Cheap Eats: Bone Lick BBQ
The quirky side of Atlanta barbecue
My favorite thing about Bone Lick BBQ is its origin story. Over the past few years, chef Mike LaSage built a small legion of fans for his once-a-week barbecue nights at P'cheen in the Old Fourth Ward, garnering a number of accolades in the process. Clearly he was on to something, but P'cheen wasn't the right place to go full smoke ahead with an all-out barbecue menu. Thus, the idea for Bone Lick BBQ was born and LaSage, along with his P'cheen partners, scouted out a location on the Westside.
Open since August, Bone Lick is like the quirky sitcom character who got his own spin-off show. He's eager to establish his own identity, but also hopes to draw the crowds who tuned in to watch his oddball antics on the original show ("Joey," anyone?). For Bone Lick, the antics that have carried over and expanded include adventures in flavor that you aren't likely to find on more traditional barbecue menus, but also a slate of straightforward smoked meats. Crazy concoctions like the Naw Dawg (more on that later) or the inclusion of crispy fried onions on a brisket sandwich speak to Bone Lick's penchant for keeping it strange.
Quirky also captures the feel of Bone Lick, which clearly isn't trying to stick to the typical barbecue-shack motif. There's skee-ball, a row of video games, local craft beers on tap, and enough whiskey to make Elijah Craig blush. While P'cheen always felt like a rowdy bar that got kudos for its surprisingly good barbecue, Bone Lick feels like a barbecue joint that's out to earn kudos for its surprisingly fun, bar-like atmosphere. Each visit to Bone Lick seems to spark an inner dialogue between the barbecue purist (I'm from Memphis, I can't help it) and the anything-goes glutton in me. Do I crave a good smoked sausage or do I want Tater Tots topped with that sausage ... and pulled pork ... and jalapeños ... and chipotle barbecue sauce ... and cheese sauce ... and Brunswick stew?
Over several visits to Bone Lick, it's my inner glutton that's been far happier than the barbecue purist. Tasting Bone Lick's unadorned smoked meats — brisket, pulled pork, ribs, chicken, house-made sausage — my reactions have ranged from highly disappointed to moderately pleased. The pleasures include long links of nicely spiced smoked sausage and plump chicken with a well-charred skin, while the disappointments revolve around pitifully dry and bland brisket and ribs on multiple visits. I know the kitchen puts a lot of care into slow smoking the goods over pecan wood and white oak, but the results just aren't where they need to be yet (consistency is often a challenge for even well-established barbecue joints). The pork and brisket both get a nice blackened bark, but either there's not enough fat in the cuts they're using to keep them moist, or they're just overcooking the meat.
A span of sauces on every table helps liven up the offerings with an option for almost any palate — mustardy South Carolina-style, vinegary North Carolina-style, thick and rich Kansas City-style, simple pepper vinegar. And despite the dry brisket, the glutton in me has to admit that Bone Lick's Austin-tacious sandwich is damn good, managing to make something close to marvelous by dousing a pile of too-dry brisket in a sweet chipotle sauce and stuffing it between two butter-soaked pieces of Texas toast with crunchy fried onions and slaw. We're clearly not in traditional Texas barbecue country, where a slice of brisket is sacred and should never see a drop of sauce, let alone fried onions; but with a sandwich this tasty, that's OK.
Even more extreme is the over-the-top Naw Dawg, a bacon-wrapped sausage drenched in a puddle of melted cheese and topped with thick jalapeño slices and sautéed onion — one of those dare dishes that offers the opportunity to flex your man versus food muscles. But the liquid-like cheese and bacon simply mask the flavor of the sausage in a gloopy mess. If you really want to demonstrate a willingness to eat things you probably shouldn't, just start off with the addictively crunchy smoked pepper pork rinds, which make a perfect foil for a pint of good local beer.
Traditionalists may do well with a pulled pork sandwich, but I've had mixed results; the pork was rubbery on one visit and a pile of sliced pickles overwhelmed the smoky meat on another visit. And anyone will do well with a side of pork-braised collard greens, excellently smoky and meaty, the best thing I've eaten at Bone Lick.
My advice if you're eager to give Bone Lick a shot is to embrace the fun of the place — have a beer, play some skee-ball, snack on some pork rinds or smoked wings. Opt for the unusual. Except for that melted cheese sauce. Naw Dawg, don't go there.