For a one-week period in early August, I became obsessed with a restaurant in a way that would have been disconcerting if it hadn’t been so delicious. It started on a Monday and ended on a Monday: five visits; tons of barbecue; and some of the best side dishes and cornbread I’ve had. Anywhere. Ever.
The binge ended without an intervention, and with a conclusion about which I am clear-eyed and dead serious: Wood’s Chapel BBQ — from the team behind West Egg Cafe, the General Muir, Yalla! and others — is a well-nigh perfect restaurant.
I don’t mean that every morsel of barbecue that comes from its smokehouse is perfect; some of it is imperfect. I mean that Wood’s Chapel, in design and spirit, is a thoughtful, diligently researched expression of what a modern barbecue restaurant in downtown Atlanta should be in 2019.
With its pork-belly fried rice, brisket tacos, spicy watermelon salad, salmon dip with potato chips, vegan banh mi, Cuban sandwich, Mexican-inspired cream corn, North Carolina whole-hog barbecue, St. Louis ribs and Georgia peach pie, Wood’s Chapel is an object lesson in culinary diversity — a little bit Southern, a little bit Jewish, a little bit Asian, a little bit South of the border and 100 percent representative of Atlanta today.
The story of Southern barbecue always has been a political tale, and this commodious fast-casual dining hall is a tribute to the turbulent history of the city. A sense of place permeates the mottled, time-streaked 1930s building — like the pink smoke rings and crusty black bark of its brisket. The name, Wood’s Chapel, is a reference to one of Summerhill’s first churches, built in 1866, in a neighborhood populated by freed slaves and Jewish immigrants after the Civil War. Today, diners sprawled on repurposed church pews or at communal picnic tables can crack into boiled goober peas, sip local brews and contemplate a wall splashed with photos of Jimmy Carter, Maynard Jackson, and Hank Aaron, among others.
Happily, the creations of chef-owner Todd Ginsberg, chef Wilson Gourley and pitmaster Craig Hoelzer are not stuck in the time warp of traditional white-bread Georgia barbecue.
Nor is partner Shelley Sweet’s drink program.
A Cheerwine-and-whiskey slushy sounds like a dream on a scorching summer day, but the crew can’t quite seem to tease out the drink’s sweet spot. The first time I tried one, it was soupy and vile tasting. Next visit, it was appropriately icy, and my North Carolina-born buddy slurped it right down. Still, I’m much more smitten with the Ruby & Smoke (a lovely pink mixer of mezcal, hibiscus, ginger and lime) and the Peach Whiskey Smash (bourbon, smoked peach, honey and lime). Or, just a $4 glass of easy-drinking Founders Solid Gold draft.
Before you depart, you likely will have sufficient salt, smoke and heat on the tongue. That’s why a bite or two of calming cold food is essential.
I’m crazy about the watermelon salad (with cilantro, mint, cherry tomatoes, red onion and a gentle poke of spice) and the deviled eggs, jazzed up with house hot sauce, crushed pork rinds and scallions. Smoked salmon dip is fishy in a good way; its grace note is the pickled red onion and green tomato on top. I love, too, that it’s served with a bag of Zapp’s jalapeno chips.
Sides are equally clever and inspired. No regular cabbage and carrot slaw. Here, thanks to the addition of beets, it’s purple, and pepped up with jalapenos. Potato salad, with fresh dill, buttermilk and Dijon, is some of the best and creamiest around.
I could eat the smoked pork-belly fried rice every day. Vinegary braised greens (collards mostly) with smoky pork bits were honest and good. Once I ran out of the cakey, honey-and-butter-slathered cornbread for sopping up the pot liquor, I turned the dish up and drank the juice.
I’m not sure how the kitchen managed to contrive such a canny copy of Kraft macaroni and cheese. It’s not for me, though I’m sure kids will love it. Cucumber salad, with a hint of Asian spice, sounded like a good idea (healthy, too), but the cukes were a little limp. Tangy-sweet baked beans would have been even better with the advertised addition of burnt ends; instead, they were laden with more pork belly.
A decadent play on Mexican street food, the creamed corn is loaded with chili mayo, crumbled cotija cheese and lime, and it is killer.
So, what of the meat?
I like the crackling-sprinkled whole hog better with a bit of the vinegar mop. Brisket was, by turns, rich and unctuous — and verging on dry. Gently sauced with a gently sweet sauce, the St. Louis-style pork ribs made me very happy; the meat tugged off the bone with just a nibble. Salmon was smoked to a tender almost-translucent medium — good naked, but even better with a slash of the so-called A.P. (all-purpose) sauce.
One good way to try the whole hog is on a sandwich. Dressed with that purple slaw, pickles, a sauce of pasilla and guajillo chiles, and a bit of spicy house sauce, it’s a delight. The Cue-bano, two skinny wedges pressed with smoked pork shoulder, house-made ham, pickles, Swiss cheese, cracklings and mustard sauce, is wonderful, too. Alas, the barbecue celery root banh mi, a vegetarian option, was overly salted and disappointing.
You will notice the mention of pie on the Wood’s Chapel signage. The typography may be small, but pastry chef Chris Marconi Daugherty’s pies should not be an afterthought. I liked the peach with a flaky lattice crust, whose texture approximates a fast-food fried pie. (That’s a compliment.) The black-and-blue (as in berry) has a topping that approximates a fruit crumble — so very lovely and homespun. But the pies that sent me over the edge here were the coconut cream (which has a chewy, macaroony caramel bottom layer) and the lemon chess, with poppy seed crust. Both are exceptional.
In sum, Wood’s Chapel does for barbecue what the General Muir did for Jewish deli food: It brings it into the present. It is the sort of community gathering spot our town is hungry for; easily among the best new Atlanta restaurants of the year; and a nearly flawless haven of comfort and ’cue.
I may need someone to send help after all.
WOOD’S CHAPEL BBQ
Overall rating: 3 of 4 stars (excellent)
Food: modern barbecue, with stellar sides and homespun pies
Service: fast-casual counter-service format; staff is focused, efficient and friendly
Best dishes: deviled eggs, smoked salmon dip and chips, cornbread, brisket tacos, St. Louis-style pork ribs, smoked salmon, potato salad, smoked pork-belly fried rice, creamed corn, braised greens, coconut cream pie, lemon poppy chess pie.
Vegetarian selections: boiled peanuts, deviled eggs (if you request them without pork-rind garnish), crunchy potatoes, watermelon salad, potato salad, beet and jalapeno slaw, mac and cheese, cucumber salad, creamed corn, barbecue celery root banh mi, pies.
Price range: $$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Sundays
Parking: a few spaces behind the building and on the surrounding streets; best bet is the big gravel lot across the street — all free
MARTA station: Georgia State
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: low to moderate
Patio: yes, with picnic tables, Adirondack chairs for lounging, and cornhole
Address, phone: 85 Georgia Ave. SE, Atlanta; 404-522-3000