Consistency is the secret ingredient to guaranteed restaurant success. It's why crappy fast food flourishes and thrives all over the world. It's almost always how favorite restaurants are born -- we go back again and again for a special dish, craving the same experience we had before. Familiarity is a powerful emotion. Consistency is invaluable, and becomes even more so the more comforting and iconic the food is. It's also the one thing Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q lacks.
Which is a pity. Because what could be more comforting and iconic than barbecue?
Barbecue is one of the great dividers in the culinary world, and the debate is highly pleasurable to passionate pig lovers. I am a steadfast believer in the superiority of North Carolina barbecue, and beyond that even, the whole-pig, vinegar and chili 'cue of eastern North Carolina. I disdain too much tomato in the sauce, and truly disdain excess sugar, which can only mask the flavor of good smoked pig.
And, honestly, when I first visited the new Fox Bros., I thought I had hit my limits of fairness and objectivity. One of the main jobs of a critic is to know where one's own tastes cease to matter, and to recognize quality and skill beyond the parameters of likes and dislikes. After hearing almost hysterical raves about the new Texas-style spot from a number of sources, I was a little confused about what the big deal was.
The atmosphere they've created on DeKalb Avenue right by Little Five Points is admirable, turning the space into what feels like a genuine Texas shack, with almost-vintage posters, family memorabilia and longhorns lining the walls. The bar feels like a good ol' boys hangout. But from the first visit, the food had me flummoxed. The ribs were dry. The pulled pork, while having great chewy, smoky bits throughout, was dry. The brisket was dry. "This must be how Texans like their barbecue," I thought to myself – a difference in regions. My North Carolina barbecue superiority complex swelled, but I also felt defeated. Surely I should be able to judge good 'cue on its own terms.
Then I went to Texas. Comparison with Fox Bros. was not my primary reason for going, but the timing of the trip sure was fortuitous.
While I was in Dallas, I ate juicy, tender brisket that fell apart with the slightest nudge of my fork. I had ribs that dripped off the bone. I had pork that was drier than my favorite, vinegary North Carolina pig, but retained enough juice and fat to make it wonderful in its own right. I realized that smoke can be a flavor to live by, and that's exactly what the Texans do. I got it.
Texas style was not the problem. And so, when I returned to Atlanta, I tried Fox Bros. again, and again, and again, hoping for that epiphany to strike.
I tried to love the huge appetizer of tater tots smothered in Brunswick stew and cheese, but it just seemed that whoever thought up the dish had smoked way too much pot. Just as much of a stoner snack, but better executed, were the jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese and pork, then deep-fried.
I tried the Brunswick stew and thought it was fine but lacking in that Worcester funk that is the calling card of the best Brunswick stew. Collards were tender and vinegary, just as they should be, but the baked beans were too sweet, and the mac-n-cheese, which is actually shells-n-cheese, was inconsistent – good and cheesy some nights, bland on others. I liked the musky, complex dry rub on the ribs, and thought the sauce was balanced, tangy and just a little spicy. Some nights, the food was better than that first visit – the ribs moister, the pork juicier. But it never lived up to the wondrous animal fervor that really good 'cue inspires.
Until, one night, I found myself standing in my kitchen over a box of Fox Bros. takeout sliced brisket. I opened the Styrofoam container and popped a piece in my mouth, to stave off hunger on my way to the dining room. Ten minutes later, I was still standing there, the dining-room table completely forgotten, hungrily eating the moist meat with my fingers, dipping it into the sauce and scarfing it down, admiring the bright-pink ring just under the surface of the meat that sang of smoke. Finally, Fox Bros. had sparked a passionate tryst between me and my 'cue.
Now, if only they could do that every night.
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