Over the years, I’ve met a few barbecue enthusiasts, a small but vocal group, who believe that barbecue’s complexity belongs to the sides. Let’s call them the b-siders. According to the b-sider line of thinking, barbecued meats have a ceiling of greatness. Once you’ve had pretty good pulled pork, you’ve pretty much had them all. Ribs are ribs, brisket is brisket, but the vast complexity of barbecue, according to a b-sider, lies in the limitless variations and possibilities of mac and cheese, coleslaw, potatoes, baked beans, and little fried things that come with your tray of smoked meat.
Let me be clear, I am in the firm belief that b-siders are, in a word, wrong. Not just a little wrong, but off-the-charts wrong. I’ll say more about that later, but let me tell you I have spent the course of a few recent meals at King Barbecue in Alpharetta considering the b-siders’ point of view.
King Barbecue is the latest pivot from Shaun Doty and Lance Gummere, who have lately been transforming a few locations of their fast-casual rotisserie chicken chain Bantam and Biddy into new concepts. One location turned into the fine continental bistro the Federal in Midtown, where the steaks are hand cut and the pork schnitzel is decadent. Another location in Lenox Square mall became ATL Taco, a place to please the margs-and-queso crowd. And this location at the Avalon live-work-play development has become King Barbecue, a regionally nonspecific, something-for-everyone-style barbecue joint.
The meats offered at King are pulled pork, pork ribs, pork sausage, beef brisket, and chicken. The menu is composed, essentially, in three different ways of ordering those: by the pound, rack or bird, on a platter with sides, or served as an unadorned sandwich on a springy Martin’s potato roll. Across the board, each of these options is the sort of meat that I’d describe more or less as average. The baby back pork ribs, dry rubbed and slicked with a very thin layer of slightly sweet sauce, are maybe above average. I like the way that rib meat is still firm but pulls clean off the bone. That’s the sweet spot you want for ribs.
In general, the meats seem to be smoked and held at the right temperature. The pulled pork is tender and chopped, not too fine, and still a little moist. The fatty end of the beef brisket is a little too close to falling apart and the lean side is a little too dry, but overall the texture is not bad. The trouble is, though, that these two smoked meats should be superstars of flavor. They should sing with smoky bark and deep meaty flavor. Instead, they’re pretty bland. They seem to be very under-seasoned, to the point that I wondered at one meal if the pork had ever been touched with salt at all.
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I found this very perplexing. Why cook meat to the proper temperature but leave it so bland? After one meal, I decided this might be the way you’d season meat if you just expected every customer to come in and slather everything with sauce. Maybe that’s the case. You can pour on the sweet Kansas City sauce or mildly spicy Texas sauce on the tables here and never notice the under-seasoned meats. Though, of course, you won’t be noticing much of anything but the flavor of the sauce.
The strange part about this is that the sides at King Barbecue are great, perfectly seasoned and full of flavor. The first time I ate at King, as I dug into some lean, dry-ish brisket that was missing the mark, I expected to leave disappointed with my meal. Then I tasted the collard greens, which are rich and deeply flavored enough to taste like leaves made from bacon. I drank the last of the pot liquor like I was shooting whiskey. The mac and cheese was so creamy and soft that I hardly realized how quickly I was eating it before it was gone.
Is this, I wondered, what it is like to be a b-sider? In my subsequent meals, the sides have consistently outshone the meats. The coleslaw is tangy and punctuated with just the right amount of celery seed. The potato salad is a tasty little cup spiked with cheddar cheese and bits of red potato skin. The brisket might be best in the rich, dark, smoky chili served here, which goes just right with our recent cold, rainy days. With jalapeno cornbread, which is served as a fluffy, whole miniature loaf with a side of whipped butter, that could be a meal unto itself.
Despite an otherwise typical menu, King Barbecue does possess one eccentric touch. To the right of the register, there is a serve-yourself selection of a dozen pickles, which range from familiar slivered red onions and dill cucumber chips to oddities like extra-hot ghost peppers and Kool-Aid cucumbers. You could use these to perk up one of the sandwiches, which do need a little perking, but I came to think of them as just one more excellent side: a pickle plate.
I don’t think I’ll ever become a b-sider. I don’t really believe in that way of thinking. The potential magic of barbecued meat is too great. Yet, next time I’m at King Barbecue, I could happily just order a platter of sides, instead.
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Avalon, 4195 Avalon Blvd., Alpharetta. 678-248-5159, kingbarbecueatl.com.
Recommended dishes: Baby back ribs. Collard greens. Coleslaw. Potato salad. Brisket chili. Pickles.