Mile 1,757: Fox Brothers BBQ

ATLANTA  After five days of a specific, foreign, wonderful kind of barbecue, we returned to something familiar.

Georgia is the center from which the South ripples outward, but its barbecue scene is anemic. Between Maurice Bessinger’s in Columbia and Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, I’d struggle to name a barbecue powerhouse along the I-20 corridor.

Instead, we see the rise of a new breed of pitmasters, or more accurately, Southern Pridemasters, cooks who employ the now-ubiquitous gas-powered carousel cookers. It’s a no-muss, no-fuss method of smoking, which relative to the open pits that require moment-to-moment temperature regulation, is child’s play.

Which isn’t to say barbecue in 2010 is like turning on an EZ Bake Oven. Many barbeuce proprietors are culinary school-trained, who decided to abandon their white-tablecloth pedigree for the smoking arts. In Chicago this summer, five barbecue restaurants opened within an eight-week stretch. Lillie’s Q is run by Charlie McKenna, a veteran of four-star restaurants Tru and Avenues. Chef Jason Heiman cooked at Tizi Melloul before opening up The Pork Shoppe.

There’s more to this new generation of barbecue restaurants than method; much is presentation. It’s a sort of Yuppie Barbecue, or for the sake of typing, Yuppieque

The restaurants are found in urban centers, and in gentrified former meat-packing districts. Yuppieques have exposed brick interiors, or intentionally well-worn wood paneling, where walls feature rusty license plates and mantles are dressed with cattle prods and faded sepia pictures of plantation workers, obtained not through inheritance but rather via eBay. There’s a menu with Frontier or Saloon fonts and edges charred by Photoshop.

For the record: there is nothing wrong with this. I find it endearing. Throw in some y’alls from cute, young, tattooed waitresses and my heart’s halfway to banana puddin’. 

There’s one more distinction: Where the Keith Allens and Wilber Shirleys of the world will wow you with subtlety and balance, Yuppieques go full-frontal assault on the palate. Many places lean heavily on salt, seasoning the holy hell out of meat before finishing off with a ladle of sauce.

Which brings us to Fox Brothers BBQ in Atlanta. There, we met up with John Kessler, the most-excellent restaurant critic at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Kessler writes about Fox Brothers:

"You may say there’s better around the city, but there’s no other spot with that custom blend of robust business, ambient smoke, diverse crowd and devil-be-damned cooking — that feeling of what life in Atlanta is about."

To me, Fox Brothers has all the trappings of Yuppieque: the carnival barker graphic design, the old photos, the gift shop selling T-shirts and barbecue sauces.

But it also serves very good barbecue.

As much as I loved the old-school chopped pork stuff prepared by octogenarian pitmasters, there was something comforting about seeing baby back ribs, smoked chicken and Frito pie on a menu again.

Thursday’s special at Fox Brothers features barbecued beef short ribs, a Flintstones one-slabber, its exterior smoked to a cosmic black. A few scrapes with a fork and the beef fibers begin to separate, the yellow-smoked bits of fat and collagen hanging on. Then the coveted red smoke is revealed, having seeped deep into the meat.

On our visit, the best part was the sheet of membrane on the underside of the rib that some chefs remove. This would be a mistake. Seasoned liberally, the membranes emerge from the smoker crisp and appealingly salty, with a whiff of beef. If they can market chicharrones, some enterprising chef should begin selling beef-rib membrane chips. Really.

Baby back ribs were good. Smoked chicken wings were good. Then, something called “The Tomminator” (above) made my knees weak.

This is Brunswick Stew studded with crispy tater tots and shellacked with an obscene amount of baked cheese. A hat of cheese. This is so not right, but I’ve already sinned enough this trip, so…

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