Atlanta Pitmasters Share Their Favorite Places to Eat Barbecue
We can practically smell the smoker.
The first time Steve Hartsock had brisket was at Fox Bros Bar-B-Q a little over 10 years ago. “I was introduced to a whole new style, a whole new realm of barbecue,” says Harstock, who owns Socks’ Love Barbecue in Cumming. “I didn't really get to experience brisket or anything much outside of pork until I moved to Atlanta.”
Indeed, before twin brothers Jonathan Fox opened this eponymous joint in 2007 with his twin brother Justin, barbecue in Atlanta was pork-driven. “When we first opened, pork was the main seller,” Fox says. “I would say, within the last five or six years, brisket has finally surpassed pork as our number-one seller.” He recalls that barbecue institutions like Fat Matt’s and Sprayberry’s Barbecue in Newnan reigned supreme, and when Fox Bros. first opened, people were confused by their methods. “It took awhile for it to take off, but after some sticking to our guns and doing what we do, we finally got around to winning over the masses,” he says. Now people wait hours to feast on brisket and other Texas-inspired treats like Frito pie and chicken-fried steak.
While the Fox brothers paved the way for Texa-fied barbecue in Atlanta, there are still purely southern barbecue options around. Anna Phelps opened her restaurant, Anna’s BBQ, in 2013 in the Kirkwood neighborhood.
“When I opened it, I didn't know of a good barbecue place, to be honest. I didn't know of a good one, until I got on the scene,” she laughs. “From what I hear, a lot of people try to do the Memphis-style barbecue. I'm just strictly Southern because this is where I'm from and that's what I grew up eating. Phelps cooks her brisket overnight for 12 hours and then uses chicken scraps to make her collard greens. “We pick our collard greens every other day. We have fresh greens and fresh green beans. I think it's different from a lot of places because I know a lot of places do use canned greens,” she says. She also uses a special house-made rub, but, “of course I can’t tell you what’s in it.”
Hartsock describes Atlanta’s current barbecue scene as eclectic. “The fact that Fox Bros. has been so successful in what they've done,” he says, “has allowed others to branch off and include those menu items like beef ribs, brisket, smoked turkey, and sausage that are popular in other parts of the U.S.” It’s what gave him the motivation to eventually open his own restaurant in 2019 after running a barbecue catering business. “I've taken cues from different restaurants that I've liked throughout the country, throughout my adult and childhood, and incorporated that into what we're doing,” he says.
That cumulative approach can be seen at barbecue joints and roadside shacks across Atlanta. Whether you want old-school ribs, fusion twists, creative slides, or crafty barbecue, these local pitmasters say these are the spots to stop in Georgia for some damn good smoked meat.
The brainchild of Steve Hartsock, Socks’ Love is a bit OTP, but worth the drive. The restaurant is currently open for takeout and serves up a mix of Hartsock’s favorite things. In addition to brisket, you’ll find smoked sausage, turkey, and pulled pork. Plus, don’t sleep on the sides. The “OMG” macaroni and cheese is made with rigatoni noodles that soak up the cheesy sauce. The one thing you won’t find on the menu? Brunswick stew. He’s had people get mad at him for not offering it, but, he says, “I didn't like it [growing up]. I would tolerate it, but I wouldn't ever order it."
Anna Phelps took the plunge and become a Black woman pitmaster in 2013 without any prior professional cooking experience. Now, her restaurant has hours-long waits so people can chow down on brisket, turkey ribs, and pulled pork. Don’t forget an order of the macaroni and cheese. The casual space offers some indoor seating but there’s also a patio out front with plenty of outdoor seating, too.
A partnership born out of the pandemic, Carne 250 has popped up at Tap & Six, a craft beer market. Helmed by Texas native Sean Roberts, Carne 250 specializes in Tex-Mex cue. The takeout menu changes frequently, but often includes smoked brisket, spare ribs, and sausage. Tasty sides include the macaroni con queso and ancho slaw.
Opening a barbecue restaurant after running a southernized Jewish deli may not seem like the logical next step, but, for Todd Ginsberg, it was. “I talked to Todd a lot when he was getting into barbecue and trying to figure out how and what to cook on,” Fox says. “He's got great sides and they're focusing on different meats.” Ginsburg uses wood smokers to produce tender chopped beef, jalapeño-cheddar sausage, and smoked chicken. On Sundays, you can purchase hot-smoked salmon, which is incredibly tender and definitely not something you find at most barbecue restaurants in Atlanta. The beet and jalapeño slaw is a standout side.
After a fire destroyed Bryan Furman’s Riverside location (his original location in Savannah also burnt down but has since been rebuilt), he relocated his barbecue joint to the BeltLine Kroger. The pitmaster is best known for his whole hog style of barbecue, which uses Georgia heritage-breed hogs. As Fox puts it: “Go get some of Bryan Furman’s peach sauce, which is great, and eat his ribs, which are different from most people in town. To be sure, the ribs are incredibly tender, and the Carolina pork sandwich -- pulled pork topped with coleslaw and barbecue sauce -- is outstanding, too.
There’s barely any seating at Heirloom Market, but that doesn’t stop throngs of people from lining up outside the restaurant. The creation of husband and wife chefs Cody Taylor and Jiyeon Lee (the latter was a pop star in a former life), Heirloom Market features smoked meats with a Korean twist. “When you go out to eat barbecue and want something different: Heirloom,” says Fox. “Cody and his wife are doing a great job at creating diversity in barbecue.” The smoked brisket is injected with miso, the pulled chicken is marinated in gochujang sauce, and the pork is spicy Korean-style. Besides the meats are the drool-worthy sides like the macaroni and cheese punched up with kimchi, fried sweet potatoes tossed in a soy-ginger sauce, and kimchi coleslaw. Don’t overlook the fried chicken -- available on Tuesdays.
When Hartsock thinks of comfort food, he thinks of ribs that fall off the bone. “I almost don't want to say fall off the bone, because a lot of people don't really shoot for that. I mean, there's a fine line between that and overdone, and I think Fat Matt's nails it,” says Hartsock. The barbecue joint in Morningside has been open since 1990 and is an Atlanta institution. There are zero frills, but the energy is high especially in non-pandemic times with a full slate of blues performers. But we sure are grateful it’s currently open for takeout. Trust us: Get the ribs.
Grand Champion started in Roswell and now has two other locations (with a third on the way) in the Atlanta area. The Hog Father sandwich is a delight with 14-hour smoked pork, slaw, and North Carolina sauce and the beef short rib plate is great if you’re feeling extra carnivorous. Most importantly, though, don’t leave without a side of the macaroni and cheese, which combines a heavenly trifecta of Monterey Jack, cheddar, and smoked Gouda. “When I tried theirs, it just changed my whole attitude towards homemade mac and cheese,” says Hartsock. “To this day, I still don't know exactly how they do it. But, if I went there today, I would get a pint of it -- and try my best to eat it all.”
Little Five Points
Obviously, the brisket is legendary as is the many ways you can get it. Try the brisket “burger,” brisket topped with bacon, pickles, onion, melted pimento cheese, and jalapeño mayo on a brioche bun, or the plate served with two sides (one of those sides better be the Fox-a-roni, a hearty combo of mac and cheese and Brunswick stew). Hartsock especially loves the wings which are smoked and available in quantities of six, 12, and 24. The original Candler Park location reopened its dining room on June 1, but the brothers have a forthcoming spot opening on the Upper Westside soon.
Asian-influenced barbecue is a delicious combination at this Poncey-Highland eatery. Siblings Howard and Anita Hsu grew up in the restaurant industry and know how to make bellies happy with creative dishes like coconut lemongrass wings, barbecue nachos topped with pulled pork, charred corn, and queso fresco, and pimento cheese wontons served with a Thai chili sauce. When it comes to meats, you can’t go wrong with the Curb Market spare ribs (tossed in the sweet and spicy wu tang sauce) or the house-smoked brisket.
Phelps doesn’t go out for barbecue often (“I smell barbecue all day, every day,” she says.) But, she does occasionally go for the carnivorous offerings at Sgt. Wyatt’s, located off Memorial Drive. The building looks like a shack and there’s no seating, but that doesn’t keep people from flocking to the spot for ribs, pig’s ear sandwiches, and sides like candied yams and cornbread.
As one of Fox’s go-tos, D.B.A. offers classic St. Louis ribs, brisket, and pulled chicken. Using hickory on twin Southern Pride rigs, DBA smokes exceptional wings, wet and dry ribs (St. Louis or baby-back), 15-hour Angus brisket, apple-brined pork chops, and more. The real treats, though, are the creative sandwiches. If you’re looking to load up, try the Archie Bunker with smoked pulled pork topped with macaroni and cheese, barbecue sauce, and cheddar on Texas Toast. The dining room is currently closed but they are offering takeout and delivery.
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