Barbecue Road Trip in Central Virginia

By Steve Cook | July 27th, 2023

Beware the Barbecue Triangle

Barbecue tray from Gordonsville's BBQ Exchange with onion rings, hush puppies, pork

Richmond-based food and travel writer Steve Cook takes us on a Central Virginia barbecue road trip to two of his favorite spots, from the West End of Richmond to Gordonsville.

NOTE: The original article, March 3, 2022, reviewed a barbecue restaurant that was in Ashland that has since closed. We have updated the article to include another worthy barbecue restaurant in Ashland, in case you want to travel Cook’s Barbecue Triangle.  

Much like that area in the North Atlantic where ships and planes have been known to mysteriously disappear, there is a triangle that runs from Richmond’s West End to Gordonsville in Louisa County and down to Ashland. The biggest difference is that there’s little mystery as to why one might disappear into this triangle. Those who return generally do so with smiling faces and satisfied stomachs. I am, of course, talking about the renowned Barbecue Triangle.

Just as what happens to those who’ve disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle is a much-debated topic, the subject of who has the best barbecue is a hot, somewhat smoky, topic, which I’m not going to allow myself to be sucked in to.

I always hate those “Best of” guides. Who has the best of anything and what makes it the best is so subjective. There are some publications that fall into that trap (often connecting their superlatives with advertising money). But, really, before one can make the statement that so-and-so has the best donuts or the best hush puppies, or, yes, the best barbecue in the state, to be fair, that person would’ve had to try every place that offered those items.

With that said, I’m not going to proclaim that these three spots that make up the Barbecue Triangle have the best barbecue, but, rather, these are three of my favorite barbecue destinations in Central Virginia. You may have your favorite, and, if so, please share.

Central Virginia barbecue

To begin my daring foray into the Barbecue Triangle, I’ll start close to my home.

Jadean’s Smokin’ Six O BBQ

Piled-high barbecue sandwich from Jadean’s Smokin' Six O BBQ. Photo from Jadean's website. When I hear the names Jan and Dean, I think of the early ’60s surf-music duo. However, if you were to say “Janet and Dean,” my mind would immediately think of one of the city’s greatest barbecue duos, Janet Chamberlayne and Dean Cijek. Dean is the pit master in this duo. He’s been in the restaurant game for about half a century. When he and Janet, his partner (in much more than just business), started a food truck back in the days when Richmond had hardly heard of food trucks, Dean demonstrated his brilliance by giving Janet top billing in the name.

A couple of years ago, the couple decided to go brick and mortar and opened their restaurant where the old Alexander’s Barbecue had operated for years. They opened Jadean’s Barbecue Restaurant 11 days before virtually all restaurants shut down due to Covid.

Having weathered that storm, Jadean’s is open for business and serving exceptional smoked pork, ribs, and brisket. On my first visit, I was almost lifted from the parking lot and transported on air into the restaurant in much the way that the pleasant aroma of food would carry Bugs Bunny to the source of that aroma. I wish I could have taken a picture of that smoked meat smell. I would share it with you, right here.

Dean says the secret to the deliciousness of his smoked meats is that he uses very little hickory. “Hickory is too strong and too smoky. Too much smoke chases away the flavor of the meat,” he says. Instead, he mainly relies on cherrywood and applewood, both of which he grows on his farm in Midlothian. While I’m no expert, I definitely could taste a milder, sweeter smoked flavor in my pulled pork.

Dean serves all his meats naked. “We don’t sauce anything, but we do offer several award-winning sauces that we make ourselves.” I sampled each sauce. All created an excellent complement to the meat.

As for the sides, my favorite would be the collard greens. To be perfectly honest, I’m not a fan of macaroni and cheese or baked beans, but Janet tells me, “The smoked macaroni and cheese and the bourbon baked beans are the most popular.” And if you still have memories of Bill’s Barbecue, I will tell you that Janet makes some killer pies, such as banana cream, apple, and coconut. And Jadeans also sells limeades. What more could a man ask for?

Jadean’s Smokin’ Six O BBQ – 1126 Westbriar Dr., Richmond

Moving westward, as I venture deeper into the Barbecue Triangle, after about an hour’s drive, I arrive in Gordonsville and …

The Barbecue Exchange

BBQ Exchange Gordonsville Meat-trayI have passed the Barbecue Exchange on many occasions as I travel westward on Route 33, but that’s all I had done … pass it. Recently, after hearing several others tell me how much they love the barbecue, I decided to actually stop and go in and feast on some very good, dare I say, great, barbecue.

The food coming out of the kitchen offers the same aroma that you’ll often find at one of those roadside barbecue stands. Now that I mention it, you don’t see such stands like you used to. At the Barbecue Exchange, chicken halves are cooked over live coals. The slow-roasted pork shoulders and the spare ribs are dry cured with what they call their “secret-ingredient” rub. It all produces an excellent line-up of barbecued meats, which are served cafeteria style along with such sides as collard greens and mac and cheese.

We opted for their create-your-own salad bar. You choose from a wide range of salad items, which the staff puts together for you. I mention this because I think it was one of the freshest, most delicious salads, topped with their homemade dressing, that I’ve had in quite a while.

Pitmaster Craig Hartman of the Gordonsville BBQ Exchange 

The Barbecue Exchange also has their own sauces, including a sweet sauce, a hot sauce, and, of course, a Carolina vinegar-based sauce.

As for the meats, my personal favorite was the pulled chicken. It had a rich, slightly sweet (even without the sauce), smoky flavor. My wife especially loved the very smoky brisket. She says she was impressed with the freshness of everything we tried.

We had been told that the cupcakes were excellent. The restaurant offers a variety of desserts, and my wife chose the faux Hostess cupcake. It was well named and does taste much like the real thing. However, after downing all that meat, cupcakes, to me, are overkill.

The Barbecue Exchange – 102 Martinsburg Ave., Gordonsville

If you’re trying to enter and escape the Barbecue Triangle in one day, I wouldn’t advise it, but for the sake of our imaginary journey, head east on Route 33 and then cross over to Route 54 in Montpelier. From there, you’re just a hop, skip, and a jump to Ashland, the last stop on our adventure.

Jake’s Place Restaurant & Market

The old 1920s dry good store and gas station was rundown and overgrown when owners Wendy and John Yohman decided to renovate it and open a restaurant. But they kept the name, in honor of the original owners, Jake and Rosalie Spears, who brought the community together at their business for more than 45 years.

Today, the place is not only reborn, it has touches that sing of hometown quality.

But more germane to this Barbecue Triangle review is the food: slow-cooked smoked barbecue and brisket makes its appearance throughout the menu: hushpuppies with pulled pork and Cackalacky sauce, butt fries (beer-battered fries with pulled pork and more), the Jeff Katz sandwich (brisket, pimento cheese, and onion straws on sliced, grilled jalapeño cornbread), and all the usual suspects – ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket and chicken sandwiches, and platters.

House-made items demonstrate attention to detail and freshness, like Yohman’s Fresh Garden Salsa, Wendy’s Honey Butter, and John’s Secret Marinara Sauce. Jake’s Place also offers vegetarian- and pescatarian-friendly items.

Besides friendly service, you’ll note menu items that support the Yohmans’ claim to being “Southern Comfortable”: fried green tomatoes (made with Hanover tomatoes when in season, of course, served with Feta cheese and local honey), a southern pimento cheese sandwich, the grit bowl (with Byrd Mill stone-ground grits and pulled pork), and collard greens.

Jake’s Place – 511 Thompson St., Ashland

Well, from here, you’re on your own. Happy cueing!

CAPTION OF TOP IMAGE: Barbecue tray from Gordonsville’s Barbecue Exchange with onion rings, hush puppies, pork.

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