Once, while zipping along our state’s southern border—ragtop down, cooler snugged in the trunk, deadline looming for the “Food Lovers’ Guide to Virginia”—I learned a curious thing about the Commonwealth’s ‘que. Here, the flavors change from east to west, just like residents’ accents.
In Tidewater, the go-to barbecue is straight-up eastern North Carolina style with its vinegar tang and peppery pop. Over around Emporia, they douse smoked pig in a catsup-based red sauce. And by the time you reach the mountains, a sunshiny mustard-based sauce prevails.
Even after sampling scores of ‘ques for the guidebook, eastern North Carolina remains my first and only love. Thankfully, there are plenty of purveyors locally. One of the oldest is Rodman’s Bar-B-Que, started in 1929 originally located in Suffolk.
Rodman’s hews to a simple philosophy that has guided the eatery for nearly a century: basic is best. The ‘que here is made the same way it’s always been: wood smoked on premises and doused in a simple sauce of vinegar and red and black pepper.
“Anything else just screws it up,” said Barry W. Saunders, who has been working at Rodman’s for decades and shares duties as president of the corporation, cook, order taker, cleaner, and general laborer. He also mans a soaring, shiny smoker out back, bigger than a box truck, filling it each week with about 600 pounds of ribs, butts, and brisket.
In the kitchen, Barry’s crew, led by Casandra Jones, a second-generation Rodman’s employee, chops and douses the ‘que.
The $6 sandwich Barry handed me, warm in a paper-lined aluminum wrap, was moist, uniformly chopped, and had that classic eastern North Carolina tang. Served on a plain grocery store bun, it validated their “basic is best” philosophy.
When I eat a barbecue sandwich, I prefer a mound of clean, crisp slaw on top, a crown that compliments rather than overwhelms the pork, the way a creamy slaw always does. Rodman’s recipe perfectly pairs with their ‘que. It’s finely chopped cabbage in a light dressing of mayonnaise, mustard, and sugar.
In the kitchen, Cassandra also is in charge of the fried chicken, a locals’ favorite. She brines it in saltwater and then coats it with flour, salt, and pepper before dropping it into a bubbling fryer. The result is juicy, crunchy chicken—true soul food. And her collards ($13 per quart or served as a side) are some of the best I’ve tasted at a restaurant, chopped with just a hint of pork seasoning.
Not a ‘que fan? There’s plenty of downhome Southern fare to choose from: chicken-and-dumplings, pimento cheese ($6), ham ($6.50) and chicken salad ($6) sandwiches, Brunswick stew ($7 per pint, $13 per quart), and beef brisket sandwiches ($9).
Assuage a sweet tooth with a changing lineup of desserts. During a recent visit, there was apple pie ($3 per slice or $20 per pie) or banana pudding ($5.50 a bowl or $15 a pan).
And oh, those fried peanuts ($7 per pound)! Barry snuck a little sack of salty, still hot, redskin peanuts into my to-go bag and I couldn’t resist popping a few on the way home.
Recently, there’s been a bit of hullabaloo regarding just where barbecue originated, similar to disputes about Brunswick stew and the Wright brother’s first flight. Texas? North Carolina? Virginia?
“Ours is Suffolk ‘que,” Saunders said, referring to the original 1929 location of the business.
Regardless, my advice is that while tooling around Virginia, if you spy either a smoking cinderblock structure with screened walls or a sort of smoking fuel tank with legs on the side of the road, stop there. It’s a sign of a serious pit master.
But right here in town, Rodman’s serves up simple, honest ‘que. Go get some.