Three years ago, transplanted East Texan Nick Fontana borrowed $300,000 from venture capitalists to open a storefront barbecue joint in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown. Today, Capital Q is thriving, thanks to the sons of the Lone Star State who want to feel at home in D.C. “I’ve gotten national exposure overnight,” says Fontana, the talkative pit boss, a short, balding, bearded Port Arthur, Texas, native. Fontana catered a GOP national convention party hosted by House Republican leader Dick Armey last summer in Philadelphia, earning the stamp of approval from Dubya’s pals by hand-slicing half a ton of brisket for 4,000 guests.
Texas-style hickory-smoked beef has suddenly become the politically correct ‘cue of choice in D.C. And you can find genuine Texas barbecue, that’s right, in the heart of Chinatown (707 H Street NW, 202-347-8396). “Texas sauce is tomato-based, has fresh chili peppers and is bold,” explains Fontana. And expect lean, full-flavored meat. “It has more smoke,” he says. That’s because it’s “slow-smoked,” as in 12 hours at 200 degrees on site, then hand-carved to order. Although the menu is extensive, beef is the main event. According to Fontana, he serves almost half a ton of beef brisket in a busy week. “People who grew up in Texas miss authentic ‘cue. They’ll drive two hours to find it.”
During lunchtime hours, this sit-down cowboy joint, where country music spills out into the street, attracts young professionals and attorneys who work nearby. They line up in front of the display counter for their ‘cue, then grab one of the 26 cattle-branded barstools or carry their ‘cue out. Washingtonians are following the Texans, but one warning: yea to the sauce, but nay to the hot date, unless you want to chance getting caught on the live Internet feed via the “Q-Cam” (www.capitalqbbq.com). More practically, you can see how thick the lunch crowd is before you head over.
|Capital Q’s Original
Bar-b-que Sauce ingredients (amounts for exact recipe kept under wraps): Ketchup, mustard, French ancho chile peppers, brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, spices and secret flavorings.
Fontana offers homemade fixins to go with the brisket. The no-frills, 60-item menu includes imported Texas sausage (Elgin or Chapel Hill; it’s spicy and all-beef), Texas caviar (black-eyed pea salad), smoked portobello mushrooms, jalapeño corn bread, collard greens, hand-cut smoked potatoes, freshly mashed potatoes and his mom’s potato salad recipe. Novices may want to sample Texas grub with a combination platter of brisket, peppery Elgin beef sausage and pork ribs topped with homemade sauce-mild or hot to suit your taste. There’s also a full bar, a selection of Texas beers and sweet Texas iced tea.
“This is real food. I allow people to experience new things, new flavors,” says Fontana. “It’s in my blood. This is what I know. That’s what’s fun about it.” Cowboys know how to have fun. Fontana doesn’t stop with “Cowboy Q” in bringing Texas to D.C. He organizes an annual Cowboy Christmas Hay Ride on tractors between the Capitol and the White House. Fontana, who was trained in fine dining, hopes the restaurant will “get really corporate. I’d like to establish and grow the brand.” He’s already bottled his own barbecue sauce. But he wants to remain authentic: “I want Texans to feel they could be in Austin or Waco.”
The décor is genuine Texas: memorabilia (a football signed by former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach); signed photos (Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison calls it the “best barbecue in D.C.”); a wagon-wheel ceiling light with welded points to make a Texas Lone Star; and Fontana’s favorite, Willy Boy-a Mexican cowboy image framed in a mat made from cloth from an old Western suit.
Although Fontana calls himself a “nonpolitical Republican,” Democrats are welcome. He even catered an office party for House Democrat leader Dick Gephardt. He may not be political, but after all, this is Washington. He actually lost customers over a signed picture hanging on his wall from a regular diner, former independent counsel Kenneth Starr. “One guy called the health department to say he saw a ‘rat,'” says Fontana.