OK, we’ll admit it. Sometimes we plan our hikes based on places we want to eat and drink afterward. Last weekend, we reallllly wanted some good southern BBQ. We have two favorite places for that in Virginia: Jordan Springs Market, near Winchester (just a bit northwest of DC) and the BBQ Exchange in Gordonsville (northeast of Charlottesville). On this occasion, we opted to plan a short hike in Shenandoah National Park near the Swift Run Gap entrance specifically so that we could swing by the BBQ Exchange soon after we were done. (It just so happened that we somehow also managed to find time to visit Barboursville Vineyards between the hike and our BBQ dinner).
The BBQ Exchange does not, in fact, exchange any barbecue. (Its name is related to the fascinating history of Gordonsville and to its proximity to the railway exchange in town.) What they do is amazing food — lots of it — served with casual Southern hospitality. There’s very minimal table service here. They describe their service style as “quick-counter,” and they also do a brisk take-out business. The counter is manned by a brigade of 3-4 servers who are knowledgeable about the menu and friendly. Pop in line, check the menu board, choose your meat (or meats) plus sides, decide if you want cornbread, pumpkin muffin, or roll with your meal. We usually go with the 2-meat + sides or 3-meat + sides platters. It’s a great way to sample several of their smoked offerings.
The order-taker will mark your sturdy paper plate with shorthand that designates your choices and pass it off to the meat server. If you’ve ordered chicken or brisket (“chopped or sliced?“), they’ll plate it right there. If you’ve ordered something like pork belly or ribs, you’ll likely get a number and they’ll bring your meat to the table when it’s ready. The meat server will pass your plate to the sides server, who will then pass you on to someone to ring you up. You’ll have to pass the gourmet cupcakes in the dessert case to get to the register. Be strong. If by some miracle you have room after eating your meal, you can always come back for one. You can opt for sweet tea or lemonade (of course), or bottled beer, soda, or water from a case near the counter.
Butter, honey, plastic cutlery, and other niceties are on a station just around the corner from the service counter. Once you have your food, find a table — inside or out. Either place, you’ll find picnic tables covered with plain white paper and adorned with six-packs of various house-made sauces and a roll of paper towels. You will want to use both. This is old-school, slow-cooked barbecue (you’ll have noticed the smoking shed behind the restaurant when you parked and came in). They offer pork shoulder, ribs, brisket, pork belly, and chicken. Sides include collard greens (Henri’s favorite), mac & cheese, Brunswick stew, baked beans, pepper cabbage, spicy cole slaw, homestyle cole slaw, potato salad, macaroni salad, house-made pickles, and more.
While the owners, Craig and Donna Hartman, encourage you to “save room for dessert,” we’ve never successfully done so. Portions are generous. The cornbread — amazing with some butter and honey drizzled on top — is a big ol’ chunk. Everything we’ve sampled here (on more than one occasion) is flavorful and tender, with that incredibly satisfying BBQ “bark” on the outside. The sauces and sides are homemade and just as worthy of praise as the meats. The BBQ Exchange also does family dinner meals (designed for 2 adults and 2 children) on a “to go only” basis, as well as meats by the pound.
The restaurant is housed in a whitewashed building with tin siding and sits at the southern end of Main Street in downtown Gordonsville, Virginia. Be sure to check their Facebook page for information on Porkapalooza!