FOOD- DISH- BBQ and hookahs: Smoky treats waft into town

"When you think of barbeque," says barbequeist John Atkins, "you don't think of Charlottesville. We want to change that."

Atkins, who runs a catering business called the Barbeque Connection out of his Lake Monticello home, took a big step in that direction at the 2006 Chesapeake Jubilee Barbecue Cook-off, the BBQ State Championship of Virginia, on May 19 and 20 in Chesapeake. Under their competition name, Pigs on the Run, the crew from the Lake took home the Grand Prize, placing no lower than third in all four major categories: ribs, chicken, pork and brisket. The big win also puts them in the running for the BBQ Nationals in Kansas City on October 6, where they'll be competing with over 400 teams from across the country. 

So what's Atkins' secret?

"No secrets. Just low and slow," he says. "We keep our cookers at about 250 degrees, burning only wood, and our ribs take about seven and half hours to cook. Even the wind can affect a cooker at those temperatures, so it's all about being focused and patient."

Dish thinks he's being humble. Atkins brought home the bacon in his spare time. In addition to running his catering business and competing, he works full-time at UVA hospital as a surgical technologist. ("So I'm not afraid to cut up meat," he jokes.)

 "Our main goal is simply to promote barbeque in the area," he says, describing the cooking as a labor of love. Atkins also offers barbeque cooking classes and demonstrations. Atkins says he's planning an open house at the Mountain Cove Winery (Al Weed's place) in Nelson County at the end of August. 

In the meantime, Pigs on the Run will compete in a few more regional cook-offs in preparation for the national championship. Just imagine if they win: will we have to change Charlottesville's slogan to "a world-class BBQ city"?

Can you say "Hookah Time"?

In March, Dish reported on the efforts by a coalition of UVA anti-smoking groups to eliminate smoking in restaurants by sponsoring Smoke-Free Nights at the Mellow Mushroom and Baja Bean. The General Assembly had just stubbed out an effort to ban smoking in all Virginia restaurants, and the anti-smoking faction was trying to encourage more Charlottesville restaurants to go smoke-free. 

Given all this, Dish wonders what the anti-smoking folks will think about Basil's new "Hookah Bar." Not only is Lebanese-born Raif Antar, who owns the popular Middle Eastern bistro on the Corner, bucking anti-smoking trends by welcoming smokers to his restaurant, he's decided to put tobacco on the menu.

Starting Thursday, June 8, during a special "Hookah Time" from 2 to 6pm, customers can buy $8 dollar bowls of flavored tobacco (peach, orange, strawberry, apple, mango) and smoke it in a Hookah on the patio. (In fact, if you're reading this on June 8, you can hurry over to Basil's for a hookah etiquette lesson and some free samples!)

"I know Charlottesville is ready for a break from the ordinary atmosphere of most eating places," says Antar, who opened Basil only a year ago. "I've put a lot of thought into this." 

So have many others. According to Smokeshop Magazine, 200 to 300 hookah bars have opened since 2000, and most of them are close to colleges and universities, where they have become trendy places to smoke and socialize. 

Hookahs, which originated in India over 500 years ago, are those tall, ornate Middle Eastern water pipes made of glass, brass, and long tubes, a kind of exotic ancestor of the bong (without the weed or heavy coughing, of course), in which tobacco is burned in a bowl or head and inhaled from a long chamber after being cooled and filtered through water. 

The pipe produces a cool, unirritating kind of smoke which has led people to believe it's healthier than smoking cigarettes. However, some medical experts say the pipe can actually be more dangerous than cigarettes because some hookah sessions can last as long as 45 minutes.

According to Antar, Hookah Time is his way of  "creating a more relaxing environment" where smokers can "casually enjoy their time watching traffic go by, just like they do in Lebanon."  

He also plans to offer a special menu that complements the traditional Middle Eastern smoke break. 

The Sultan of Smoke: Basil introduces the ancient Hookah to the Corner.

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, Library of Congress Collection