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First Look: Lovies BBQ

New Buckhead joint seeks converts to its temple of meat

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Some day soon, after the End Times, we will all come together in peace. Unitarians will smooch snake-handling Pentecostals. Catholics will dispense contraceptives to Muslims. And all the Barbecue Evangelicals will transgress their cultish boundaries to revel as one in fire and smoke.

Until then, aficionados will continue to argue about how many charred angels can dance on the head of a pin.

The latest barbecue temple to open is Lovies BBQ in Buckhead. High priests Nate Newman and Drew Gregory both grew up in Atlanta and their restaurant is basically an outgrowth of Newman's catering business (which has been suspended for the time being, but will resume under Lovies' roof).

Lovies is located at the intersection of Piedmont and Lenox roads, in the rear of the nondescript building to the right of Chipotle. Getting the place open has taken a delay-filled year. The outcome is a cheerful spot with hardwood floors, shiny black tables, a roomy enclosed porch, and walls hung with Georgia mementos. There's a short row of bright-blue seats from the 1996 Olympics stadium.

You order at a counter with some seating. In the back, St. Louis ribs, chicken, and pork spend long hours in two Stump's smokers from Centerville, Ga. "Stump don't build no junk," according to its website, and, considering its popularity, that must be true.

Only one sauce is available — a mild vinegar-based one containing ketchup, brown sugar, and honey. Yes, that translates to sweet. I told Newman that I usually prefer the Carolina-style sauce my uncle made with mustard to give a bit more tang and heat. I wondered why he isn't offering more than one sauce like many barbecue joints do.

"This is the sauce that we grew up eating here in Atlanta," he said, "and people really seem to like it. When I go to a place that does what you're saying, I end up sampling five sauces and by the time I'm done, the meat is gone, and the meat is the whole point."

Good point, indeed.

If you do want more heat in your 'cue, there's an array of bottled hot sauces and a house-made peppery vinegar that was good on just about everything I tried.

My favorite has been the St. Louis ribs. They are basically the meatiest part of spare ribs, trimmed of the sternum, cartilage, and fat. Samples on two of my three visits were classically charred with a crunch, tender, barely salty, and, during my first visit, almost overwhelmingly aromatic of cumin, as was the mac and cheese.

I know the ingredient is common in barbecue rubs, but this was almost Latin American in its intensity. During my next meals, I encountered barely a whiff. Is there an extra-aromatic version of cumin? Gregory and Newman were as mystified as me.

If you order the combo platter, you'll get a taste of the pulled pork and chicken, as well as the ribs. The chicken was the least distinguished, not much different from the pork's shredded, almost creamy texture. These two meats are served juicy, in a good bit of sauce. If you order a sandwich, it's easy to turn the lightweight bun gooey by adding more sauce or some coleslaw. (I never eat barbecue sandwiches without adding coleslaw, North Carolina style.)

Sides are traditional: coleslaw and the mac and cheese, potato salad, baked beans, homemade potato chips, daily greens, including good collards, and a fairly thick Brunswick stew. The latter, consistent with the sauce, is sweet. I added a shot of the vinegar and hot sauce to satisfy my grumpy, fire-eating palate.

The don't-miss side is the Brussels sprouts. They are roasted until charred and roughly chopped. I could make a meal out of them with the stew. My dessert of banana pudding was somewhat disappointing. It wasn't thick enough for my taste, but, hey, it's pudding and cookies and I spooned up every drop.

I'm not a full convert to Lovies' style of barbecue, but it's off to a great start.

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