The latest barbecue joint to open in Atlanta is Wood’s Chapel BBQ in Summerhill, a historic neighborhood that was home to freed slaves and Jewish immigrants after the Civil War. The restaurant’s name is taken from one of the first post-war churches there. Contemporary Atlantans know the area best as the otherwise impoverished location of Turner Field (now Georgia State Stadium).
Summerhill is in fact another example of intown Atlanta’s maniacal gentrification, so don’t be thinking Wood’s Chapel is some barbecue shack in a funky neighborhood. It’s a gigantic, restored brick building – over 5,000 sq. ft. – with a huge patio and a wood-fired smokehouse on the premises. Most of the neighboring buildings on Georgia Avenue, abandoned for many years, are also being turned into food and entertainment venues. A 300-plus apartment building is due to begin construction. You’ll understand why my first thought on queuing up for the ‘cue at Wood’s Chapel’s counter was “Yum.” My second thought, on seeing the $17.50 cost for a plate with two meats, was “Where did all the poor people go?”
You can make your own decision about value, but my one visit was gratifying. I sampled chopped “whole hog,” brisket, pork and beans with “burnt ends,” beet and jalapeno coleslaw, and fried rice with smoked pork belly. There wasn’t a thing on our table I wouldn’t recommend except for the truly bizarre fried rice. Its Chinese-American flavor screams “La Choy.” The tiny bits of dried-up pork belly didn’t help. But it was fluffy! Greasy but fluffy!
I feel comfortable making such a sharp criticism because Wood’s Chapel is the project of a brilliant team – more on that below –and everything else was good, including the other sides. I especially liked the cole slaw’s novel blend of beets, jalapenos, and crunchy, creamy cabbage. The pork and beans sauce was classic but the kitchen deliciously uses two types of beans. The burnt ends (from the tips of smoked brisket) added depth but, alas, no crunch.
The meats are controversial (All barbecue seriously is, arguably because almost all of it is cooked by petty men). I am a huge fan of beef brisket – far more popular in Texas than the Deep South – and Wood’s Chapel does it well. I’ve heard complaints that theirs is too dry, but I found it a bit over-the-top fatty. I didn’t mind because two lean strips the small size of my serving wouldn’t have filled me up. (Meow). The pork actually was a bit dry. Let’s be clear about wood-smoked meats. No matter how well sourced they are and how talented the pitmaster is, there’s a certain degree of unpredictability. And – hello! – slight dryness shouldn’t be a big deal because, as everyone knows, the sauces can compensate. Here, I’m sorry to say, Wood’s Chapel really did not impress me. There are three sauces available and, maddeningly, you have to pump them into tiny plastic cups out of a crowded dispenser. None are remotely hot. There’s ketchupy sweet, less sweet, and vinegary-sweet. There are bottles of something like presumably house-made Tabasco to doctor the flavors, but that’s cheating.
There is much more on the menu. Meats include St. Louis-style ribs, smoked turkey, and smoked salmon. Sandwiches include novelties like grilled cheese with brisket and a punning “Cue-bano.” There are tacos, deviled eggs, watermelon salad, and gorgeous pies. Are you in your second childhood? There is a weird sandwich menu directed to “kids & seniors.”
Wood’s Chapel is bound to be a hit. You couldn’t ask for a better team. The owners are Todd Ginsberg, Shelley Sweet, and Jennifer and Ben Johnson. They own five other venues, including The General Muir, one of the top delis in town. Sweet and the Johnsons also operate the immensely popular West Egg Café. Pitmaster Brian Keenan was the owner of Meating Street Barbecue in Roswell and chef Wilson Gourley last worked at 8ARM.
Wood’s Chapel BBQ
85 Georgia Ave., Atlanta GA