On the counter of Sam’s BBQ-1 in east Cobb, you’ll find a tray of fried pork rinds.
Crinkly and reddish brown, they are a revelation, even to connoisseurs of pig skins high and low. A complimentary nosh for those who queue up to place an order at legendary pitmaster Sam Huff’s original joint, they are perfect just as they are: naked. Run these curlicues of crunch and fat across the surface of the honey-garlic sauce that sits nearby, and they just might qualify as gourmet.
Possibly the best bite you’ll encounter at Sam’s, these singular rinds are the handiwork of new executive chef Guy Wallace Bottoms Jr., who most recently worked as head chef at Star Provisions. Bottoms, a two-time Iraq War veteran who crawled his way out of the trenches to reinvent himself as a chef cooking under the gifted and influential Anne Quatrano, aims to soak up the difficult art of smoking meat from the venerable Huff. Down the road a piece, Bottoms told me in an interview, he’d like to open an “upscale barbecue” restaurant with creative sides. (Forget the tater tots and sweet corn muffins. Think flights of meat paired with flights of craft beer.)
For now, he’s sopping it up old school.
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After three visits to this 14-year-old Marietta icon (Huff also owns a west Cobb store), I’d say the well-meaning 36-year-old still has work to do. This is not to say Bottoms can’t set the world on fire. After all, previous Huff disciples now run the stellar Community Q BBQ in Decatur and the well-liked Dave Poe’s BBQ in Marietta. But the Atlanta barbecue scene has flourished in the time since former attorney Huff conquered the championship circuit. Competition looms, be it Heirloom Market BBQ 8 miles south or Loyal Q and Brew just around the corner.
These were some of the thoughts I had one recent Friday evening as I chewed on Sam’s thin slices of rather flavorless brisket and baby backs that had the taste of fresh hog but nothing of the magic of low and slow smoke. A first-class hickory-kissed rib ought not suffer sweet-tangy tomato sauce nor fall off its proverbial bone; it should be tender enough to require nothing but an effortless nibble to tug the meat free.
On Labor Day, I stopped by for a celebratory afternoon plate of ‘cue and left happily full of solid pulled pork with telltale pink rings and lovely smoked chicken with beautifully glazed skin. The Brunswick stew was textbook — lots of meat and tomatoes, just a touch of corn. Coleslaw, sweetened with a bit of pineapple and sprinkled with poppy seeds, was perfect.
And yet many sides and barbecue selections disappointed. If you enjoy the egg-and-mayo-slathered potato salad from the Publix deli case, you might dig a similar version dished out here. (A smoked potato salad created by Bottoms has been taken off the menu, and we were told that his Smoked Fiesta Corn was no longer in season. Bummer.)
We liked the fried okra so much we ordered it on two out of three visits, and a simple cucumber and onion salad was a fine counterpoint to the rich meat. We found the deep-fried onion petals to be over-battered and uninteresting. No doubt Bottoms knows that few things can match the texture of a good flash-fried green bean: the puckered-up skin, the unctuous mouthfeel. Unfortunately, his limp, lifeless version was a bit of a bore; a heavy hand with red pepper flakes was not enough to save them. And don’t get me started on the Redneck Lasagna, a hot mess of Brunswick stew and mac and cheese with the consistency of soupy queso.
As for the bread, I prefer the store-bought Texas toast over the sweet, crumbly corn muffins. (That you, Jiffy Mix?)
Back to the hickory-smoked meats: Often they don’t pack that heady aroma of wood and fire. Turkey was tender but not all that smoky; amateur Big Green Egg-heads all over town are making better. Sliced sausage was sweet and delicious; for what it’s worth, Bottoms told me it’s outsourced. But the sauce-glazed burnt-ends were a contradiction in terms. No char at all. And they reminded me more of chewy beef stew meat or chuck roast than traditional brisket.
All three times I stopped by, the avuncular Huff was on the premises, filling orders, talking to customers about his overnight-smoking techniques. He’s a formidable presence in the history of Atlanta barbecue and deserves our respect. But even the most decorated champs can stumble.
Meanwhile, his younger initiate seems to be undergoing a baptism by fire. A cook for just six years, he’s starting to realize that mastering the smokehouse requires practice, patience, humility. (So does crafting praiseworthy sides.) I sincerely hope Bottoms can rise to the top, resist the swagger, prove himself ready for the game. For now, he and Huff appear to be in the process of learning how to collaborate.
SAM’S BBQ-1 EAST COBB
11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays (takeout until 6 p.m.). 4958 Lower Roswell Road NE, Suite 108, Marietta. 770-977-3005, bbq1.net.
Recommended: Pulled pork. Chicken. Coleslaw. Fried okra. Cucumber-onion salad. Sweet tea.