Harold's Barbecue

171 McDonough Blvd, SE
Atlanta, GA

Meal Price: about $10

How do you find great barbecue in the Deep South? Look for images of pigs, for pork is king in Dixie. Many of the best places have pig-shaped signs, cartoon pictures of pigs on display, and shelves arrayed with pig figurines. If, in addition to porcine décor, the restaurant is conspicuously spiritual – portraits of Jesus and holy homilies on the wall – it is a near certainty that you are about to eat well. In the South’s smoke pits, pigs plus God equals fantastic barbecue.

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Making great barbecue is a slow and simple process that requires devotion not unlike religious faith. Ask the great pit masters why their pork is so delicious and very few will boast of secret ingredients or unique talents; for the skills of their trade bear little resemblance to the power-driven egos of so many other kinds of chefs. Their gifts are patience and trust in time and in smoke. They speak humbly of their belief in a simple, ancient process by which modest ingredients transcend themselves and become something extraordinary.

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Harold’s has proven this theory for more than half a century. One of the South’s grand old smoke pits, it has built its reputation on velvet-soft sliced pork, racks of meaty ribs, and bowls of old-fashioned Brunswick stew. Outside, a cheerful pig in sunglasses occupies the sign by the side of the road – a beacon of comfort in an otherwise scary neighborhood near Atlanta’s federal prison. Although it is a stark building with bars on every window, Harold’s interior has a comforting patina of age and hickory smoke. The wood paneled walls are hung with earnest religious homilies, including this one above the door to the rear dining room: God has time to listen if you have time to pray.

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Tables are comfortable, but we much prefer seats at the worn black counter to the right as you enter. Here you see the wood-fired pit, where just-sliced barbecue is heated over hot coals and white bread for sandwiches is toasted until light brown. It is a mesmerizing sight, unchanged for decades.

Sliced pork is velvet-soft, unbelievably tender and fairly glowing with the subtle perfume of wood smoke; pork ribs come as a magnificent rack – ultra-thick, heavily glazed with beguiling sauce, their crusty-lush meat pulling off the bone in messy strips. On the side of any platter come squares of excellent, gritty-textured cornbread and a small bowl of Brunswick stew loaded with meat, corn, and tomato shreds. A couple of items we’ve yet to try off Harold’s menu, but hope to some day: barbecue salad (green salad topped with pork and sauce) and a stew dog (a hot dog blanketed in Brunswick stew).

Harold's has two other locations, one on Highway 54 in Jonesboro, Georgia, the other in Kennesaw, Georgia. "We still use the family recipe at all locations," Denise Hembree Anderson, Harold's granddaughter, assures the customers, the only difference being that the new locations have added homemade apple dumplings to the menu.


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