Barbecue treasures

This story begins with a treasure map, of sorts, sent to me in an e-mail. My quest need only be a drive to Gainesville. My adventure? An afternoon of barbecue and conversation at Hickory Pig Barbecue, an outpost of smoky intrigue and flavorful research. And in this case the treasure is the map, along with a full plate of some of the Hickory Pig's low-and-slow roasted pork shoulder from owner Phil Beaubien, who left a career in machinery and insurance sales 20 years ago to become the Long John Silver of north Georgia barbecue. Only Beaubien has more character, and unlike Silver, hasn't a villainous bone in his body (he also has both his legs and doesn't own a parrot, for the record).

He met Scott Sapp, a retired truck broker who lives in Gainesville, on a Sunday afternoon when Sapp and his wife dropped in for a sandwich. Sapp took the sandwiches to go, but about five minutes down the road stopped and turned around to get another.

Once, years ago (how many remains unsure since these two can be fuzzy on that type of detail), Sapp ate a barbecue sandwich served with mayonnaise. He vowed then to seek out the best barbecue in the state and share his findings with friends.

That's where the map comes in.

"It started as Christmas cards," explains Sapp, eating a pulled pork sandwich in Beaubien's out-back shack, blessedly christened the "smoking porch" and bedecked with a drum-sized fan to beat the afternoon heat and a disco ball hanging from the tin roof. "I just started writing down the spots we ate at, and sending the list off to friends."

But each year, the list got bigger and bigger, and Sapp found he needed a map. That was 30 years ago. Calling it the Barbecue Trails of Georgia, the current map lists Sapp's favorite 'cue joints from the north to the south part of the state, with over 350 listings. A sampling: Rolling Bones in Atlanta, Maddy's in Decatur, Sam & Dave's in Marietta, the Pink Pig in Cherry Log, Georgia Pig in Brunswick and Scoggins in Americus. This cartographer of 'cue would list the Hickory Pig in his top five.

For good reason: The pulled pork here has a smoky tenderness underneath blessed rings of pink striation. And Beaubien makes some mean collards, too. But one of his best concoctions is something he calls a "no milk" milkshake, which is basically vanilla ice cream mixed with Hershey's syrup and a spot of heavy cream.

Little more than a shack, the Pig's walls are adorned with signs requesting, "Help figure your own tab"; outside a rolling marquee lets bikers know they are welcome.

"We're not changing anybody's religion here," says Beaubien, who's been known to pull out a mic and sing Johnny Cash upon request (and sometimes unprompted).

He and Sapp seem like brothers, and the map is what keeps them connected. That, and the barbecue of course.

"I just never want anybody to have to eat barbecue with mayonnaise on it," states Sapp.

The Hickory Pig Barbecue, 3605 Thompson Road, Gainesville, 770-503-5235.

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Restaurant Operations Advisors, the original brains and brawn behind Decatur's long successful Crescent Moon, are serving as advisers to Taqueria el Vecino, a venture chef Javier Romero is launching with Carolyn Atherholt (also part of the original Crescent Moon). The menu features authentic tacos carnitas, el pastor, carne asada, as well as burritos, quesadillas and enchiladas. Open for lunch and dinner, the new spot is located in Oak Grove. 2743 La Vista Road, Decatur, 404-929-0301.

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