Georgia doesn't generally have the reputation for barbecue that its neighbors do, but that may be because, like Tennessee, it's several different barbecue zones. Savannah seems to share in the South Carolina, tidewater, mustard-based traditions, at least as far as our limited experience indicates. Northern Georgia, the mountains, draws on the North Carolina/Tennessee tradition. We do not know southwestern Georgia. We tend to avoid Atlanta.
For the moment our reviews deal with a few isolated spots in northern Georgia. For a listing of other Georgia barbecue, there's a website called The Gentleman's Guide to Swine Dining in Georgia, which we can't fully evaluate, except to note that of the three restaurants we discuss here, that website mentions only one, the gaudiest and best-known.
Our Georgia Reviews:
The Ellijay Area: Poole's and the Pink Pig
Of course, the most important thing about any barbecue restaurant is the pig. But the sides matter too, and there is that indefinable, almost mystical element of the surroundings. We'd say milieu, but that's awfully French for a barbecue joint. Barbecue joints that are in rundown shacks, abandoned filling stations, and the like have a certain authenticity.
Buckwheat's is in one end of an air conditioner repair shop.
We found Buckwheat's in 1997. Hiawassee is in Towns County in north central Georgia. We were traveling from Rabun County westward and had been looking for lunch. As we entered Hiawassee, we saw smoke on the right. "Smoker!", cried Tam, with the barbecue aficionado's instant recognition.
Buckwheat's was, as noted, in an air conditioner repair shop. There was a carry-out counter and, if one went outside the store and then entered a screened-off area, a seating section with picnic-style tables. There were open six-packs of coke and other soft drinks, not refrigerated. There was one can of coke left. We asked if there was any more. "Just whatever's out there", we were told.
The barbecue was excellent southern barbecue. Buckwheat's, naturally, has no website, but the Towns County tourism website lists it and says that it has three barbecue sauces. We don't specifically remember the sauces. What we do remember was the "five bean bake". This was, to the usual baked bean side you get with barbecue in most of the South, a cordon bleu version. Made, as the name implies, with five beans, which included garbanzos (chickpeas) along with several more predictable beans. Well spiced and sauced. According to the Towns County website, there are "umbrella picnic tables"; in 1997, the tables were in a screened-in area. The website also says it is only open March to December. It presumably stands to reason that, if your main business is air conditioner repair, you might as well take January and February off. The website already cited gives the phone number as (706) 896-7675. It's on the east edge of town, north side of the road, as you come into town on the main east-west road. Hiawassee isn't so big you'll have any trouble finding it.
The Ellijay Area: Poole's and the Pink Pig
Well, to be perfectly honest, we haven't been to the Pink Pig. But it and Poole's have a longstanding rivalry, are a few miles apart, and besides, Poole's gets far more publicity than its food probably merits, so we thought we'd include the Pink Pig as well.
Gilmer County, Georgia, is a place where Michael has a lot of roots: his Kell, Dunn, and Wikle ancestors were among the earliest white settlers in the Ellijay area, even before the Cherokees left. When he first visited Ellijay in 1967, it was a remote small town in the North Georgia mountains. When he last visited it 30 years later in 1997, suburban weekenders from Atlanta and former President Carter, among others, were living in mountain condos in the area.
Colonel Poole's is better known, so we'll start with the Pink Pig, though since -- at least in 1997 -- it was only open on weekends and a day or two before the weekend (Thursday to Sunday, in fact), we didn't get a chance to eat there. The Pink Pig now has its own website, though it isn't nearly as much fun as Colonel Poole's mentioned below. A Gilmer County attractions website calls The Pink Pig "Jimmy Carter's favorite", which makes sense because everybody in Gilmer knows that the Pink Pig is for Democrats and Colonel Poole's is for Republicans. The local candidates hold their barbecue rallies at their appropriate joint. A Gilmer County Points of Interest Page at the georgiamagazine.com site also calls it Jimmy's favorite BBQ. (By the way, that "James Kell farm" listed as an attraction immediately thereafter refers to Michael's great-great-great-great-grandfather. You won't find the farm without a map and may have trouble with one, and it wasn't built in 1867 by Captain Kell, since the man died in 1848, but other than that, it's nice to be mentioned.)
Since we haven't been to the Pink Pig, we can't comment on the barbecue. Colonel Poole's is another matter entirely. The food is okay. It's typical southern barbecue. It is not as good as Buckwheat's in Hiawassee, or as interesting. What it is, is a sort of barbecue theme park/exercise in self-promotion. There's the "Pig Hill of Fame", where little wooden pigs immortalize (?) those who pay to have their names put up. There's the "Taj-Ma-Hog", the "Hog Rock Cafe" and other cleverly named things. Since Colonel Poole's has its own website, we'll refer you there for the self-promotion. It's been written up in Southern Living, and though that article said it "appears like some hokey hand-lettered tourist trap", Colonel Poole has happily put the article online at his website. We really don't want to sound negative here, though: after all, barbecue joints are supposed to be Americana. The Gentleman's Guide to Swine Dining in Georgia website compares Col. Poole's to the notorious Pedro's South of the Border in South Carolina. But that's unfair. Col. Poole, or the Reverend Colonel Poole as he likes to be called, makes a decent barbecue. It's overshadowed by the hype, but the tackiness is fun at times.
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