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Staff photo by EMILY BARNESRandy Keeton, left, owner of Randy's Ribs & BBQ, and his son, Rainer, 19, work in a brick- oven pit in the back of the longtime business in Hughesville. He and Rainer brush barbecue sauce on the meat as it cooks slowly over burning hickory wood.
As you walk up to Randy's Ribs & BBQ, a longtime carryout stand surrounded by smokers and barbecue trailers and marked by the image of a charging boar, a window slides open, your order is politely taken and the window closes.
A short while later, the window opens, your order is handed out and the window closes again.
Specials, like a $20 rack of ribs, are written on pieces of paper taped to the window.
Breakfast sandwiches are sold in the morning. In the meantime, the main menu includes cookout staples and subs — even ice cream — but my eyes zoom directly on the barbecued sandwiches.
While there are picnic tables in a small yard next to the house, I usually just eat in my car.
On a hot day, when I order one of my favorites, the North Carolina chopped pork sandwich ($5.50), I like to have the option of being able to adjust an AC dial, as the barbecue sauce (found in a squeeze bottle right outside the ordering window) seems to give everything I get here the perfect extra kick.
Just give it some thought before you pick your sandwich up and take a big bite. Actually, you don't want to do that at all — unless you want this generous heap of barbecue to tumble into your lap. Think about using one hand for the sandwich and the other to hold the bottom of the Styrofoam container. (You'll figure out a method.)
While I am not about to rank my favorite area barbecue joints, I am willing to say that Randy's Ribs ranks way up on my list of places to head to when I'm in the mood for a barbecue splurge.
Whether it's the pulled pork or minced beef sandwich (both are $5.50), the other two sandwiches I'm partial to, what we receive is never-dry meat that is smoked and flavored by expert hands. The aforementioned sandwiches do not really need the house's slightly tangy-sweet-fiery barbecue sauce. The thing is, even that's too good to pass up. (Nick's of Clinton sells bottles of it.)
We also find what usually alerts me to the fact that a barbecue spot is better than average: thoughtfully prepared sides. Coleslaw, cut into big chunks, is made fresh, as is the Old Bay-flavored potato salad.
Forestville native Randy Keeton, 53, has been at this roadside location since 1981. One of his employees, Hughesville's John Ford, has worked here for 25 years.
Before Keeton opened Randy's Ribs, the Isaak Walton League — these two places share a parking lot — used to open a barbecue stand on Sundays.
Reached on the phone, Keeton explained that his parents were in the restaurant and nightclub businesses, and that his father taught him how to prepare barbecue at an early age.
These days, though, he gets invited to more barbecue competitions than his hopping catering business will allow.
The Green Legion, for one, a sports company that sets up group trips to sporting events, hires Keeton to provide barbecue meals for as many as 2,000 people hanging out in the parking lots of the region's professional sports stadium.
Lucky for us, Keeton has not taken such mass approval as an excuse to become complacent about his craft.
"You can't let yourself think that you know it all," he said. "I am constantly learning every day."
Randy's Ribs & BBQ is at Gallant Green Road (off Route 5), Hughesville. Hours: 7 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. Sandwich prices: $4-$8. Credit cards: Cash only. Carryout: 301-274-3525. Go to www.randyribs.com