Branded '72, once O'Brien's, keeps true to the 'cue
Brian Lewis/The Gazette
The familiar aroma wafts through the door. I'd like to bottle it to send to my neighbor's children, whose first question on visiting from San Diego and Shanghai is, "When can we go to O'Brien's?"
The name has changed, but not the aroma or the Texas pit barbecue.
About that name: When new owners Mark Johnson and Matt Polster were renovating, they found the original 1972 O'Brien's menu, featuring the O'Brien's branded beef special.
"We enjoy a great relationship with the O'Briens," says Polster. Founder Ken O'Brien Sr., who is also Johnson's father-in-law, chopped beef at the soft opening in February. Ken Jr. serves as pit master and his sister Liz, cashier.
"We want to keep the tradition you set up alive, keep true to Dallas, Texas-style barbecue," Polster told the senior O'Brien. Retaining good staff helps. "The new' guys have only been here for eight years, and one manager has been there since 1974," he notes.
Stoked with green hickory wood, three large closed barbecue pits behind the restaurant are fired 24/7, 365 days a year. A firewall separates the rotating meat from the wood during the smoking.
"That's what separates us from everyone else in town," Polster declares.
After they took the reins on Oct. 1, the partners — Gaithersburg High School graduates and University of Maryland fraternity brothers — surveyed their customers' likes and dislikes. What diners loved was the way O'Brien's meat was cooked. What they didn't like was addressed by improving the interior and updating the menu. The floors were redone, a 50-inch television and a new stage added. Future plans include a bar.
As Althiea Moats, a veteran hand in a black Branded '72 shirt and white Western hat put it, "We want to keep the good things good and [make] the other things better."
Some new choices are available at the end of the chow line, thanks to managers John Turner and George Grau: southwest chicken salad and ginger salmon salad, sliders, house-smoked corned beef every day, fresh vegetables and in-house-made desserts. St. Louis (sauced) and Memphis (dry) style baby back ribs may not be Texas, but, "We do it; people want it," Polster says.
The Texas brisket and Carolina pork have always been the draw, and still are. Both the Texas spare ribs and classic baby backs are meaty; the baby backs have the edge on tenderness. The corned beef is moist and flavorful, if a tad salty. As is often the case, the white-meat chicken is drier than the dark meat.
You will find plenty of the original Texas sauce recipe that Ken O'Brien Sr. paid $10,000 for in 1972. More than 220,640 gallons have been prepared since then. Adding freshly smoked habaneros to the original recipe, the new regime created another sauce with a bit of a bite, and introduced a seasonal sauce, currently apple bourbon.
Also on hand are slender bottles of South Cackalacky yellow, a South Carolina mustard-based sauce with a hint of molasses and brown sugar, and North Carolina vinegar with spices and red pepper flakes.
The coleslaw is delicious and the smoky barbecue beans even better — a nice change from the typically over-sweet beans. The mac and cheese is a treat, and black beans and rice finds fans. The made-to-order matchstick fries are great eaten hot. Rough-cut collard greens have a peppery finish. Corn salad with chopped tomato and onion is a tasty new addition.
Key lime pie, pecan pie and peach cobbler are the real thing. And to make it sweeter, Branded '72 offers a 10 percent senior discount.
The dining room seats about 190, with generous space between tables. Music — country the night we ate — is always on.
"We want to create a fun place where you feel like sitting and hanging out," Polster says.
We did just that. The restaurant was not filled, and no one rushed to clear the table. Most of the business is at lunch, he points out.
To liven up evenings, the owners are exploring open-mike nights, local bands and perhaps karaoke. Focus Rockville presents concerts two Wednesdays a month, with Pierce Pettis and Tom Dews performing at 8 p.m. March 25. For details, log on to www.focusmusic.org.
387 East Gude Drive, Rockville
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Style of cuisine: Texas pit barbecue
Dinner entrees: $8-$32
Credit cards: All major cards