As I come to my last bite of smoky spare rib and gaze at my near-empty plate, my eyes widen in momentary panic. I’ve just remembered that they have barbecue sauce here. Perhaps I should try some if I’m supposed to review this place.
“This place” is Big Shanty Smokehouse in Kennesaw, opened three years ago by Chic Dillard, who has 30 years in the restaurant industry. Dillard serves as pitmaster while wife Sissy and daughter Shannon oversee the sides and desserts, including the popular banana pudding.
Little more than a roadside shack deep in the heart of Kennesaw, Big Shanty produces some of the best barbecue I’ve seen come out of Georgia. Dillard respects his meat and it shows. Briskets and butts get a healthy coat of house-made dry rub and are bathed in hickory smokes for 13 hours, where they develop a bark that will earn the respect of the most discerning barbecue purists.
The balance of that bark, with the bold hickory smoke flavor that permeates the meat, makes sauce almost inconsequential. Big Shanty serves only one kind of barbecue sauce — a sweet and tangy tomato-based concoction‚ and every meat gets a light brushing before plating, as well as a cup of extra sauce on the side. However, I highly recommend trying the meat straight out of the smoker before you consider adulterating the flavor with more sauce.
A great starting point for first-timers is Steve’s Sampler ($14.95), a tour de meat featuring brisket, house-made sausage, ribs and pulled and chopped pork. Dillard pulls his pork butts by hand, saving the flavor-rich bark for the chopped pork. Pulled and chopped pork are moist and tender, but the chunky bark mixed into the chopped version makes it the clear winner. The meat on the superb ribs ($8.95 half slab, $16.95 full slab) pulls cleanly from the bone when you bite into it; it’s tender but not overcooked to the point where it just falls away.
Big Shanty does not represent itself as specializing in Texas barbecue, but the brisket would make any Texan proud. From my vantage point at the two-seat bar, I watch as Dillard carved inch-thick slices of glistening smoky brisket so tender that it pulls apart with the slightest nudge of my fork.
The meats are the star of any meal at Big Shanty, but the sides ($1.50 each) do not disappoint. The baked navy, pinto and kidney beans spend three hours in the smoker, where they’re pumped full of hickory goodness, and the Southern-style potato salad brought me straight back to my grandmother’s kitchen. Along with the coleslaw, they are the only sides to have permanent slots on the menu, although other options such as collard greens and mac and cheese make regular appearances.
Big Shanty Smokehouse belongs in any debate over the best barbecue in Atlanta. Whether you live inside or outside the Perimeter, if you have barbecue on the brain, it is worth the drive.