Barbecue is traditionally defined by regional preferences. The meats, sauces, and methods of preparation are usually borne of place, and adhered to with uncommon ferocity.
But not so in Atlanta. Because there isn't a distinctive Georgia style of barbecue, despite the fact that the state sits smack in the region's epicenter (geographically at least), we've been presented with an opportunity. Freed from the constraints of tradition, we're able to forge a new barbecue path, the best of all worlds.
Right? Well, mainly, no. We have some fantastic barbecue restaurants in town, but most of them hew to one style or another. There's Texas, Memphis and Chicago barbecue. Some folks throw in a North Carolina-style sandwich. But the form has yet to evolve here.
Until now. In a small room attached to a convenience store, under the shadow of I-285 and off a mainly residential road in Smyrna, Heirloom Market BBQ is quietly creating a new model for the smoky, saucy meatways of Atlanta. Opened by two chefs trained in Atlanta's fine-dining kitchens, the unpretentious restaurant borrows the best traditions from numerous styles of barbecue, culminating in something refreshing and original.
Cody Taylor and Jiyeon Lee, a couple who met while working at Repast, have between them a culinary background that stretches from Korea to Restaurant Eugene, from Tennessee to the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton. Lee was a pop star in Korea in her youth before moving to the U.S. to study at Le Cordon Bleu. Taylor is a native of Tennessee, a state that does have a distinctive 'cue style, but Heirloom isn't tied to that custom alone.
Instead, we get the best of Texas tradition with brisket that on good days is all buttery melting fatty yum, and on not-as-good days is slightly dry but still tasty. North Carolina is represented with a fantastically vinegary sauce dubbed "settler sauce," which is devoid of the sugary pall that so often ruins people's attempts at North Carolina style. Instead, it's puckery and peppery, and when used liberally over the pulled pork sandwich, delivers a satisfying approximation of N.C. 'cue.
Lee brings her nation's barbecue sensibilities to Heirloom in the form of a Korean sauce that sits on the counters alongside the settler sauce and a Texas-style "table sauce." The Korean sauce was spicy and a touch too sweet, as was a special Korean pork sandwich — the pickled veggies delivered a vinegary crunch, but the sweetness detracted from the fermented funk I was hoping for in a Korean-style sandwich.
Taylor smokes his meats in two smokers with different woods used for the various styles of barbecue. Pecan and oak lend a serious wood-tinged haze on the palate, particularly the chicken. Ribs adhere to the lacquered, bark-edged school of cookery, losing some fatty tenderness in the process but acquiring a ton of flavor along the way.
In many ways, the sides steal the limelight, particularly the baked beans which are scooped from a bubbling pot sitting on the pass between the kitchen and the dining room. The beans are imbued with smoky flavor and enough sweetness to balance, not overwhelm them. Brunswick stew is more like a tangy, porky soup with a broth that marries the sweetness of tomato with the bite of Worcestershire. Generous hunks of pork belly dot the collards, almost to a fault when they come as a side to a big plate of meat. If collards can act as a palate cleanser of sorts, this version, while delicious, delivers more meat than balance to the protein.
It's hard to call Heirloom a restaurant — it's a shack, barely more than a stand, but all the more lovable for it. The tiny space is comprised of a counter, one six-seat wooden table, and counters lining the two windowed walls. Heirloom has a lived-in feel, the lemonade and sweet tea self-served from glass dispensers while you stand in line, plastic forks in buckets sit alongside rolls of strategically placed paper towels so that no matter where you sit, relief from sticky fingers is within reach.
The room, the heavy pot of bubbling beans, the friendly servers who aren't as informed as they could be but are enthusiastic and expeditious, all work to make Heirloom feel like a well-worn neighborhood staple. But the real value here is the progress Heirloom makes toward a barbecue tradition we can be proud to call Atlantan.