Notes from the South: Riblets, Smoked Chicken, and More at Rolling Bones Barbecue in Atlanta

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[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

The mighty Appalachian Trail begins in Georgia where the Chattachoogee Mountain Range, dense with towering pines and oak, sprawls over much of the land north of Atlanta. Dusk was setting in as our Prius clung to the dirt road winding up the side of the mountain; having chosen the wrong fork in the road, we made our sojourn back down with little light. By the time we finally reached Atlanta, the city was dark and the streets on which we drove, deserted. Rolling Bones Barbecue shined like a beacon of barbecue light, the only establishment open in the Old Fourth Ward region of downtown Atlanta where the restaurant opened last year to much acclaim.

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Named in 2009 by Bon Appetit as one of the "Top 10 New Barbecue Restaurants in America," Rolling Bones specializes in Texas-style barbecue with smoked brisket, ribs slathered in tomato-based sauces, and slices of thick, butter-brushed toast. All meats are smoked with a mixture of hickory and pecan. Most cuts are brined before smoking, and smoking times vary from four hours for the chicken and ribs, to sixteen for the pork shoulder and brisket.

Ravenous, we arrived an hour before closing time with only one thing on the mind: ribs. I ordered a whole rack and was halfway through listing the sides I wanted when the man taking my order interrupted me.

"Miss, we're out of ribs," he told me. "Sold out about half an hour ago."

I took a step back in utter shock. Out of ribs? We had driven hundreds of miles without a meal and navigated our way out of the Appalachians, only to be vanquished by a missing rack of ribs? All the blood drained from my face as I tried to bear this news. Then, salvation came from behind the counter.

"Get the riblets," one of the cooks told me. "They're taken from the top two inches of the ribs, and I like them better anyway because they've got more fat and cartilage on them."

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Folks, those were his words verbatim. I remember because I've said the same thing to anyone who'll listen: Meat is only worth eating if it's got a good amount of fat in it. The riblet meat was marbled with fat; pleasantly soft bits of cartilage stuck out from under. The sauce was slightly too aggressive for my palate though well within the canon of proper Texas barbecue sauce—tangy, sweet, with just a bit of spicy kick. I gnawed on riblet after riblet, barely needing to use my teeth to remove the tender meat from the bones.

Since closing time was near, the cook also threw in a quarter rack of ribs for me to compare to the riblets. He was right: the ribs, lacking the necessary marbling of fat, were not nearly as juicy and tender.

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I returned the next day eager to try the rest of the menu. Most of the praise for Rolling Bones has focused on its smoked chicken, and with good reason. The chickens are brined, smoked for four hours, and then finished on the grill before serving. (The chicken, in fact, is the only item on the menu that's grilled.) The skin was thin and crispy with very little residual fat underneath its burnished surface; the meat was juicy and impossibly tender, with a smoky depth that remained even after my taste buds had acclimated to the flavor.

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The brisket was a trickier affair. The first few slices we received were tough and dry, with plenty of smoky flavor but very little beefiness. Not one to rest on my fat-loving laurels, I marched back to the counter and asked if the cook if he had any fattier, juicier slices of brisket. He obligingly retrieved the large hunk of brisket from which he had cut our original slices, and let me inspect the meat for a better cross section. The tips of the brisket were well-marbled, and the little bit of fat made all the difference: the taste was extremely beefy and the texture, moist and juicy.

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Our final meat selection of the day was the pulled pork sandwich. Like the brisket, the pulled pork is smoked for 14 hours and quickly rewarmed on a stainless steel griddle just before serving. The meat was moist and porky, but again, I found the sauce to be too assertively flavored.

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For sides, the collard greens are porky but too sweet. The Brunswick stew was as thick as I've ever had, with a strong tomato flavor. Sweet potatoes had a dense and creamy texture, accompanied by a honey glaze that accentuated the smoky flavor. Sweet and crisp corn was a refreshing change from the heaviness of the meat.

Rolling Bones Barbecue

377 Edgewood Avenue Southeast, Atlanta GA 30312 (map)
404-222-2324; rollingbonesbbq.com

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, The Offal Cook.

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