia sauce.
I visited Liberty Barbecue in its early weeks and found the brisket to be a tad dry and under-smoked, with not enough bark. The ribs were meaty and moist, with great flavor (the restaurant uses high-quality pork), although they, too, lacked the crusty bark and full essence of oak and hickory I’d expected. The turkey breast was succulent and juicy, but also could have been smokier.
If you love a delightful mess like I do, the brisket sandwich—laden with fried onions, cheese sauce, zesty Fresno chilies and horseradish mayo—is a winner. So is another sandwich piled high with pulled pork and an excellent cabbage-and-bell-pepper slaw.
A huge bowl of smoked-brisket and kidney-bean chili, topped with sour cream, cheddar cheese, scallions and tortilla strips, is a bargain at $6, and presses all the comfort food buttons.
Oddly enough, the star of the menu isn’t smoked. The pickle-brined fried chicken, also a Monday mainstay at The Liberty Tavern, may be the best fried chicken in town. The meat is infused with a touch of dilly vinegar, and its light coating remains crunchy even when eaten as next-day leftovers.
Among the starters, I can recommend the stellar smoked chicken wings (ask them to split an order, slathering half in tangy Alabama white sauce and half in a chipotle-pepper sauce that packs a wallop).
Take a pass on the leathery fried green tomatoes and pasty hush puppies and opt instead for a plate of plump barbecued oysters. Mine were perfectly cooked and packed with buttery, sausage-spiked cornbread dressing—eventually. They accidentally arrived at the table undressed the first time around. Then Hill spotted me in the dining room, apologized profusely for the mishap, and sent out a redo. I chalk that up to growing pains, along with spotty service from servers who were clearly overwhelmed in the opening weeks.
It’s evident that side dishes at Liberty Barbecue are given time and attention usually lacking in barbecue joints. Try an order of navy beans, rife with smoked brisket ends, or the ultra-cheesy, Ritz-cracker-topped macaroni-and-cheese, made with nickel-size rounds of orecchiette pasta. You also can’t go wrong with vinegar-laced collards braised in pork and chicken broth, or the superlative, double-fried, hand-cut french fries.
If you can manage dessert after all this richness, check out pastry chef Bridie McCulla’s tall glass of butterscotch-banana pudding loaded with vanilla wafers and salted caramel sauce.
The prices at Liberty Barbecue represent an excellent value, and the setting is simultaneously hip and homey. Once Matt Hill perfects his barbecue method, it will be a neighborhood place worth visiting regularly—just as devotees flock to its three sister establishments, without fail, in Arlington.
What to Drink
The experience and expertise that restaurateurs Steve and Mark Fedorchak bring to the table is evident in Liberty’s drink offerings. The cocktail program is more innovative than you’d expect in a barbecue place, offering up such libations as the Groove Jet (mezcal, grilled pineapple, jalapeño and cilantro syrup, $10), a frozen Jack Daniel’s sour ($10) and the Pixie, a blend of prosecco, Aperol and clementine juice ($9).
The selection of about two dozen beers and ciders includes many local brews. Among them: Old Ox “Black Ox” ($6.50) from Ashburn, and D.C.’s Right Proper “Raised by Wolves” ($6.50).
You can also enjoy a good-quality wine with your ’cue such as an Oregon pinot noir from R. Stuart & Co. Winery ($13) or a Spanish albariño from Bodega Viña Nora ($10).
370 W. Broad St., Falls Church | 703-237-8227 | libertyfallschurch.com
Sunday-Thursday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Appetizers: $5 to $12
Smoked meats, per half-pound: $8 to $11
Sandwiches: $7 to $11
Small sides: $3 to $5
Desserts: $4 to $7.25
Ample free parking in the Broadale Village Shopping Center’s large lot