One of the newest entries into the barbecue fracas, Grand Champion BBQ arrives with a pedigree that perks the ears of most followers of the Atlanta scene — it is the latest that traces its roots back to Sam and Dave’s BBQ-1.
Partners Robert Owens and Gregory Vivier met 10 years ago working at the newly opened One Midtown Kitchen. Despite the fact that Vivier, a recent transplant from his native France, barely spoke a word of English, they became fast friends at Concentrics’ flagship restaurant. Over the next few years, they worked at various Concentrics restaurants such as Trois and Lobby. It was during this time that Owens reconnected with his old friend Dave Roberts, who had begun working with Sam Huff and Dave Poe, and unknowingly set in motion his future in barbecue.
After spending time at BBQ-1 with Roberts, Owens fell in love with barbecue and has not looked back. Following the infamous Sam and Dave split, Owens jumped at Huff’s offer to manage Sam’s BBQ-1 in Marietta, where he spent the next five years learning the craft. Finally, last fall he enlisted Vivier to partner with him in bringing top-quality barbecue to his hometown of Roswell.
Located in a Publix shopping center deep in the suburbs of Roswell, you order from the counter and seat yourself. Like the ambience, the menu is frill-free, limited to barbecue standards such as pulled pork, brisket and ribs, and a handful of classic sides.
Fans of BBQ-1 and its offspring will find one familiar flavor at Grand Champion — Dave Roberts’ near-famous mac and cheese ($3). Grand Champion tweaks the recipe, adding smoked Gouda to the gooey chorus of cheddar, Monterey Jack and Parmesan, lending subtle smoky notes to the dish. Beyond this hallmark of the BBQ-1 lineage, every recipe here is a fresh start.
Hints of coffee and serrano permeate the bark of my pulled pork plate ($11.50), a surprising and welcome change from the more common paprika-based rub. The meat remains moist, and the hickory flavor noticeable, but doesn’t wallop me with smoke as much as I would like. A second helping on a later visit packs the hickory punch I hoped for, but both servings certainly satisfy.
The surprisingly thick slab of baby back ribs ($14) comes caked in the same rub, but the deep smoke penetration is the real star. As I savor my first bite, I discover that the telltale pink of the smoke ring pierces all the way to the bone, giving the ribs a powerful — but not overwhelming — hickory flavor. As with all of Grand Champion’s meats, they arrive unsauced, a fact for which I’m grateful. To deny diners the unsullied experience of ribs this good would be criminal. If you take nothing else from this review, remember this: Try the ribs.
Unless you like your beef dry, request the fattier “moist” cut of brisket ($11.50), lest you wind up with only the flat end of the cut. After having it both ways, I don’t flinch at a half-inch-thick fat cap if it means enjoying the extra moisture it provides. Cravings for burnt ends are met with a side of the molasses baked beans ($2), where the smoky chunks of beef stew until fork-tender.
If you must reach for one of the sauces — Kansas City sweet or Carolina vinegar — I find that the sweeter tomato-based sauce outshines the vinegary alternative. Bear in mind, this recommendation comes from a vinegar-based devotee. While the spicier Carolina sauce is adequate, the smoky-sweet sauce proves to be far more rich and complex than you’d expect.
First-time visitors should opt for the Sampler Platter ($20), a pile of pulled pork, ribs, brisket, chicken and sausage. Available only in the platter or as a sandwich ($5.50), the sausage is another pleasant surprise. Moist and flavorful, this lacks the chewy casing frequently found at most barbecue joints, usually a sign of too much time in the smoker. With the Sampler Platter, as with all the plates, comes your choice of two sides. If you must opt for something other than the mac and cheese, look into the smoky and vinegary collard greens ($2).
The years working with Huff certainly rubbed off on Owens, as Grand Champion BBQ is well on its way to becoming a powerhouse in Atlanta ‘cue. Some consistency issues, particularly in the level of smoke in the brisket and pork, still need working out, but they only teeter between good and great. For being in business only a few months, it is clear that Grand Champion is well ahead of the curve.GRAND CHAMPION BBQ 4401 Shallowford Road No. 168, Roswell. 770-587-4227 Food: No-frills barbecue Service: Friendly Best dishes: Baby back ribs, pulled pork, mac and cheese and smoked sausage Vegetarian selections: A few sides, but being barbecue, not the most vegetarian-friendly Credit cards: All major credit cards Hours: 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays Children: Welcome Parking: Ample parking in the shopping center Reservations: No Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Minimal Patio: No Takeout: Yes