My favorite moment in a barbecue joint tends to be the first one. The doors open and you take your first breath of that bewitching aroma of meat and smoke. It is pure and simple, the unadulterated magic from which barbecue is made. That smell whets the appetite just as well as an amuse-bouche at a four-star restaurant.
Everything to love about barbecue is in the smoke. It is such a mysterious substance: flavored air. You can’t sell it by the pound or put it in a bottle. (The utter unpleasantness of liquid smoke proves this.) No matter what a joint touts as its specialty — whether that be a secret rub or a spectacular side or a special sauce — the purist’s barbecue test comes down to only two factors: the smoke and the meat.
B’s Cracklin’ BBQ in Riverside is the sort of place that attracts the attention of purists, for good reason. This is the second location opened by Bryan and Nikki Fuhrman, a couple whose first joint in Savannah attracted the attention of Garden & Gun, Bon Appetit and Southern Living, among others. What’s all the fuss about? Well, the smoke and the meat. Bryan fires his smokers using only wood, avoiding the gas- or electric-assisted machines that some contemporary barbecue joints depend on for consistency these days. It’s an old-school, labor-intensive choice that also happens to look pretty good in magazine spreads.
More distinctive, though, was his choice to source local, pasture-raised hogs. That kind of meat tends to be overlooked in the barbecue world, especially because of the priority for old-school budget price points. B’s has gone through some sourcing changes since its beginnings in Savannah, but at the Atlanta location, he’s using hogs from Gum Creek Farms in Roopville and Hunter Cattle Company in Brooklet. The proof, as one might say, is in the pork.
The smoked pork served at B’s is as simple and elemental as it gets. After smoking overnight, whole hogs are pulled and chopped into fairly short strands. The resulting meat, sold by the pound, on plates, or in sandwiches, has a distinct but not overpowering quality of smoke followed by deep porky flavor. Unlike smoked pork butts, which tend to wallop with higher ratios of rub and bark, the pulled whole hog served at B’s is a subtle but pure experience.
Tossed with the house vinegar-based sauce, topped with diced slaw, and served on a fluffy H&F Bread Co. bun, the Carolina’s Finest sandwich turns that elemental purity into a full meal.
The pork ribs aim for (and hit) a similarly simple mark. They’re dry-rubbed and smoked to a precise texture, the meat still standing up on the bone but tender enough to be pulled off with your fingers. Fans of sauced, sweet ribs will like these drizzled with the thick, house-made peach-mustard sauce, but I’m more than happy with them the way they are.
The lesser options here are the brisket and chicken, though they’re not bad options. Brisket is rubbed thick with black pepper and salt and sliced thick, too. I’ve found it to be consistently tender, though occasionally drier than I prefer. You’d no doubt be more than happy with it chopped on a sandwich, but it doesn’t possess the destination-worthy distinction that the pork does.
As for the chicken, well, if you’re ordering poultry at a whole hog barbecue joint, I have to assume that someone has brought you kicking and screaming. You’ll be fine, because the chicken is moist and smoky and simple, but the bird is not the main event here.
Speaking of main events, I sometimes hear of people who think the sides are the main event at barbecue joints. Bless their hearts. Those misguided souls will still find satisfaction at B’s. The collards are a respectable and lean balance to the heavy meats. The macaroni and cheese is thick and rich, the top browned to a crisp. No gut-buster will find disagreement with it. I suspect some Georgia aficionados, on the other hand, will take issue with the Brunswick stew. I certainly don’t care for it, laden as it is with canned tomato flavor.
Cornbread is served in the form of thick, griddled hoecakes, some laden with crackling skin from the whole hogs. I’d rather be able to order the smoked skin itself, like some whole-hog joints offer.
The best side at B’s is hash and rice. This deliriously rich rice and gravy concoction is a combination of hog’s head and other trimmings slow-cooked with the house peach sauce. It’s the only side that I’d even consider calling a main event at B’s, in part because every time I get a cup of it in front of me, I start inhaling every last bite, my eyes roll back into my head, and I almost pass out from pleasure. It’s almost enough to make you forget about the purity of that simple smoke and meat. Almost.