Take a bite of the spicy pork sandwich ($6.50) – a lunch special at Heirloom Market BBQ – and you are tasting the future. The Berkshire pork from Georgia’s Riverview Farms first takes a dip in a marinade of Korean gochujang chile paste, then is slathered with a sugary rub and smokes for hours over hickory and fruitwood. It arrives chopped – a heap of crusty, black-pink porkiness on a toasted potato bun with kimchi coleslaw. How do you say “oink” in Korean?
The young couple behind Heirloom Market BBQ combine their divergent backgrounds with remarkable ease. Jiyeon Lee was a former teenage pop star in her native Korea (you can find a video on YouTube) before she came to America to study cooking at Tucker’s Le Cordon Bleu. Cody Taylor is a self-proclaimed “hillbilly” from eastern Tennessee whose culinary career landed him in the kitchen of Ritz-Carlton Buckhead. The two, who met while working at Repast restaurant, opened this slip of a spot nine weeks ago and turned Atlanta barbecue on its nose.
At first Lee and Taylor stressed their use of thoughtfully sourced ingredients on a straightforward menu of smoked meats, burgers, sausages and sides. But the specials board seems to grow more daring by the day as they invent their new vision of barbecue. Collard greens keep company with Asian-style sweet potatoes, and hints of ginger stand up to smoke. Their food is always interesting and sometimes very good, but you should be warned that word is out: this 760-square-foot spot is reliably jammed.
Set in a former liquor store under the roar of I-285 traffic, Heirloom Market presents a tidy space that seems more akin to a shoebox diorama than a restaurant dining room. Many new customers take in the old black-and-white family photos, shelves of American and Korean cookbooks, mullioned windows and sprays of fresh flowers and immediately fall in love. Seating consists of one communal six-person table and two short counters set with stools. Be prepared to take your food to go.
You order at the counter, choose a gourmet soda or get a cup for iced tea or water, and then stake out your turf. As you wait, your eyes will be drawn toward the kitchen and the two colorful pitched-roof Pitmaker smokers, which are made in Houston.
The red smoker is for Taylor’s “Texas” barbecue (he spent some of his childhood in that state) and is fired with pecan and oak wood. He cooks chicken, turkey and brisket in it. The blue smoker is for what he calls “Georgia” barbecue – i.e., that pork that gets a sugary rub and a hickory/fruitwood smoke. Taylor is quick to point out that all pig is handled separately from other meats, so anyone with religious or dietary restrictions need not fear cross-porkination.
Food arrives quickly on sweet little metal trays. There are a lot of thick, red sauces to choose from, including a warm Texas-style kitchen sauce and a sweet Tennessee one. The only sauce that really stands out is the spicy Korean gochujang with its intense burst of chile, garlic and sugar.
I enjoy the tender sliced brisket ($7 sandwich with one side, $11 platter with two sides), though its untrimmed fat cap is quite the chunk of white blubber. Peel it away to find surreally tender meat that Lee and Taylor first braise in the Korean soup sulongtang before smoking. Chopped chicken ($6 sandwich, $10 plate) can be pretty terrific, too: moist, tingly with spice and filling your mouth with a good hit of smoke.
Our table is divided on the merits of the St. Louis style ribs ($21 for a full rack). I’m not a fan of the sweet rub and springy texture; my wife loves the wham-pow flavor and the way the meat pulls from the bone. A special of rib tips ($9.50) with a tempura shredded vegetable cake brings a fun idea and a whole lot of tough, fatty meat. I have not tried the baby back ribs ($22 for a rack).
It’s not barbecue, but I find myself smitten with the cast-iron skillet burger ($7) here. It’s a thick patty of local grass-fed beef that comes crusty on the surface, nearly raw in the center and loaded with cheddar cheese, smoked onions and house pickles. There are also a variety of smoked sausages from Austell’s great Patak Meat Products. I think I’ve got my “starving at 2:30 in northwest Atlanta and need lunch” spot staked out.
Heirloom Market prepares all the expected sides and, true to form, some genre-busting blackboard specials. There’s a shell pasta with gobs of stringy cheese, collards juiced up with loads of shredded meat and a vinegary Brunswick stew, among other traditional offerings. The newer stuff, including fried sweet potatoes and soba noodle salad with orange segments, is more fun, and I’d love to see them go even further in this direction. That special Korean sweet heat works so much better when there’s a backdrop of salads, pickles and fresh raw vegetables to cut through it.
But I have every confidence this menu will keep evolving. Lee and Taylor are well on their way to creating a restaurant we’ve long needed: a barbecue joint that really feels like Atlanta today.HEIRLOOM MARKET BBQ 2243 Akers Mill Road, Atlanta, 770-612-2502 Food: Barbecue, burgers and sausages Service: Counter service that’s friendly and charming; prepare for a wait Best dishes: Chicken wings, cast-iron burger, brisket, interesting daily specials Vegetarian selections: Some side dishes, but a vegetarian wouldn’t be happy here