The Atlanta Q Project
For those who followed this thread ( http://www.chowhound.com/topics/332243 ), there was a good bit of back and forth about Atlanta barbecue restaurants. I was taken to task by a non-Q-eating-though-still-opinionated Atlanta ‘hound for my preferences/opinions related to Atlanta Q. In the same thread, one of my least favorite restaurants received an enthusiastic review from a visiting Canuck. I hope I’m not the only one who sees the irony there- solid opinions on Atlanta Q provided by someone who doesn’t eat it and by a visitor not just from another region but another country.
I admitted in that thread that there are a lot of places I haven’t tried lately because life’s been a bit of a train wreck in ’06. So, with my verbal drubbing on my mind, I set out to update my perspective. The result is really long, so sit back with popcorn or a beer and read on.
In a nutshell, here’s what I think- Atlanta isn’t a barbecue town in the sense that there isn’t any regional barbecue tradition like you find in other parts of the South, Texas, and Kansas City. But I think that there *are* a lot of good places to find barbecue in the Atlanta area.
There also are plenty of places that are mediocre to just plain awful. I try to avoid them.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been taking every opportunity to hit barbecue restaurants around town to update my opinion or finally visit places I hadn’t despite years of thinking about it. I’ve enlisted my wife, the Chowpup, several friends and a neighbor in my quest. My waistline bears the evidence of the project, but I’ve been lazy lately and need to don the shoes and hit the road anyway. Or that’s what I keep telling myself.
So, I offer the following words and photos to give you my best effort to survey the Atlanta Q landscape. You can argue with me about where I did/didn’t visit, but that was largely a product of which places get mentioned a lot and where I had the opportunity to get to. Believe me or not, I did my best to be objective, particularly in my assessment of Fatt Matt’s, since I’ve often said bad things about it in the past. And I still have a few places to try, but I didn’t make it to them before Thanksgiving. I still want to hit Harold’s and Swallow at the Hollow in the near future, but that’ll probably be it for me. Eventually, I want to get out to Williamson Bros. But I’ll probably skip Dreamland in Roswell, since it was pretty underwhelming when I went after it opened.
Since a few places I went for lunch and didn’t have a big meal, I didn’t get to try nearly al the meats at all of the places. But I tried to use pork as my bellwether. I took pictures, trying to capture the food, the exterior of the restaurant, and the woodpile for smoking when I had the chance.
1) Spiced Right (Lilburn, 10/23): This was my first restaurant to visit and one I’d been meaning to get to for years. So I stopped in during a lunchtime-errand tour of that part of town. The interior is pretty basic and functional, not much to say here. I’d read about the corn soufflé, so I ordered a pork sandwich plate with that and fried okra. The okra was pretty solidly breaded and probably pre-packaged, but it was still tasty. The soufflé is somewhat a misnomer- it’s like a rich, dense corn-flavored pudding, almost to the point of being excessive. But I guess eating barbecue isn’t necessarily hip for the lowfat scene. The pork is very smoky tasting, though fortunately not so much that I tasted it later on. It’s nice and moist, and the sauce offerings appear to be homemade, judging by the almost chunky texture from the spices in the spicy sauce. The mild sauce is similar, though toned down, and the “smooth” sauce is very sweet. I noticed the folks around me eating nicely-browned fries, and the waitress told me that they make their own, but I didn’t have any. Total for my plate plus tea was $8.
2) Sonny’s (Cheshire Bridge, 10/23): Our local Sonny’s is pretty much a family fallback restaurant for us (there are lots of ATL locations of this FL chain). We can go there when we’re desperate and put together a relatively-inexpensive meal for us and the Chowpup. It isn’t something I’d recommend to an out-of-town visitor by any stretch. So, the evening following my lunchtime visit to Spiced Right found us in a “we have no food to cook” predicament and off we went. The attraction for us is that they have a pretty big selection of veggies- sometimes we’ll just eat those and skip the meat. We usually get the sliced pork, and at this store it’s sometimes right on, sometimes a bit dry, but it has a good smoke ring and the flavor is generally smoky without being overwhelming. This time, I had the KC ribs along with the pork, but they weren’t that good- kinda tough and not very meaty. I’m a big fan of mustard sauce, and you can only get theirs in to-go packets, although their’s isn’t as good as Pig n Chik’s version. The other sauces are pretty standard- to me there isn’t a lot of range between their mild, sweet, and sizzlin’ sweet sauces. Their fried okra is a standout- it isn’t very breaded and might be the closest thing to pan-fried I’ve had around town, though it isn’t toasty-browned like my Mom’s comes out. The mac and cheese looks real and tastes pretty good. Unfortunately, the Chowpup chose this visit to have a conniption, so we made a hasty exit and I didn’t get photos or the total bill.
3) Pig n Chik (10/25)- We lived near the Roswell Rd Pig n Chik for over a year, and it became a fairly frequent stop for us, particularly when my parents would visit, as my Dad’s a big fan. My office also occasionally has them cater meetings. I stopped in for lunch and had a combo platter of ribs and pork, with tater salad and baked beans on the side. The pork is less smoky than Spiced Right- I’ll call it more subtle rather than a shortcoming. The spare ribs have a chewy bark that’s the consistency of country ham on the outside, but the inside falls apart once you get past this. A lot of folks like this, others would say they’re overdone. The sauce options include a Carolina-style vinegar and pepper flake combo, a standard sauce that I suspect is Cattleman’s, and a very good mustard sauce. The potato salad is creamy from lots of sour cream, I’m guessing, and it’s liberally loaded with black pepper. I dig it. The beans are a little vinegary and have some kick from heat. My total was $17 for the combo plus tea.
4) Rolling Bones (10/27): My neighbor and I brave the traffic for a rainy Friday lunch at Rolling Bones. We order at the counter and pick up our food nearby. So that I can try the brisket and the spare ribs, I get a combo platter with mustard greens and pinto beans as sides. Both the ribs and beef are very good, but they aren’t smoky at all. They come closer to roasted in terms of taste, though the dry rub on the outside pieces of brisket adds a nice zing of seasoning every few bites. After we eat, I ask the cook about how they prepare the meat, and he shows me their pit, which is gas-heated with a side box for burning wood for smoke. They’re adding soaked logs of mesquite to that, but it obviously isn’t enough to give more than a twinge of flavor over the 13 hours he says they cook their brisket. That said, to me it’s easy to overdo mesquite, and I’d rather have too little here, as it’s very good otherwise. The ribs are finished on the grill and are basically dry (i.e. no glaze). They’re tender while still toothy, just how you want them. The greens are good, though there doesn’t seem to be anything hammy added for flavor. The pintos are seasoned with a lot of cumin, and the hot version of their sauce that I order also seems to have cumin in it. My total for the meal is $16.
5 and 6) Fatt Matt’s and Smith’s/Fox Bros (10/29): It almost wasn’t fair to try these two side by side. But, they’re around 1⁄2 a mile apart, so it was easy to get takeout and taste them at the same time. At Smith’s, we picked up 1⁄2 slab of ribs (they turned out to be baby backs) w/ one side and a brisket/pork combo with two sides. For the sides, we had potato salad, mac & cheese, and collards. Oh, and a Guinness while we waited for the food. The total for the food was ~$21. At Fatt Matt’s we also pick up 1⁄2 slab of ribs (spares), along with a pork sandwich, beans times 2, and potato salad. The total there was ~$18, and when we got home, we realized that they’d left out the potato salad.
I admit to going into this biased, but I really wanted to give Fatt Matt’s a fair shake. I took a photo out back, and they do have a firewood pile. But if any smoke flavor is making its way into their food, it’s really hard to tell. The ribs don’t have a smoke ring at all. There are some burn marks on the bones themselves from the grill, and there was just a little sauce glaze, which didn’t add much flavor. And, unlike ribs that are slow-smoked and have a chance for their fat to render, these ribs just exude grease (see the photo- the wrapper was a clear windowpane onto the counter when we cleaned up). The sauce is thin and really just tastes of tomato without much in the way of vinegar or spice zing. The sandwich is akin to Carolina-style in that the meat is pulled to the point of just being a mass of fibers, and it’s pre-sauced with the same, relatively-bland tomato concoction, unlike the vinegar and chile flakes of eastern NC barbecue. The beans are good- I didn’t recognize the ‘rum’ flavor they advertise. My neighbor thought maybe there was a bit of mustard in there, and we all agreed that they’d added lots of sugar/molasses, because they were really sweet.
The Fox Brothers meats all had a nice smoke ring and blackened bark from the outside pieces. The ribs were dry-rubbed and nicely devoid of the dripping grease from Fatt Matt’s ribs. They also were toothy and not falling off the bone. The brisket had a good amount of fat cap still remaining on the slices, probably more than the Rolling Bones’ Q had. Unfortunately, the cut was with the grain, rather than across it, but it was still tender enough to be easy to cut and eat. I was probably focused so much on enjoying the brisket that I didn’t pay as much attention to the pork as I should have. It also was moist and nicely smoky. The sauce (only one choice) is a thin, Texas-style, with lots of chili heat in a tomato base without much vinegar to speak of. The collards had a huge flavor at the first bite, but a few bites later, I decided they were maybe a bit salty for my preference. The potato salad was new potatoes in a mayo dressing- pretty standard but tasty. And the mac (actually shells) & cheese appeared to be homemade and was quite good.
If nothing else, Smith’s is a better value, going by the standard that more food for less is good. The quality of the food, though, was head and shoulders (plus a couple ribs) above Fatt Matt’s.
7) Wallace (Austell; 11/2): I’ve been to Wallace once before, several years ago, while working on a construction project on that general side of town. Had an errand to run in the area, so I stopped by again. The parking lot was packed with cars, and I had to wait a little just to get a seat. I haven’t mentioned décor much for the other restaurants, but Wallace was odd enough that I have to make note. The inside is like some strange cross between a Cracker Barrel and a 50’s diner. There’s lots of wood paneling and a rough wood veneer over the steel roof beams. But then there are shiny brass light fixtures, sparkly formica booths at one end, and the car-tailfin couch that I was seated in. And there are lots of car/plane models along the walls that are somewhat like the grocery-store rides of my youth.
The menu was pretty geared to the meat-and-potatoes-only set. The options were generally meat/sandwich or meat/sandwich plus stew, with the default side choice of baked potato or fries. The other side options were mostly fried, though I swapped my starch for baked beans, and I believe they had potato salad and a baked sweet potato, also. Compared to, for instance, Sonny’s, the side selection is pretty weak unless you’re into the fritti fritti.
My meal came very quickly, and I immediately noticed that the chunks of pork were almost unnaturally moist. Don’t know if they douse them in broth, keep them steaming before serving, or what, but this was some really wet stuff. There were a few outside pieces with a decent smoke ring, and the overall taste was a good but not overwhelming smokiness. My pork came in a pool of sauce that was very thin. I could pick out the balanced tomato and vinegar, plus a little spice, but there was also a fullness of flavor I couldn’t place. My best guess was that they include some Worcestershire that gives it that taste without any thickness.
The beans were, like most places, very sweet with brown sugar, though these included some identifiable chunks of pork and onion. The stew, as offered, tasted mostly blandly of corn and tomato- I had to add a good dose of their mustard/cayenne/vinegar hot sauce to make it interesting. Any meat in the stew was pulverized to oblivion. Total bill was around $8.
8) Old Hickory House (Dunwoody; 11/09): This place made the Saveur 100 a few years back, and it’d been about that long since I’d eaten at the Norcross/Tucker location. Had a chopped pork platter with mac and cheese plus turnip greens as sides. They have a pretty wide side selection of sides, though, for whatever reason, they limit the list that’s with the platters. Don’t know why, and I ordered sides off the veggie list anyway. Man, I’m tired of baked beans, so I just had to do without this time. The meat is pretty finely pulled and definitely smoky, but there isn’t really anything in the way of seasoning there without the sauce. Unlike a lot of Texas Q, this isn’t going to stand on its own. The pork isn’t dry, but it also isn’t especially moist- I’ve had better (not counting Wallace’s sopping wet offering). The sauce is homemade, I deduced from the chunks of onion, but it’s also mostly ketchup and vinegar. The mac is good, but it’s also somewhat separated- not sure if that’s a very eggy sauce or so much cheese that the oil separates, or what. It still tastes good, and I’m a sucker for the browned stuff from the top. The turnip greens are pretty basic, no ham to speak of, though they do get points for offering me pepper vinegar for them when I ordered. With tea, this ran around $12, though, it was a pretty generous serving of meat. Tasted my buddy’s banana pudding and was impressed, though it could’ve used some whipped cream to top it off.
They’ve definitely got the smoke going on too- the smoke-stained brick pit is behind the register, and the air at least at that end of the restaurant is heavy on the hickory.
9) Hodges/The Boss (11/11): The quick word is that Hodges is no more. It’d received a good mention a few years ago here, and the patrons of Sequoya’s hair salon, who were hanging out in the parking lot in front of the defunct restaurant, gave me funny looks as I hopped out of the car to check things out. I was hungry when I left the house for the 20 minute ride to south Decatur, but at this point I was getting light-headed. Stopped in a pawn shop up the street to look around and asked the folks behind the counter where I could find Q nearby. After a quick survey of the others by one staffer, The Boss on Glenwood was the recommendation. So, I headed up the road to find it. Since I was pretty much ready to eat the pig without bothering to kill or cook him first, I didn’t let the cinder block building, the dim and dingy interior, or the woman who followed me in to hit up the patrons for spare change deter me from my quest. What I found were a few plastic tables, a picnic bench, lexan between me and the kitchen, and a few guys watching Georgia walk all over Auburn on a small television.
The short wait for the chopped pork plate was well worth it. It was moist, quite smoky mixed with pieces of chewy bark and topped with a basic but tasty sauce. The collard greens were spiced up with chile flakes and vinegar, but without being over the top like the second bite of Fox Bros.. And the mac & cheese appeared homemade (or else was very good for Sysco). Throw in a couple of toasted hamburger buns and that’s a pretty good deal for $8 or so. That said, it’s the diviest place I’ve been since the rib place that cooks over a half barrel in West End. I don’t spend much time on that side of town, and I admit to feeling a bit out of place as the only white person in sight. I could get over that quickly if the rest of their menu is as good as what I tried.
Oh, and I was a coward and didn’t shoot a photo of the food this time.
10) Sam & Dave’s BBQ-1 (11/12): Any opportunity, well, practically every meal, has been an excuse for Q. So, for Sunday dinner, we visit friends who’ve recently moved to East Cobb and head up the road to get takeout from Sam & Dave’s. There’s an air of urgency among the few folks waiting in line- their menu states their hours with the caveat that they’re open “until the BBQ runs out.” And they’re running out while we wait in line and phone orders continue to come in. That said, the only things they’re short of are brisket, mac & cheese (we have to buy a pan to bake ourselves), and ribs (we snag the last rack of baby backs). After buying an abundance of food, we head back to eat. Our bounty consists of chopped pork, the ribs, sausage, a beef “short rib,” collards, potato salad, stew and the ready-to-bake pan of mac. Note that the so-called “short rib” turned out to be a beef rib the size of my forearm, not the braise-tastic little ones I’m used to. The total damage tips the scales for this adventure- $90, though that was enough to feed 4 adults and the Chowpup (she was shoving the pork into her mouth by the handful), with leftovers. It’s an unusual situation- I’m usually dining alone or with one or two people, so the opportunity to try the full range of meats just isn’t there. That and I didn’t do this to go broke buying what’ll end up as leftovers.
After opening up the meat and shooting the photos, we (well, I mean the guys) can’t help ourselves and start pulling bites of pork, ribs, and rounds of sausage, dunking them in the sauce and making happy noises as we eat them. It’s just all really good- right up there with Fox Bros, which is probably my favorite for meat at this point. By the time we get to the table, I’m already realizing I need to pace myself so that I can fit in some of the apple pie I made and brought for dessert (first pie for me in probably a year). The pork is moist, very smoky, and has lots of chewy bark; the ribs are tender just short of coming loose from the bone, and each sausage round packs a powerful smoke and spice bite. The beef rib is a mass of meat and bark covered fat that’s like just getting a big old hunk of super-fatty brisket point and gnawing away. The collards are right on, a little heat, some vinegar but nothing excessive. The stew is also very good, mainly spiced with black pepper. I admit that the mayo-loaded potato salad isn’t to my liking- maybe it’s too much relish, an ingredient I’m not used to. When the mac & cheese is ready, we all have some despite already being well on the way to being full. It’s a sinful experience akin to the corn soufflé at Spiced Right. The sauce holding it together is much closer to alfredo than the béchamel we’d make at home, and makes for unparalleled cheesy richness. That said and a few bites enjoyed, it was probably over the top, and the sauce was more in the bottom of the pan than binding the noodles together.
11) Daddy D’z (11/17): I enlisted my neighbor for a quick lunchtime trip downtown before he heads for the airport and I head back to the office. He orders the chopped pork, I go for the rib plate. With my plate, I get mac & cheese and collards, plus it comes with cornbread. The ribs are well-cooked, just past the point of toothy tenderness. They’re maybe a little greasy, and the smokiness is subtle. I only have a bite of the pork, so I can’t really pass judgement there other than that the taste is similar to the ribs. The standard sauce tastes like Cattleman’s to me, but the spicy one is thin and vinegary with a lot of cayenne. The greens are vinegary and spicy hot, but also pretty salty for my taste. The mac & cheese looks to be of the stovetop variety, with lots of black pepper added to enliven it. I’m not sure if it’s from a powdered mix or just not baked, but I'm not a big fan. The cornbread is dense and sweet, not really my preference for how it should turn out and be authentically Southern.
Conclusions: The two places that I liked the barbecue from the best- Fox Bros. and Sam & Dave’s, aren’t the greatest destinations. Smith’s would be OK to get takeout from (and I will again), but eating there requires sitting in a smoky-bar atmosphere. And they probably wouldn’t let the Chowpup in the door, since I think they’ve gone the way of The Vortex (no one under 18 allowed, period) in order to preserve their smoking status and avoid the City’s smoking ban. Sam & Dave’s basically has zero seating room (a two-top in the window of the E Cobb strip mall storefront isn’t my idea of atmosphere). Since they’re a 20-25 minute drive away for us, that’s a long way to go for takeout. We haven’t tried their other location yet to see if it’s a better dining atmosphere.
I suspect, though I can’t officially say this yet, that Swallow at the Hollow is still my favorite pick overall (meat, sides, setting)- I’ll try to make it there as a follow-up in the next few weeks. Sam and Dave’s (particularly if the one in Marietta is a better place for a sit-down meal) and Fox Bros. fall closely behind just because the food was that good. Pig n Chik and Rolling Bones are probably my second level of preference- both offer good food and a decent setting, but they both fall a bit short of being my favorites (Pig n Chik for the small array of sides, Rolling Bones b/c their meat is very good but not very smoky). Spiced Right was also good, but I just don’t get out that way all that often. I want to try The Boss again, but I admit to feeling really out of place there. Sonny’s will still be a fallback for us, but that’s strictly based on its cheapness and proximity, though the okra really is very good. Hickory House might be good for a future veggie plate fix, but their meat was a bit dry and under-seasoned, plus the sauce was lame. Wallace and Daddy D’z, I probably will skip in the future. And Fatt Matt’s really does fall out at the bottom of the pile- it’s bland, greasy, and overpriced.
So, ob2s, feel free to put your money where your mouth is and write up any 11 restaurants of a particular genre that you actually have tried.
Thanks for the excellent post Ted.
After growing up in Athens, then moving to Boston for 8 years, I recently moved back to Athens but I assume I will move to Atlanta in the near future in Atlanta. I can't wait to participate more on the South board (although I wish there was an Atlanta area specific board) as I did for years on the Boston board and try some of these 'cue places. Posts like this are what keep me coming back to Chowhound.
Ted, You have performed an incredibly valuable service to the Atlanta Chowhound community, and to all out-of-town visitors past and present. I wish that other posters on this and other local boards could approach their subject with such scientific rigor and single-minded devotion.
Thanks for the good word. I needed an excuse to go try a bunch of these places, anyway. Can't say it wasn't fun.
Ted,I appreciate your efforts and they confirm my thoughts, from having lived in and traveled Atlanta for the last 30 years.
We are a cook team that stops off in Atlanta on our way to,and from cookoffs.
We cook so much q, like most cookteams,we rarely eat it while out.
If someplace is fairly famous ,as a local bbq joint, we usually try to stop off and experience it.
We find that there is usually something about the place that draws folks and we try to find and enjoy that.
It might only be the atmosphere.
I too ,would eat at the Swallow, if I were seeking bbq in Atlanta.
Thanks again for a fine post.
Certified BBQ Judge KCBS,MIM,FBA