Everyone Says The Barbecue in Atlanta Is Really Good Now—But Just How Good?
A scene has been growing (slowly) in recent years, and things are getting kind of serious.
Your first visit to Heirloom Market BBQ will tell you pretty much everything you need to know about how Atlanta functions, which is to say, sometimes just barely. Located in a small space next to a liquor store, along a busy service road for the Perimeter, the multi-car pileup masquerading as an expressway that in theory (traffic permitting) makes travel around the city that much easier, Heirloom is not the easiest restaurant to find.
Once there, if you're fortunate, there will be a parking space; there will, at least at mealtimes, often be a long line of hungry people, spilling out of the small storefront and along the front of the building, in front of the small outdoor space where meat is smoked and people who are dining in (to use the term loosely) may eat their food.
It was 2015 when I first made the trek, after a glorious hike in the neighboring federal lands that stretch out along the Chattahoochee River, just a block or so from Heirloom's awkward location. I may have been on a high after my morning in Atlanta's great outdoors, but scarfing down my first spicy Korean pork sandwich topped with the house kimchi, I felt, at the time, that I had finally found my favorite restaurant in Atlanta, one I wanted to return to, again and again—even if you could barely call this tiny takeout joint a restaurant.
The food at Heirloom is simple, honest, the natural product of two chefs with two very different backgrounds working together—Jiyeon Lee was a young pop sensation in South Korea, Cody Taylor a self-described hillbilly, raised in Texas and Tennessee. The duo met while working in a now-shuttered restaurant down in Atlanta's Fourth Ward, and here we are now, with an honest-to-goodness, shout-from-the-rooftops barbecue joint, fusing both Korean and Southern flavors, in a city that was always slightly sheepish over the fact that its barbecue, where it even existed, was not all that great. Ideally, you'll time your visit to Heirloom in order to be able to try the beef rib special, hopefully, there will also be sides like tempura sweet potatoes, or a green tomato kimchi; this is not like barbecue you've had before, it's barbecue that is perfect for the melting-pot that is modern Atlanta. It's barbecue for the 21st century.
Heirloom is only one restaurant, however, and Atlanta goes on forever. It certainly was crazy in love with this little spot—was the long barbecue drought finally over? Were there lots of other Heirlooms? We're getting there, I was told—there was, at the same time, this place called Fox Brothers, opened by twins from Fort Worth, Texas back in 2007 or so. They were, apparently, doing great things with brisket, in a cozy neighborhood spot just east of downtown Atlanta.
By 2015, however, it seemed as if every city in America had gone brisket-mad, except most of it was still relatively average, and I'll admit, I'd become more than a little skeptical. Brisket was never all that cheap, and it certainly isn't these days—one only has so much discretionary income to spend on smoked meat, and there is only so much time in your life for average barbecue. I took a pass.
Very recently, however, Atlanta has been buzzing about a whole new barbecue experience—this time, the spotlight's on Bryan Furman, a one-time welder from the Carolinas. Furman, who owns B's Cracklin' Barbecue with his wife Nikki, started smoking meat as a hobby, eventually opening his own restaurant in Savannah, where he was working at the time.
Last year, rather suddenly, Furman took a leap of faith, opening up shop in Atlanta's Riverside neighborhood, just a few miles down the Chattahoochee from Heirloom, also barely inside the Perimeter. The local media can't get enough of Furman, and apparently, neither can the dining public—one almost can't move for glowing reports of his prowess in the pits. On my latest visit to Atlanta, I didn't have a whole lot of time to eat, but I knew for sure that I was going to make at least two stops—Fox Bros., which I should have tried years ago, and B's Cracklin.
I got the last open parking space in Fox Bros.' crowded lot (there are a lot of these in Atlanta, you get used to it) during a recent weekday lunch rush, ducked in, and took a gander at the menu. It sprawls all over the place, which worried me just a little. The brothers are proud of their Texas heritage and it always comes up when Fox Bros. is mentioned, so did the Texas thing, skipping past distractions like chili cheese tots, salads, French fries and Brunswick Stew (Business idea: A t-shirt that reads "You Don't Win Friends With Brunswick Stew," because you really don't), zeroing in on the section of the menu entitled "Solo Meats."
Because that's what you do in a place that touts its Texas credentials, I ordered some brisket, and a house made sausage link. I paid $14 for half a pound of meat and a Jalapeno cheddar link—they came out within minutes, and I got down to eating, ignoring the sides of red barbecue sauce. A positive write-up from Daniel Vaughn in Texas Monthly included a gentle caveat regarding the consistency of the meats at Fox Bros., and I immediately saw what he was talking about. This brisket teetered on the edge of dryness, sometimes falling straight into the sawdust bin. It came out extremely lean, even though I'd said I wanted a mix—visually, it was a nice array of brisket, with a bit of bark, a nice smoke ring—it just didn't taste like much. I almost reached for the sauce. (Almost.) The sausage was the real thing, and you can't really go wrong with a Jalapeno cheddar link, but in the end, it was a bit too difficult to eat, once again quite tough, and wrapped in casing that required too much chewing to break down. End result: This was no substitute for the real Texas. I hoped for better things at B's.
You can smell B's pretty much from the Perimeter, and certainly in a good chunk of the Riverside neighborhood, one of those charmingly weedy, almost-countrified parts of town that are in the city, but not so much of it. There's nothing slick about Furman's operation—it's low-key to the core. There are plenty of tables both indoors and on a nice, big outdoor deck; it's a terrific place to sneak away to on a sunny weekday afternoon for a bit of lunch, before you even look at the menu, and then the menu comes, and you want all of it, or at least I did.
The simplicity of the whole affair was promising—there were quite a few options, sure, but all seemed closely tied to the few meats that they're smoking, along with a mix of sides. At B's, the meat seemed to take center stage. For $24, you can get a massive sampler platter that includes heritage pork, half a smoked chicken, a couple of giant pork ribs (all-natural) and a healthy portion of brisket. This party-sized meal came with two sides; I chose hash and rice—here, hash meant leftover pork bits in sauce; because I was feeling generous, I decided to sample the Brunswick Stew. I also asked them to tack on a side of collards, for $4.95. I noticed the presence of three sauces on the table, and inquired—there was a red sauce, because apparently in Atlanta, you have to. Furman makes all of the sauces, which explains the presence of the Carolina-style—it's as vinegar-centric as you'd expect, but in a good way. What I couldn't quite wrap my head around (in the best possible way) was the Peach Mustard, his nod to Georgia. Sweet and spicy and bright and fun to eat by the spoonful, it was kind of hard to put down.
And then the meat came out. I couldn't recall the last time I saw so much meat on a platter, for so little money—it could have fed three or four, easily. There was a pile of the pork, which comes off of a farm near Statesboro—it's pulled, but rustic, with bits of bark and fat; being of such good quality, it tastes all the better. The brisket came sliced, in a neat row—you rarely see such thick, smoky bark on a brisket; there was a perfect balance of lean and fat.
The ribs were Dinosaur Age-sized, meatier than I'd have expected; I may have dabbed a little of that Peach Mustard on them at one point, and I suggest you do the same. The chicken was good, well-smoked, a little bit stubborn under the knife; honestly, it couldn't quite compete with everything else going on at that point. Save the that's-so-Carolina hash and rice, a simple, comforting dish that was gone in a few bites, the sides I tried were lacking. In B's, it seems, Heirloom finally has some serious competition. Luckily, even on a short visit to Atlanta, it's easy to try both—the two are only fifteen minutes apart. Traffic—of course—permitting.