The slightly cavernous interior at 1190 N. Highland Ave. was always a problem for its previous occupant, Vine. The intimacy needed for fine dining was difficult to create in such a space, and even the broad patio, a huge asset in this Virginia-Highland neighborhood, seemed too unrefined for $30 entrees.
The space is practically perfect for a barbecue joint, however, particularly one that's full of happy eaters, as D.B.A. Barbecue is most evenings. Vine's subdued and slightly dowdy wine country décor has been replaced by barnyard chic - rough wood on the walls, Americana, neon and metal signage. It's too bright and clean to look like a real 'cue dive (à la Daddy D'z), but it does manage to feel friendly and neighborly. And in the warmer months, that patio is going to be ... qu'est-ce que c'est ... smokin'.
D.B.A. (a play on "doing business as usual") had a bit of a rough start – the barbecue was almost universally reported as underwhelming. So owners James Ehrlich and Matt and Lee Coggin brought in new chef Drew Kirkland. Kirkland had been working as chef de cuisine for Kevin Rathbun and brought with him his Lang smoker. I never ate at the restaurant prior to the changes, but in its current state, D.B.A. is turning out big piles of tasty meat, along with classic Southern sides done right.
Spare ribs are moist, with the requisite outer bark and juicy interior. Pulled pork has smoky flavor to spare, and the right jumble of tender meat and crunchy, charred bits.
Sides are strong, particularly the creamy potato salad, rife with mustard tang and crunchy onion and celery, and thankfully lacking the sugar present in too many Southern mayo-based salads. Green beans retain their crunch and snap, and are shot through with a generous smattering of caramelized garlic. Baked beans, while properly smoky as Southern baked beans should be, borrow some flavors from the British counterpart – more tomato, less molasses – and the hybrid works. Mac and cheese hits all the right notes, with equal measures of cheese, creaminess and crunch.
I found the collards, while cooked well and full of vegetable flavor, to be too sweet and needing acid. The Brunswick stew had a touch too much ketchup/Campbell's tomato soup flavor rather than the musky Worcestershire funk of the best Brunswick stews. In general, though, D.B.A.'s main strength is its sides.
The restaurant's main flaw is that it tries to be all barbecue to all people. Rather than taking a stance and identifying itself as primarily a Carolina joint (the success of the pulled pork and pork ribs leads me to think this is where the kitchen's strength lies), the restaurant offers beef brisket, wings, smoked chicken, and even smoked tofu. (Don't do it – it's everything you never liked about tofu, with a bitter finish.)
Nowhere is this personality crisis more evidenced than in the sauces. D.B.A. provides a mustard-based, South Carolina-style sauce, a "sweet" sauce, and a "spicy" sauce. The latter two are totally indistinguishable. Both are too sweet for my taste, tomato-based, and not spicy enough. They aren't the thick, rich sauces of Texas or Chicago, and they aren't anywhere near vinegary or spicy enough to claim North Carolina as inspiration. D.B.A. has apparently improved its barbecue – the same needs to happen with the sauces. I'd prefer a wickedly spicy vinegar-based sauce, but even a smoky, spicy Texas style would be better than the current selection.
Speaking of Texas, the beef brisket is the one meat I encountered that consistently suffered from dryness. The first time I tried it, as part of the "whole house" – a $40 plate that includes seven types of meat and four sides – the beef was so dry it resembled jerky. I ordered it again as an entree on its own a few nights later, and it fared much better. Still, the meat was a bit tough and didn't do the layer of caramelized fat along the top justice.
Another Texas dish that at first confused me but ultimately delighted was the grilled creamed corn, which is reminiscent of elote, the Mexican dish of corn, mayo, cheese, cayenne and lime. At D.B.A., corn is grilled and cut off the cob, then mixed with all the classic elote ingredients, as well as heavy cream. It's a fatty, overwhelming combo, but one that's hard to stop gobbling down once you've begun.
D.B.A. offers a number of drink specials, including a pitcher of sweet tea vodka mixed with lemonade, and a couple of wine coolers the menu urges you to think of as "Southern sangria." Both concoctions were overpoweringly sweet – I couldn't taste the lemonade in the pitcher at all and had to request lemon wedges to make it drinkable – but they sure are true to that saccharine Southern sensibility. For the rest of us, there's always beer.
D.B.A. needs to take a stance and focus on one kind of 'cue, and they certainly could do far better in the sauce department. The new smoker and chef obviously have brought the place up a few notches, and it's nice to see the space finally occupied by something that feels natural. For ribs, sides and neighborly good cheer, D.B.A. is doing quite a bit better than business as usual.