Saucy but secret: Under-the-radar, mobile barbecue joints in Atlanta

Edward Spence and his pop-up gazebo are off an Interstate exit with a billboard for Applebee's, and the Greenbriar neighborhood's Wendy's and Checkers are not a half mile away. But those fast casual staples don't serve up what Spence is fixing: slow-smoked barbecue, prepared by the hands of a man who cares.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

On Saturday, his day to make this smoke magic happen, he starts at 6 a.m., setting up his "big ole" grill, "old school, no box on it," he told the AJC. He'll burn the charcoal down for 45 minutes, then load 10 slabs of ribs on to start, and 20 leg quarters. The ribs have already been marinating for two days, and he'll grill coil after coil of smoked sausage.

A couple of folks always tell him they saw him earlier and said, "Ooh, I'll stop back by later." But it never works like that. "I sell out by two or three, all of it," he says. That is how this member of the metro Atlanta "under-the-radar" barbecue club operates. There are others, though they have never met.

They're not the type to enter contests or wear tall white hats and helm open kitchens while foodies sip wine and watch them go. But it's as if the slow cooking and the heaven-scent aromas have seeped into their very personalities, made them similar, set them apart. Or maybe it's that each is a hardworking perfectionist dedicated to barbecue, whatever that means to them. What makes them tick? Here's a glimpse:

Credit: Photos by

Credit: Photos by

Choate BBQ

Back in the day, to eat Byran and Kristi Choate's barbecue you had to be personal friends or members of their church. Now the two sell from a food truck based in Canton, Georgia, though it's a modest, weekends-only enterprise.

Bryan works as an IT guy and Kristi as a church administrator, but wood-smoking meats and making their own sauces and rubs is their labor of love. "Everything's made from scratch," Bryan says. "A lot of love and a lot of time go into preparing it, and a lot of attention to detail."

To Bryan, while people do expect pork, if a barbecue spot doesn't complement "with excellent brisket, I'd say they're lacking something in the menu." He would never make that mistake. His "brisket on anything" philosophy extends to BBQ mac, brisket cheesesteak hoagies and brisket nachos, all with smoky cheese sauce.

It may not be coincidental that Bryan is enthralled with preparing barbecue with that last name. Young pigs are called "shoat," and Bryan's uncle collected porcine figurines and was called "Pig" by his friends. Bryan doesn't want that nickname for himself. But he would like the Choate BBQ name to be more widely recognized and the business to expand into full-time work, maybe for both, definitely for him. They're already branching into Cobb County from their core gigs in Woodstock, Duluth and Canton. "It's nice to have people like what you're cooking," Bryan says. "But I'd like to see if we can make a go of it."

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Spence Barbecue

Spence loves the food he cooks. The turkey legs, the wings, the fried fish, the ribs, the chicken legs -- all of it. "Loving just one would be like choosing a favorite child," he says with this accent you can't quite put your finger on. What kind of accent? "Country!" he says with a slow smile. He hails from LaGrange, Georgia, and started his barbecue side hustle eight years ago as part of a church fundraiser. That lasted about four years and he thought he was done. "But people kept looking for me," he remembers. "I kept coming. They kept coming. I didn't anticipate doing it this long. I guess it's just a calling."

He's got a method, and it involves pecan and oak and smoking the ribs for three hours and a rub with maybe five ingredients that he bought from a store once and is happy with. What brand? "I can't tell you that." Are other parts of the Spence's art of barbecue secret, too? "All of it," he says easily, then liking the sound, repeats, "All of it, all of it."

Spence came up cooking, managing a KFC in high school, working in the food industry, and always enjoying fixing food for people. His kids are "grown and gone" but he cooks for his wife, making soul food dinners, potato salad, fried corn, cornbread from the Jiffy box mix (and yes, he adds sugar if he makes it from scratch.) "I've spoiled her," he says. "She won't even cook anymore. And she ain't going to eat anyone else's ribs."

Spence likes to eat other people's cooking himself, but what he enjoys most in the world is "watching other people eat mine."

Credit: Contributed by Wyatt's Country BBQ

Credit: Contributed by Wyatt's Country BBQ

Wyatt's Country BBQ

Known interchangeably as Sgt. Wyatt's Country BBQ and Wyatt's Diner, the glorified food stand/understated diner on Atlanta's Memorial Drive has dual identities, too. For some, it's an unexpected no-frills, low-key barbecue joint that draws you in with the wafting scent of meat meeting heat from pecan, oak and hickory on an open pit.

But Wyatt's (1674 Memorial Drive SE, 404-371-0311) is also a destination, one that's been known by military servicemen "clear across the country," says the younger Oscar Wyatt (not Junior, but Oscar Wyatt's oldest son). It got more exposure in 2016 on season one, episode one of Viceland's "F***, That's Delicious."

No matter what brings you to Wyatt's, you'll get the same deeply satisfying soul food and homemade barbecue they've served since 1974 when the older Oscar Wyatt and his brother first piled rocks around a wood fire at 2500 Garden Road and started ribs. Oscar and various members of the Wyatt family have never stopped.

Their secret to success? "The fresh produce and products we use, keeping consistent, staying the same," says the younger Oscar. They use family recipes for the meats, the rubs and the collards, candied yams and soul food desserts like banana pudding and sweet potato cobbler. "We don't really disclose them, but for anyone who knows how to make Southern food it is the same," he adds.

The location has shifted and occasionally multiplied, but came to rest on Memorial Avenue about 33 years ago. The Wyatts will shake things up again in six months, when the dad will stay put and do his thing and the son will begin a second full-scale operation, putting his Atlanta Tech hotel-restaurant management degree to work. But no worries, the favorite recipes and wood-fire smoked barbecue aroma are bound to follow the Wyatts wherever they go.

Credit: Courtesy of She Craft Co

Credit: Courtesy of She Craft Co

She Craft Co

In Tyrone, Georgia, population 7,336, there's always that patron who comes to She Craft Co (929 Senoia Road) and asks if they have "something just regular on the menu." The answer is a polite no. "Anything easy or low maintenance or ordinary, that is precisely what we don't have," says Georgia native Adam She, who kickstarted She Craft with his wife Lexy in 2018. One thing the airy, simple cabin in "downtown" Tyrone does have is extraordinary: Adam's special pulled pork barbecue, slow smoked and finished with housemade Asian BBQ sauce.

It takes eight hours, so Adam starts the smoker when he gets to work. He's so particular he's a little reluctant to let his capable sous chef Andy help. "There's a certain way it's gotta get pulled," he says, only half joking.

Adam's got a phrase for the restaurant and the barbecue: Asian Confusion. He's Chinese, the son of Becky and Jason She, who immigrated to Jonesboro, Georgia, from Taiwan in 1977, working their way from menial jobs to opening one of Peachtree City's first restaurants. But Adam's barbecue is Korean because Georgian-American Lexy is crazy about Korean food. "Go figure," Adam says. And while his Chinese mother taught him to cook, "the number one lesson was how to get things done fast, using a wok. Barbecue, in contrast, is low and slow. There's a complete dichotomy between fast cooking and my pork barbecue. This place is nothing but dichotomies!"

Adam is one of the few under-the-radar pitmasters open about ingredients. He will not have to kill you if he tells you that the rub Lexy tweaked includes Chinese five spice, or that they use some soy sauce. "We're not big on secrets," he says. "I'll share my barbecue recipes. I say, 'Go ahead and try it!' Because you're going to see how hard it is and you'll come back to us."