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ISO life-changing food in Atlanta. BBQ & chicken & umami especially.

Hard-core chowhounds about to go to Atlanta for a conf for a few days, searching for bold, mindblowing, deep, wonderful food. Would love some suggestions about places to go. Cost doesn't matter, and will drive over an hour or two in any direction for ecstatic stuff. Not just looking for a "nice meal," could care less about decor, and don't care about drinks/cocktails. This is all about peak food experiences. I travel a lot, all over the world, and I'm looking for what Atlanta (and the surrounding area) does so well that you want to scream it from the rooftops. Here's what we're looking for.

1) Life-changing BBQ. Been to Franklin in Austin? Lil Jake's Eat it And Beat It in Kansas City in the mid-90s? That caliber of stuff. The top 1%. So moist and smoky and deep and flavorful it'll make you weep. Went to Fox Bros a few yrs ago (client meal) and was totally unimpressed. Went up to Smok'n Pig, which was good, but still looking to top that. Bonus points for lil shacks in the middle of nowhere, but will go anywhere that does cue right. Special bonus points for happy (non-sysco, non-feedlot) meat, but not holding my breath on that one. There's a reason folks line up 4 hours for Franklin.

2) Life-changing fried chicken. With biscuits, gravy, collards, etc. This could either be classic-style (e.g. Strouds in Kansas City), or hipster style (Country Cat in Portland, Ma'ono in Seattle). Either way, it needs to be insanely juicy and flavorful, a celebration of fat and crunch. As above, happy chickens are a plus. Not looking for "yeah, this place does fried chicken." Looking for OM NOM NOM THIS IS THE BEST FRIED CHICKEN I HAD IN MY LIFE!!

3) Other awesome stuff. Only criterion is true awesomeness. What do I mean? Places like State Bird Provisions or Mission Chinese in San Fran, Xi'an's Famous Noodles in NYC, Pok Pok or Nong's Khao Man Gai or Gruner in Portland, Paseo in Seattle. Al Forno in Providence in the early-to-mid 90s. Koji in LA. I don't care whether it's a food truck or a $500 meal, uber-traditional or crazy postmodern, I'm looking for brilliant bold intensely umami-flavorful and masterful cooking that would make the staff at Lucky Peach sit up and take notice and go there right now to write a feature article.

No restrictions of any sort, except that we don't want anything less than ecstatic. Would love your suggestions!! Thanks much!!!

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  1. Star Provisions, Howell Mill Rd. NW. Cheese, Charcuterie, Deli, house wares, Abattoir Restaurant, and a few more in a restored slaughter (house). Must See !

    3 Replies
    1. re: 3MTA3

      2nd that! Their buttermilk fried chicken is some of the best.

      For more traditional Southern/Soul, Thelma's Kitchen/Rib Shack on Auburn Ave is one of the best cafeteria/meat n 2. Ribs are smoky/sweet, and the fried chicken is light and crispy. Sides are seasoned well, not too salty or greasy. Lunch is the best time to go-late afternoon the food sells out or dries out. The building looks shabby-it's a nod to the building's earlier occupant and landmark, The Auburn Ave. Rib Shack. It's close to downtown which is a plus, Atlanta traffic is legendary.

      1. re: Pietime

        Ohhhh yeah! Lunch there instead of lame conference food, for sure! Love the look of Thelmas. Thanks!

      2. re: 3MTA3

        Sweet! That place looks amazing! Thanks so much!

      3. For BBQ, heirloom may be good bet - it's Korean-bbq "fusion" - take out only thanks to the county, Voted #1 in Atlanta magazine this year. There'll probably be a line to get in but not nearly as long as Franklin.

        1. Posts like these make me want to be even more of a curmudgeon than I already am (possibly to join our resident McKendrick’s/burger curmudgeon).

          Anything advertised as “life changing” has a high probability of being squashed under the weight of expectations. And for rattling off a long list of places elsewhere, sheesh, do a little research instead of asking for a spoon feed.

          That said, some somewhat-unusual things I’ve really enjoyed here:

          -Kerala fried chicken at Cardamom Hill

          -Lunchtime ramen at Miso Izakaya. As good as Momofuku? No. As good as Ivan Orkin? I don’t know- it was midnight and 90F when I had his, so I’m not even sure I enjoyed it.

          -Community Q. More straight-up Southern than Heirloom Mkt, and with an awesome array of veggie sides beyond the typical

          -Patak Meats- way out in the burbs; been there forever; every kind of European fresh/cured meat product you can think of east of France. Only open weekdays and the first Sat of the month and reliably has the longest lines of any food establishment I can think of in Atlanta. Ridiculously cheap and I don’t care whether the pig slept on a feather bed because their stuff tastes damn good regardless. You can get some stuff at YDFM (see below) like smoked liverwurst (!!!).

          Since the staff at Lucky Peach seem to cook in addition to eating out, I’d suggest checking out one of our amazing warehouse groceries- Buford Highway Farmer’s Market or Your DeKalb Farmer’s Market. Think Central Market in Austin, not the Union Square green market.

          I have not been to Franklins (though I have seen the Amex commercial with Nobu), but I have pilgrimaged to Coopers and OK Joes. I’m Teo Danger and I approve this message.

          1. 1) Why does everyone think Atlanta is a BBQ city?? I would skip this based on your stated objectives.
            2) I still love the total experience at Busy Bee. You may debate whether it's the best, life-altering fried chicken in the city, but the total Southern meat & 3 experience is perfected in my mind when you eat at the counter here. And they know their greens!! If you want fancier, then JCT is a great choice for fried chicken too.
            3) Empire State South's farm egg is something I'm still fantacizing about months later.

            1 Reply
            1. re: jboeke

              Agreed. I lived in ATL for 10 years, never had good BBQ there.

            2. TED heres definitionof what ou called me cur·mudg·eon (kr-mjn)
              An ill-tempered person full of resentment and stubborn notions
              That sure isnt me,and i have to say im disappointed in your attempt at humor at my expense.Guess ill move on to another food site if thats the way Im viewed

              6 Replies
              1. re: bobstripower

                Hey, sorry. It was really just an attempt at humor. You'll note that I also self referred. I also resisted the temptation lately to respond to someone recommending Fat Matt's, which is just awful.

                I've been participating here for a really long time (10+ years). It's been a bummer to see how much participation for ATL tailed off around the time that it became it's own board. I guess folks just go to the review sites or reddit these days.

                Now, like salomesalami, you see folks with one post parachuting in to have someone be their travel planner. And I saw that post and it triggered a lot of that frustration. There isn't a ton of discussion (if I want X, where to go or what's new around Y that's good). And the same folks pop in with the same suggestions (kudos to jboeke on mentioning the Busy Bee- I haven't been in ages and need to find an excuse to go). And I saw the OP and it triggered a lot of that frustration.

                So, here's another Southern suggestion- Home Grown on Memorial. Only been once but I really enjoyed the meat and 3-ish menu. And I haven't been to Greenwood's in Roswell in a long time but I have fond memories of their fried chicken doused with honey-vinegar sauce. Oh, and pie.

                1. re: ted

                  ted thanks BTW we went to Priccis for our 45th anniversary--it was fantatsic really i had the lobster taco appetizer, and osso bucco--wife had the veal scallopini--both execllent then we had the baba rumcake as dessert,on them. Wines by glass list is also excellent. Ive been to Sotto and think Pricci is so much better.Dont know why morefolks dont mention it here--probably because its not "new", I go to NYC every year for a few days, and the best places there are the oldies but goodies

                  1. re: bobstripower

                    It's been many moons since I ate at Pricci- I remember thinking that you could do the pasta dishes and still have a reasonably-priced meal for a nice restaurant.

                    We get into a loop of only trying new-ish places because we get out so infrequently due to work/Chowpup. So, I get where you're coming from.

                    I made porchetta yesterday, and it would be really easy to get into the mode of saying nothing (at least meat-wise) is better than I can cook at home. But most of the time I don't have the time/inclination to do that. Also, cheeseburger sliders made from Publix chuck (2 min per side on grill) and their potato rolls (plus homemade half sour, dijon, ketchup) are pretty darn good with a beer and maybe baked sweet potato fries on a Friday night.

                  2. re: ted

                    Hi ted. Thanks for all the suggestions -- this is really helpful. I didn't mean to seem like a parachuter. I actually did a lot of research before asking my question -- read stuff on boards, asked around -- and was left needing more info, because I felt like there was a decent amount of ok stuff in Atlanta, but maybe not much really really good stuff, and possibly no BBQ worth eating (despite being a major southern hub).

                    It's often hard to tell the difference between decent and "life-changing" food just from reading recommendations, especially with the foodie explosion in the past ten years that's seen a proliferation of ok places masquerading as sublime, and fooling many. Like you, I find most of my peak food experiences these days by cooking at home. But when I travel, I want to taste a place at its best, and I've been burned too many times by misleading Yelp reviews, when I've been travelling and too time-pressed to research really deeply. So I tried to frame the question so that people would hopefully open up about peak food experiences, and wouldn't just recommend the usual "nice" restaurants that would be overpriced and underwhelming.

                    I too bemoan the decline of Chowhound over the years, and it's a sad thing, because Chowhound used to be populated mostly by hardcore ppl who would never self-identify as foodies, and were deeply sensitive to deeply wonderful food, prepared with love and skill and alchemical magic. I was actually an active poster to chowhound back in the late 90s when I lived in NYC, used to hang with Jim Leff sometimes and visit the fabled arepa lady, etc, and I'm really sensitive to the annoyance factor of those people who come on here and say "I want a nice meal in your city! Where should I eat?" I didn't mean to come across that way at all. I was just hoping for some juicy tips from a few folks on this board who still carry the chowhound spirit. And I thank you for your recommendations. And I will return here and post about what I've found, and my impressions, in hopes that others can be well steered.

                    A few more pointed questions now that I've researched even more:

                    Is Gunshow sublime, or just gimmicky? Is Barcelona worth a visit? Is Bacchanalia more of a "it's my birthday make it fancy" place than a "peak food" place? Would love any opinions on these.

                    Thanks so much!

                    1. re: salomesalami

                      I haven't been to Gunshow yet. Have heard mixed things from friends and reviews (maybe b/c it's such an odd concept).

                      I don't know that hardcore NYers will say good things, but I've really enjoyed The General Muir the couple times I've been.

                      Have no idea about Barcelona. And I haven't been to Bacchanalia in several years, but it was worth it then. The whole complex there, with JCT Kitchen (and esp. their upstairs bar if the weather's nice) is really cool for an urban warehouse re-build.

                      Generally, I don't know that I'm into Bacchanalia or Eugene except for the odd special occasion. Sometimes they're wonderful and sometimes you think "sheesh, I just paid $14 for a salad I could've picked from my garden." And yes, I have a copy of Dirt Candy and know where the money goes. I distinctly remember that feeling at Craft here before it closed.

                      I l-o-v-e Leon's in Decatur because it hits a great combination of quality/creativity and value in my opinion. I love what Holeman & Finch does, but it's a multiple price-wise and usually is so rich that my tummy rebels afterward. That you could hop from Leon's to No 246, The Brick Store, and Iberian there within a couple hundred yards of each other says great things about Decatur. They're all very different but each does its thing very well.

                      We've also had really good meals at Ammazza and Victory Sandwich Bar not too long ago.

                      Maybe it's just familiarity that makes it hard to apply superlatives. But it's still a great town to eat in.

                      1. re: salomesalami

                        if you are here on a Sunday go to theRizt Carlton Buckhead for brunch---they even have coiuple kinds of caviar,besides incredible meat/fish/shrimp et al--and mind blwoing desserts--its like 75 bucks but worth it.
                        Id be remiss is i didnt suggest McKendricks--its like Peters in Bklyn,realy that good
                        I lived for 4 years in Lexington NC the home of BBQ--and i find the Pig N Chick is very close--Bill is the owner and also lived in Lex--he makes his own dressing, one for NC and another SC, and then the normal run of the mill.If you go get the sandwich of pulled pork, hush puppies and ochre--its to die for.
                        And if i didnt mention it already Gu's bistro is the best Chinese, Szechuan in the city. Dont forget to post where you go,

                  3. 1) Our experiences at Fox's agree. Sorry, I can't recommend anywhere.

                    2) Stroud's in KC was scarcely 2 on a scale of 5, although the yeast rolls and string beans were fine and those I brought back home with me. Nothing here has been better.

                    3) Can't help.

                    If your expectations are adjusted from 'life changing' to damn good, however, Atlanta has some good choices. Try Sushi House Hayakawa--a small place with an artisanal chef whose hand with fresh fish is only exceeded by the quality of his appetizers. Open til 3 AM on Fri/Sat, 10:30 Wed, Thu. A CH type place for sure, quality and care is on the plate and is reflected in the bill which will be high but an extraordinary value. Ask after the specials for sure, don't be afraid of Omakase. A quiet Atlanta gem.

                    Nothing Chinese can match Flushing, for that matter neither Chinatown nor even midtown east and south. Busy Bee is food dished up from a steam table from another time and place.

                    Things to know about cutting edge Atlanta dining: Beware of places which serve stuff in jars, or whose chef has been on TV or that mouths farm to table but whose menu is weighted down with ingredients rich in frequent flyer miles.

                    Sushi House Hayakawa
                    5979 Buford Hwy NE A10, Atlanta, GA 30340
                    Phone:(770) 986-0010
                    Reservations accepted.

                    9 Replies
                    1. re: Steve Drucker

                      Steve, love your line "adjust life-changing to damn good..."

                      Who has had "life-changing" food before? If so, where was it and why was it life-changing?

                        1. re: rcburli

                          Okay! Back from Atlanta, and with a full-on report!

                          As for life-changing food, I'd say the best description of that, ever, was in MFK Fisher's "Consider the Oyster." Or try pretty much any essay by John Thorne. Or Jim Leff's essay about the arepa lady (is it still on this site somewhere?) I could wax on about my own life-changing food experiences, but I'll focus on Atlanta for now, and suffice it to say that life-changing food is stuff that jolts you, redefines your idea of something, expands your taste space, goes deep and becomes a new benchmark and forever evocative memory.

                          And so, Atlanta. Here are the places we went, in order:

                          1) Octane Coffee / Little Tart Bakery: Very very good; if you need a coffee fix and are hankering for some carbs, you can't really go wrong here. Solid coffee (not quite Seattle or Portland, but still good), and really wonderful baked goods. Had a chocolate chip meringue and a lavender shortbread cookie I'm still thinking about. And everything else looked pretty damn amazing too. Local fruits, organic ingredients, they get it. Can't go wrong here. Great vibe, if you like hipsters w/ macbooks.

                          2) Abattoir: Not all I'd hoped, but pretty solid. Sad story; the server said they started out a lot bolder and more interesting and adventuresome, but had to revise a lot because their stuff was "too edgy for Atlanta." He brought out the "butcher's menu" for us when we were clearly yearning for more than we saw on the menu, and were happy with hearts and blood sausage. Sweetbreads were tender, but way too salty. Everything else was middling-to-decent, but not particularly memorable. Spicing and cooking technique seemed wobbly. Not a bad meal, but I wouldn't return. Glanced into Bacchanalia afterwards, and the space looked corporate and the menu pretty staid, so we opted out.

                          3) Uncle C's / Bebe & Buck's BBQ: down a ways in Haralson. Classic BBQ shack, very uneven food, with some great highlights. I wouldn't get the ribs or pulled pork again. but the brisket was wonderful! Up there with some of the best I've had. Moist, succulent, great smoke ring, deep umami bark on the outside, fatty goodness melting all through. I'd drive out of atlanta on a regular basis to get some of this brisket. There was also other stuff on the menu I didn't try, looked intriguing. Collards were great! Not too sweet or overcooked.I almost wonder if I got the ribs on a bad day. Sweet little place, well cared-for. I'm attaching an image, so you can see the brisket in all its glory.

                          4) One-Eared Stag: DAMN DAMN GOOD!!! YES YES YES!! There is understated brilliance happening here. Everything we got was sublime. Menu changes constantly, so no use listing what we had, lest I get your hopes up. Anything you get will be so amazing you'll be swiping your fingers on the plate for every last bit of goodness. Brilliant use of flavor texture spice contrast to everything. Ingredients impeccable, deep with flavor. Also a fantastic vibe; warm and alive and unfussy. There's magic here, and an intuitive intelligent sensuality coming out of the kitchen. A++++ would go again.

                          5) One-Eared Stag AGAIN! See above. Didn't let us down the second time. God this place is good!

                          6) Heirloom Market BBQ: I love what they're doing with sauces. And the kimchi coleslaw was great. Ribs and brisket solid all around. This wasn't scream-it-from-the-rooftops amazing BBQ, like some I've had in Austin and KC, but if you're in Atlanta and want a full-on cue meal, with everything you order consistently tasty, I think this is as good as you're gonna get. Way way better than Fox. If you get a buncha sauces and sides and spread out a blanket someplace grassy (you can't eat inside), you'll have a pretty great meal.

                          7) Morelli's Gourmet Ice Cream: I typically stay the hell away from anything called "gourmet." And I had very low expectations here; my ice cream palate is currently attuned to amazing "artisanal" joints like Salt and Straw in Portland (OMG duck fat ice cream!), Bi-Rite in SFO, Molly Moon's in Seattle. It was clear from Yelp that Atlantans, like so many sugar-addicted fat-o-phobes, still love their chain frozen yogurt joints. Nonetheless, I wanted ice cream, and Yelp said this place was good, and so...

                          DAMN!! The salted caramel was AMAZING!! Somebody went all out with the salt, more so than I've ever tasted before in a salted caramel ice cream, and the result was incredible. The caramel notes were quite subdued, dominated by an insanely good buttery flavor that went so well with the salt. The texture was crazy dense and silky, and the whole thing just worked. I tried a bunch of other flavors, but they were all too sweet, and they didn't seem to have anything interesting going on. But the salted caramel will stay with me forever, and I'm now determined to replicate it myself.

                          8) Local Three: Faced with the choice of returning to One-Eared Stag a third time, or trying something new, we decided to expand into something new. This turned out to be an educational experience, but a lousy meal. How do I put this? I remember years ago, someone on chowhound wrote of Roy's: "If clowns had a cuisine, this would be it." Basically, the food there was like a bad overpriced joke, a parody of "fine dining". It was like Chili's or TGIFridays (sp?) food, but done up with fancy ingredients (foie gras pimento cheese!?) into some sort of ghastly hybrid that didn't work for us on any level. Everything was ill-prepared, sauced over-the-top cloyingly sweet, and garnished haphazardly with layers and layers of stuff that didn't really work. I could almost hear the chef, "if I put shredded carrots on this pork belly, maybe *then* it will work? How about if I put raspberry sauce AND mint sauce on top of this key lime pie?" I'm the furthest thing from a traditionalist food-wise, but this emperor had no clothes, and his tattoos were pretty cacophonous too. Crazy thing is that the prices were sky-high, and the place was totally jammed. I don't know how a place like this can stay in business for more than a few months, till people see through the "creative" cuisine. Bleh!

                          9) Back to Morelli's! (see #7 above) Couldn't resist another hit. OMG yes yes!!

                          10) On way to airport, decided to hit Delia's Chicken Sausage. Loved the vibe, the commitment to sustainability, the 24/7 hours. Food was good, though not earth-shattering. I could see lots of off-hours times when this would be just what I was craving. Solid bold moist juicy.

                          Thanks for all your suggestions! Wish I could've tried everything y'all recommended, but lunches were mainly at the conference, bla bla. All in all, some wonderful eatin. Run don't walk to One Eared Stag, Bebe & Buck's, and Morellis, ya?

                          1. re: salomesalami

                            great post very well written and thought out.Try Pig n Chic BBQ next time and cant miss Gu's Bistro for oustanding szechuan on Buford highway

                            1. re: bobstripower

                              glad you liked it! I forgot to mention that One-Eared Stag has fried chicken on Monday nights. Am assuming it's sublime.
                              I was researching Gu's before I left, and it seems like there was a brilliant chef there who left, though the food is still good but maybe not what it once was? Pig n chic sounds fantastic. Next time, next time....

                              1. re: salomesalami

                                i was jsut there Thursday--hes an owner chef, older guy--hes still cooking up a storm--had the cumin lamb,and walnut shrimp--both were fantastic--they closed for 2 weeks to go backto China--maybe thats what you read.His daughter and wife wotk there as well--the place was packed with more than half Chinese natves

                                1. re: salomesalami

                                  This is Yvonne from Gu's Bistro. Not sure where you read that the chef left, but my parents have been cooking there since day 1 of December 2010, when we first opened. I assure you that if we are open, my parents are cooking. Hope to see you the next time you visit Atlanta! Yvonne Gu

                                1. re: salomesalami

                                  re Local Three. Your view of the Emperor's New Clothes matches our own.

                                  re Gu's. At the outset, the Chef owner cooked everything. With more business, he enlisted his wife to help out. She's very sweet, but It's not the same.

                                  Thanks for a great write up. You might just be forcing us to try One Eared Stag.

                                  Leff's Arepa Lady is one the of the seminal and still great works of internet food porn.