Fourteen plates of pork in a week.
Think about that for a second. That averages out to lunch and dinner consisting of BBQ pork for seven consecutive days. I know that the perception among many readers is that this is a pretty sweet gig. “Oh man, you get to eat and write about it. That sounds amazing!”
Much of the time, I would agree with you. But make no mistake about it friends: This was a Herculean task.
It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy my barbecue tour of Atlanta. In fact, I never got sick of eating the stuff and I discovered a few new favorite BBQ joints in the process. But I will be eating plain grilled chicken breasts and veggies for a while to make up for all of the artery clogging I put myself through. Don’t ever say I never did anything for you.
When I embarked on this pulled pork adventure for The Best of The Big A, I knew that I had many tough choices in front of me, and that I was going to ruffle a few feathers with my findings. Part of the problem lies in the nature of pork itself. You can take a completely unseasoned Boston butt, roast it in the oven for a few hours, and it is still going to at least taste GOOD. But I was looking for BBQ greatness, and that is an art.
Because BBQ is so subjective, it will help if I clarify the criteria by which I judged the meat. First, you should know that if you don’t like your meat particularly smoky, then you might disagree with my top choices. Here is the breakdown of what I was looking for:
1 – Smoke. If the pork lacks the noticeable flavor of smoke, which I should be able to taste on the first bite, then it isn’t up to snuff. Like I said, unseasoned roast pork still tastes good. It needs smoke to taste great.
2 – The bark. This is a crucial component of pulled pork, and any hardcore BBQ enthusiast would agree. The bark should have a solid smoke flavor, but the taste of smoke shouldn’t overwhelm the flavor of the rub or the meat itself. You don’t want to only taste smoke. The texture of the bark is important as well – if it soaks up too much moisture, it becomes mushy, and you lose the wonderful contrast of the crunchy bark with the moist meat. A very smoky bark can compensate for less smoky meat, as long as there is a good balance.
3 – Moisture. Speaking as a relatively experienced home BBQ chef, it is difficult to dry out a pork butt. Meat that is too dry loses major points. It should be moist but not so riddled with fat that it is overly wet. There is a happy middle ground.
4 – Sauce. This is truly an evaluation of the meat itself. Great smoked meats DO NOT REQUIRE sauce. If I have to douse it in sauce to enjoy the pork, it is either too dry or lacking flavor. That said, great sauce can really complement the meat and enhance the experience. This won’t earn someone a spot on the list, but it made for a good tiebreaker.
5 – Pulled vs. Chopped pork. If the restaurant only serves chopped pork, then they were not considered for this list. However, if they normally served chopped but let you order the meat just pulled, that counts.
Another thing that I learned about Atlanta BBQ is the large number of establishments that serve only chopped or sliced pork. The following is an incomplete list of restaurants that were eliminated because of this: Harold’s, Wallace’s, Swallow at the Hollow, Thompson Brothers BBQ, JD’s, and Rolling Bones.
Though this list ranks the Top 5, the order of many of these is interchangeable. They are all great. Unfortunately, I had to put them in some sort of an order, but you can’t really go wrong with any of them.
#5 – Heirloom Market BBQ
Serving up Atlanta’s neo-BBQ, often infusing international flavors into an American cuisine steeped in tradition, chefs Jiyeon Lee and Cody Taylor still crank out a very satisfying classic pulled pork (Be sure to specify that you don’t want chopped). Using a combination of hickory and fruitwood, the Berkshire pork arrives moist and packed with smoky flavor. Though they sometimes skimp on the bark, the flavorful pork compensates well. Sauce is an afterthought, but the vinegar heavy Settler Sauce is my favorite.
11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. 2243 Akers Mill Road, Atlanta. 770-612-2502, www.heirloommarketbbq.com. $
#4 – Dave Poe’s/BB1
I know these are both running favorites with many of the readers, and some of you may take umbrage at the fact that I combined them. However, I tried both of these pulled pork plates on the same afternoon, with about 20 minutes separating them (as well as side-by-side), and they are – from what I could discern – identical. Yes, some of the recipes and menu items changed when Sam & Dave parted ways, but neither messed with the pulled pork. And it is a good thing that they didn’t.
Though less smoky than some of my other favorites, this is pure pork goodness. The rub imparts just enough smoke to round out the flavor, and it arrives in long, moist chunks of meat. Not my favorite sauce – a little too sweet for my taste – but if you are a pork purist, this will surely be high on the list of your favorites.
Sam’s BBQ 1: 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays. 4944 Lower Roswell Road, Marietta. 770-977-3005, www.bb1.net. $
Dave Poe’s BBQ: 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 660 Whitlock Ave., Marietta.770-792-2272, www.davepoes.com. $
#3 – Boner’s BBQ
This new mobile ‘cue truck was one of the more pleasant surprises from this project. Though owner/chef Andrew Capron is currently seeking a location for a brick and mortar shop, his food truck has made appearances around town for the last year, often outside of The Masquerade on weekends. I’m not exaggerating when I say this: Capron’s pulled pork has the best bark on it that I’ve had in Atlanta. His technique of reapplying rub during the smoking process gives it an extremely crunchy texture, and the heavy smoke flavor compensates for his less smoky meat. I wanted an entire plate of just bark. Served with a little salt and pepper and an optional squeeze of lime, sauce is unnecessary. If you do want to sauce it up, try the Georgia Peach sauce (mustard, peach, and ginger). Note: This applies to his pulled pork plate – the pork sliders, while still good, don’t include that fabulous bark.
Follow them on Facebook or Twitter for the most up to date locations of the truck until they select a permanent location.
Hours and location vary. www.bonersbbq.com (under construction) or www.twitter.com/bonersBBQ. $
#2 – Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q
Ah, the 10,000 lbs gorilla of Atlanta BBQ. Though known more for their Texas style ‘cue, I was surprised at how strong of an entry they made with their pulled pork. The meat is extremely moist, with a light smoke flavor, but the ample proportion of bark packs a lot of smoky punch. Though I’m not the biggest fan of their tomato-based sauce, I only tried it with a few bites and happily finished the remainder without it. I’ve heard that their pork can be hit or miss, but they definitely didn’t miss the day that I tried it. And when they are on, they are right on the mark.
11 a.m-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays. 1238 Dekalb Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-577-2026, www.foxbrosbbq.com. $
#1 – Beaver Creek Biscuit Company & Barbecue
Beaver Creek Biscuit Company & Barbecue (known by many of their fans as “Turner’s BBQ”) was my favorite find of this assignment. Set off Six Flags Road in an industrial area of Lithia Springs, Beaver Creek is old school ‘cue, done right. They flirted with disqualification because their pork plate usually comes chopped, but unlike some places, they start with a true pull rather than sliced pork, so make sure to specify. I tried both their chopped and pulled version, and strongly prefer the pulled.
The meat is moist, but not overly wet, and the hickory smoke penetrates deep into the pork. The crunchy bark packs a lot of smoke flavor, but not so much that you lose the taste of the meat. The same holds true for some of the other candidates on the list, and the race for #1 came down to the wire. But the tipping point was their mustard based “Seminole Sauce”. A great sauce can’t save sub-par pork, but on top of great meat, it is sublime.
5:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 7 a.m.- 3 p.m. Saturdays. 1451 Six Flags Rd, Austell. 770-739-0200, www.beavercreek.homestead.com. $
So there it is. Before my detractors begin the all-out assault on my taste in ‘cue, there are a few that aren’t on here that should be mentioned. Let’s start with the positives, shall we?
Honorable Mention/#6- Big Shanty Smokehouse
As many of you that read my review of Big Shanty already know, I’m a big fan. And while they have great pulled pork, with a lot of smoky flavor, I found the chopped pork to be the stronger offering. This is due almost entirely to the bark – the pulled pork plates that I’ve had there were noticeably light on the bark, and the chopped had a hefty portion. You still can’t go wrong with Big Shanty, but there just wasn’t enough room to include them on the original list.
Honorable Mention /#7 – Daddy D’z
A very solid entry, no question about it, but light on the smoke and TOO juicy. And by “too juicy”, I mean too fatty. This doesn’t particularly bother me all that much, but my serving had large chunks of fat that would turn off many diners. Still, had I gotten to put together a “Top 7” like the reader’s picks, this would have made the list.
Now the not so positives…
I wanted to keep this list entirely positive, but we have already gotten requests to explain why Pig-N-Chik didn’t make it. I knew that I would catch a lot of heat for leaving them off of the list, so here goes: There wasn’t any smoke flavor in the meat. Yes, it was moist. But it tasted like it had some rub put on it, it was wrapped in foil, and roasted in the oven. I know that isn’t how they cook their meat, but it tasted that way. I’m sorry to those that love their pulled pork, but, as I said, as long as the meat is moist it will still taste good. But this wasn’t on the same level as those that made the Top 5 (or 7).
It is worth noting that Pig-N-Chik has some of the best, if not THE best, sauces in town. I’m a huge fan of many of their sauces, and regularly keep them stocked in my fridge. If you are in the “It is all about the sauce” camp, they are probably high on your list. But it is really all about the meat, and while it was good, it missed the mark in a few areas.
Feel free to email me if you want me to address any other specific restaurants that were left off and I will be happy to reply, but the purpose of this post is to celebrate the great ones, not to beat down the rest.
However taxing this undertaking felt at times, and despite the extra strain on my waistline, I wouldn’t feel sorry for me one bit. I had a great time putting this together. I ate a lot of fantastic BBQ, and strangely enough, this left me hungry for more.
-By Jon Watson, Food & More Blog