As a kid, my family’s trips west to Texas from Atlanta to visit my mother’s family were predicated by one thing: my father’s love of barbecue. He would time our departure from Atlanta just so we would be in Birmingham, Alabama, in time to lunch at Golden Rule Bar-B-Q and Grill. Golden Rule offered two golden rules for him: It was great ‘cue and it was just off I-20. The six of us could eat and be back on the road in stellar time for the continued 12-hour ride.
I grew up with the kind of barbecue that Golden Rule served back in the late ’60s and early ’70s: pulled pork sandwiches, coleslaw, grape Nehi. Sauce was optional, and came in the form of a tangy mustard-vinegar with a hint of tomato. That was it. French fries? Those were for burger joints. Baked beans? Maybe. Banana pudding? Now you’re getting uppity. Ribs were at the ‘cue joints owned and operated by African Americans. And beef brisket? That was for Texans. If the place looked a little dicey on the outside, it was a sound indication that everything inside was going to be good. The focus was on the barbecue, not the frills.
Not so much these days. Today’s barbecue spots offer something that, for better or worse, is as much a reflection of the times as it is a statement to the purist’s art of smoking good ‘cue: choice. Salads, specifically Cobb salads loaded with meats (pulled pork, chicken or brisket), are a “thing.” Ditto barbecue “nachos.” DAS BBQ has vegetarian side options. Grand Champion serves a “Southern Lasagna” of mac and cheese smothered in Brunswick stew, and seems as known for its pimento cheese as it is for its barbecue. Even the sandwiches are swankier, from pork belly BLTs at Bone Lick BBQ to Heirloom’s pork sandwich topped with kimchi slaw.
There are spots in Atlanta where it’s easy to find great meat amid the mayhem, of course. Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q was among the first in the area to offer beef brisket, along with a sideshow of sides like the Tomminator and Frito pie. Community Q in Decatur has some of the best pulled pork and beef brisket in the area, but I’d go there just for the four-cheese mac and cheese. B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue probably comes closest to mimicking the ‘cue joints of my youth (here’s to its Atlanta location reopening soon), but it offers so much more than just pulled pork sandwiches.
Who serves barbecue — and how — is a formidable imprint on the South’s history, and these varied offerings are serving up a new chapter.
King Barbecue’s Red Pozole
This Mexican soup is part of the offerings at Shaun Doty and Lance Gummere’s King Barbecue, recently reopened inside Savi Provisions on Pharr Road. The chile peppers can be found at the DeKalb Farmers Market or the Buford Highway Farmers Market. Doty and Gummere recommend squeezing a splash of fresh lime juice over the soup just before serving to brighten and deepen the flavor.
Sweet Auburn’s Wok-Fired Green Beans
Brother-and-sister team Howard and Anita Hsu marry Southern barbecue with their Asian roots at Sweet Auburn BBQ, and these easy-to-make green beans — on the menu at their Poncey-Highland location — are a testament to just how tasty that union can be.
Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q Brisket Chili
For their famous Frito pie, Jonathan and Justin Fox make this Texas-style brisket chili. Layer with Fritos and cheese of your choice to make a kickin’ side dish, or a whole meal.