As a kid I wished I could breathe fire like the cartoon dragons on TV. Barbecue research is the closest I’ll ever come. Eat enough smoked meat in one day and you’ll feel as if hickory coals are smoldering in your belly, the fumes curling from your lips like Don Draper mid-cigarette.
Surely, though, I grew more porcine than reptilian as I scoured Atlanta and the nearby suburbs, eating at dozens of places to settle on a list of top ten barbecue joints. More than ever, the city is a melting pot of barbecue styles. Most local pit masters take prompts from regional traditions, and the plural is important: Few places focus on one approach. You’ll find, say, North Carolina–style pulled pork sandwiches, tinged with vinegar and piled with slaw, alongside the kind of barky, blackened brisket perfected in Texas. And settling down to a table set with a collection of geographically informed sauces—sweet Kansas City, tangy Memphis, mustard-heavy South Carolina—is commonplace. If Atlanta can claim a barbecue signature, perhaps it’s a willingness to embrace scrumptious change. The number one spot on the list, for example, shot to the top after only three years in business, and it incorporates Korean flavors with Southern know-how in ways that feel evolutionary and organic rather than heretical and unnatural.
Because so much of our ’cue draws on totemic regions as inspirational kindling, I visited the legendary “bookends of barbecue”—Eastern North Carolina and Central Texas—to grasp why their renown is so far-reaching. Trust me, you won’t grow weary of sampling manifold examples of whole-hog barbecue or beef ribs in one trip: Subtle, luscious distinctions keep your taste buds attentive even as a food coma looms.
Back home, I focused my search in Fulton, DeKalb, and Cobb counties. I did also chow through Gwinnett, but none of its joints made it to the top ten. Feel free to vent your disagreements by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in our May 2013 issue.