ATLANTA – Barbecue gets pigeonholed as a regional cuisine enjoyed by people with provincial tastes, and that stereotype exists because it is at least partially true. Every time I mention a joint on my Twitter feed, I get responses from people in other states claiming that beef/pork/mutton isn’t real barbecue and that mustard-based/vinegar-based/dry-rubbed is an unacceptable dressing for said meat.
This is foolish. It’s all barbecue. The only rule is that the meat must be smoked.* After that, all bets are off. So if someone happens to grow up in another culture and then introduces elements of that culture’s cuisine into the barbecue canon, it isn’t cause for barbecue xenophobia. It is cause for celebration.
*This is not to be confused with the grammar rules about the word barbecue – which are extremely rigid and important. Barbecue is not a verb. It’s a noun, and it isn’t a synonym for grill no matter what those Yankees Merriam and Webster say**. It mostly describes slow-smoked meat, but it can describe an event if smoked meat is the main course. If you attend an event in someone’s back yard and the host hands you a hamburger or a hot dog, you are not at a barbecue. You are at a cookout.
** Unless you’re Australian. Then you can call it whatever the hell you want.
So give thanks that Jiyeon Lee didn’t continue her career as a pop star in her native Korea. Be grateful that Lee studied at Le Cordon Bleu and met partner Cody Taylor while working in the kitchen of Atlanta’s since-shuttered Repast. This confluence of events has made it possible for diners to walk into Heirloom Market and order the spicy Korean pulled pork sandwich.
A pulled pork sandwich with slaw is standard issue in Georgia. A pulled pork sandwich that incorporates gochujang (a spicy Korean pepper paste) into the sauce and uses kimchi slaw is not. The mashup marries the best of Korean and Southern barbecue, and it adds several layers of intrigue to a staple that occasionally needs a kick. The Korean influences don’t stop at the sandwich.
The ATLiens who pointed me toward the place raved about the brisket, but when I arrived for a 1 p.m. lunch last week, all the brisket was gone. I considered this a good sign. The ribs, soaked in a gochujang marinade before smoking, were tender and didn’t need any of the three sauces (tomato-based, vinegar-based, spicy Korean). Still, they paired well with any member of the trio. The Korean fried sweet potato with black sesame seeds was a welcome change from the baked beans-and-slaw side doldrums, and the mac and cheese proved that Lee and Taylor aren’t willing to pass on a great, classic recipe for the sake of experimentation. (Though they did use shells instead of macaroni noodles, so maybe they didn’t want to be total slaves to tradition.)
Parking is an adventure outside this former liquor store, but this is a barbecue badge of honor. On my visit, the owner of the next-door convenience store helped guide me to a spot so I wouldn’t occupy one of the ones reserved for his customers. Lines can be long, and seating space is limited. None of this matters. The food is worth the trouble.
Asian cuisine blends well with barbecue because many of the main ingredients are so similar. Heirloom Market isn’t the first to fuse the flavors, but it’s notable because it merges them so well. Now, I’m waiting for a chef to open the barbecue fusion restaurant that I predict will take America by storm: Cuban barbecue. Just imagine smoked pork on Cuban bread with a side of maduros (fried sweet plantains) and moro rice. There must be some way to fuse smoked brisket and ropa vieja. Chefs of America, make this happen.
Until then, enjoy the dulcet tones of Jiyeon Lee and dream of pulled pork sandwiches that would feel at home in the east or the west.
Post-meal workout: Insanity Max Plyo. (Ouch.)