If a barbecue lover could visit only one restaurant in Atlanta, which one would I recommend?
I grappled with that question for weeks, but my meat-addled brain kept returning to Heirloom Market BBQ and its spicy Korean pork sandwich. Rib meat marinates in gochujang—a sweet, fermented chile paste that doesn’t scorch the taste buds—before absorbing the essence of hickory and oak in a red Pitmaker smoker custom-built in Houston. (It sits in a screened-in shack on the restaurant’s patio, next to a blue Pitmaker reserved for beef, chicken, and turkey.) The pork is chopped into rough cubes, piled onto a domed potato bun, crowned with a handful of kimchi coleslaw, and finished with a sprinkling of black sesame seeds and a few wisps of sliced scallion. The taste is familiar yet novel, and it signals a sublime leap forward in the South’s barbecue culture.
Chef-owners Jiyeon Lee and Cody Taylor met while working at defunct Repast, itself a showplace of next-gen East-meets-West cuisine. Taylor grew up in Texas and Tennessee. Lee recorded hit pop songs in late- eighties Korea, then moved to Georgia in 1999 to attend Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Tucker. Several years ago, while the two were visiting Korea, they began to experiment with tenderizing brisket in soup made with miso. They wondered how the beef might taste smoked—exceptional, they discovered—and their ideas for cross-cultural barbecue began percolating. The couple opened Heirloom Market in 2010 in a cramped space near the northern intersection of I-75 and I-285; it once housed a liquor store that helped keep the notorious Riverbend complex afloat in booze during its seventies heyday.
Traditionalists can come to Heirloom for sumptuous pulled pork, singed brisket, ribs with the proper give to the meat, shells with cheese, and meat-riddled collards that all sing of Dixie. Even sticklers, though, might concede to a side of glazed Korean sweet potatoes with the size and texture of American potato chips. They’re the gateway to more of Lee’s revolving side dish specials, including a refreshing cucumber-radish salad or crisp-soft nuggets of tofu that go down like popcorn.
Lee and Taylor weave together flavors in careful, intuitive ways that skirt fusion shock value. The universal appeal is evident from the cars jamming their small parking lot and the lines trailing out the doors. (Brave the throngs. Like any barbecue joint, the ’cue is freshest during prime lunch and dinner rushes.) Heirloom draws perhaps the most diverse clientele in the city—not just blacks and whites, but also East Asians, Indians, Hispanics, and Middle Easterners. Forks in hand, with our heads bent over our trays, we squeeze in around the eight-seat communal table and along the skinny counters, a snapshot of urban Southern community at its happiest. 2243 Akers Mill Road, 770-612-2502, heirloommarketbbq.com
This article originally appeared in our May 2013 issue.