Art of the Meal
10 Barbecue Places To Curl Up And Die For
How do you choose 10 barbecue joints to write about? You might as well try to describe your 10 most memorable dates, or your favorite shirts. Barbecue is that personal, and that familiar. It has to do as much with taste as circumstance. In other words, the story involved.
So this highly peculiar list in no way attempts to represent "the best" or "most authentic" or any other superlative. These are simply 10 places any barbecue fan ought to know about. Call it a porcine canon if you will.
Every barbecue maven has a quirky list of requirements, twisty as a sow's tail, and mine are no exception: First, I want Georgia-style barbecue. No, you may not use the word as a verb, and we're not talking beef, or brisket or any place that advertises itself as Texas-, St. Louis-, Kansas City-, Carolina- or Memphis-style. And of course, the pig must be slow-cooked over hardwood coals, so there has to be wood smoke, preferably hickory, preferably billowing from a crooked smokestack in a little building out back. A good sauce is a plus, but for me, it's the meat, not the lotion. I want smoky, tender pig that stands on its own trotters.
Overall, however, I'm pretty flexible - you might make the list if you don't do great ribs, or great chopped pork. But not both. In fact, you have to give me two great versions of the holy trinity - chopped pork, ribs and Brunswick stew. If you can give me some good sides, that's just gravy on the hoecake. As for bread, anything will do - as long as it's not artisanal. (One friend is so picky he refuses to patronize any spot that chooses Wonder over Sunbeam.)
The final requirement: A story. The place has to be smoke-blackened for generations, or jutting up proudly in a desolate field of Nothing. There must be a family that persevered, an upstart trying something new or a unique specialty worth knowing about.
I'm still pining for the ones that got away, the urban (and country) legends that friends could only vaguely describe with approximate names, in trailers parked in gas station parking lots, serving up barbecue by the pound, layered with wax paper and bread and corn in plastic buckets. I tracked down the produce stand that serves up its 'cue with a mayonnaise-based "white sauce," only to learn, tragically, that it wasn't yet "in season."
I spent a lot of time in places I'd heard raves about, and left disappointed. I revisited some of my old favorites, and came away sadder and wiser. (By the way, I want to know about your favorite 'cue and stew: e-mail me at email@example.com)
In the end, I came away with these 10 tales.
The Bar-B-Que Shack, Athens:
How is it that Athens is blessed with two great barbecue spots? Is it the built-in tailgate crowd, hungry for pounds and plates to go? (The Bar-B-Que Shack is one of the few true 'cue spots with a drive-thru window.) Whatever the reason, I'd like to get back up to my elbows in the Shack's ribs and chopped pork, served with a wondrous black vinegar-based sauce, no-nonsense slaw, white bread and Moore's chips. The decor inside is blue-and-white checked vinyl over wooden picnic tables; the staff suspiciously eyes newcomers. Open Thursdays-Saturdays; cash only or check. We had to empty our coin purse to buy a slice of yellow cake with homemade caramel frosting, made by owner Mary Hart's sister. It was worth the last dime. 4320 Lexington Road, 706-613-6752.
Fresh Air, Jackson:
Although there are now several locations, in Athens, Flovilla and Macon, the original Jackson location is still best. It's stuck out in the piney woods, in the original 1920s woodframe structure with top-hinged windows that gave the place its name. You'll spot the place immediately by the people coming out with huge smiles. Although Fresh Air serves only pork, its trademark thick stew is a purist's delight, of beef, potatoes, tomato and corn. The just-right-size pulled pork sandwiches, Fresh Air's specialty, are served on white bread as soft and pliable as Saran Wrap, the sauce is hot or mild. Strong, fresh iced tea; creamy green slaw; Sarah Lee Cakes. Georgia Route 42, 4 miles south of Jackson, 770-775-3182.
The Georgia Pig, Brunswick:
You smell the coals as soon as you pull off I-95. The wooden cutout pigs wave you into a rustic old shack, where you dine on picnic tables, surrounded by Elvis memorabilia and a guitar clock. The Pig is all about sugar and smoke; with a hickory-rich, grilled pork sandwich that might have been finished in a Cuban sandwich press. The slaw and beans are as sweet as the tea. The sauce is tangy, with a bit of mustard cutting the tomato; the ribs big and meaty. I-95 (exit 29, Jekyll Island) and U.S. 17 Interchange, 912-264-6664.
For many, it is Atlanta's barbecue mecca. For me, it's not so much a place as a country song, in a bad neighborhood near the Federal pen, the specialty (best Brunswick stew, hands down) always perfect for a cold, gray day. The ribs are good, if anorexic, but the clean chopped pork with thin, sweet sauce on white toast with pickle (order it with slaw on top) is a symphony of Baptist flavors. Hard to beat these waitresses, in tightly permed hair and thin-soled Keds, working as hard as the wheezing air conditioner. In the family since 1947, Harold's serves several menu items you might have found then, including buttermilk and cracklin' corn bread, studded with porky fat bombs. What you wouldn't have found then is the lively, diverse lunch crowd, with babysitting grandparents, Morehouse professors, plumbers, police and traveling salesmen. Still, I can almost hear the howls from those who claim Harold's has seen better days. I can't detect a speck of difference in it in the nearly 20 years I've eaten there. I do think it's possible to get tired of Harold's. But I haven't, not yet. 171 McDonough Boulevard, S.E., 404-627-9268.
Johnny Harris, Savannah:
In the annals of Barbecue Lore, Johnny Harris' name is writ in twinkle lights, like those on the ceiling of the town's oldest restaurant. Check out the old photos of patrons in white jackets and ball gowns - Harry James once played the circular ballroom's old revolving bandstand. Sadly, after a renovation, the place's original pit "never drew right," says the owner, so the 'cue now comes from an electric smoker. The chopped pork is fine, as well as the signature mustard sauce, but I can never visit without ordering the barbecued lamb sandwich, served on toasted white bread with sliced dill pickle. 1651 E. Victory Drive, 912-354-7810.
An oasis on the I-16 No-Man's-Land south of Macon, Jomax served 'cue for 13 years in its original location, so don't be put off by this suspiciously clean new spot (only five years old) next to a Wendy's, decorated with a huge Dawgs banner and operated by Joe and Maxine Hulsey. The gigundo chopped pork sandwich ($4) on a big sesame-seed bun comes with lots of crispy end pieces and a killer mustard/tomato combo sauce - but no dill pickle. Still, this succulent pork could stand alone, because it's smoked six to eight hours over pecan wood. Jomax serves all the greatest hits, and does them all well: Chicken, beef, ribs, stew. 120 South Lewis Highway, 912-685-3636.
Jot 'Em Down Country Store & BBQ, Athens:
The label on my bottle of Cheerwine says "Real Sugar." The Sunbeam man is stocking shelves of sprongy bread in plastic bags. The hand-lettered sign on the wall reads, "No Smoking. We Have Enough." We must be at my new favorite place, Jot 'Em Down, a restored country store named for the fabled "Lum and Abner" 1930s radio show grocery. For years, Williams Grocery was a quick stop for gas and Lance crackers. Today, the tiny spot holds two rickety Formica dinettes and an old radio, as well as some of the best barbecue I've had in years. Pulled pork and beef, fantastic, fall-apart ribs, coleslaw with fresh dill, a mysterious (and unavailable at my visit) side called "cabbage casserole," seasonal items like barbecued quail, and incredible specials like tender smoked turkey. All served with your choice of six house sauces, including sweet, mustard, "Bill's," and XXX hot. 150 Whitehall Road (at Barnett Shoals), 706-549-2110.
Sprayberry's Bar-B-Q, Newnan:
Real legends survive their chroniclers. AJC columnist Lewis Grizzard is long gone, but his connection to his beloved favorite barbecue joint endures. One of the menu offerings is named after him - the sliced pork sandwich with stew and Sprayberry's trademark giant onion rings. Founded in 1926 and still owned by the Sprayberrys, the restaurant also offers sweet-and-sour caraway slaw, homemade cobblers, and another Grizzard favorite - lemon icebox pie. 229 Jackson St., 770-253-4421. (Note: Another, newer location is in Newnan, on Highway 34, but most prefer the original, airy, Jackson Street landmark.)
Walls Bar-B-Cue, Savannah:
The historic district's back-alley secret, in an itsy cement-block fortress housing a flickering TV and torn chairs. The women who work here do not have time for your foolishness, so you better know what you want before you go. Here's a list: Pork barbecue with hot sauce so effective it might substitute for Claritin; homemade deviled crab; hammy collards; handmade potato salad. 515 E. York Lane, 912-232-9754.
Williamson Brothers Bar-B-Q, Marietta:
Williamson Brothers personifies Cobb County - this place still deeply connected to its rural roots has been in business only since 1990, but is now a political powerhouse, riding on the coattails of customers like Newt Gingrich and Bob Barr. However, even the liberal media elite can find plenty to like in this signature sweet-hot stew, while the sandwiches can be a bit staid if you don't ask for some "bark" (outside bits of charred meat), or dash the coarse-ground pepper on it. Quirky sides include fried red tomatoes and fried dill pickles. 1425 Roswell Road, 770-971-3201. Also 1600 Marietta Highway, Canton, 770-345-9067; 9436 Highway 5, Douglasville, 770-949-5058.
Krista Reese is Georgia Trend's restaurant critic. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.