Pit Boss: Lots of Sweet Memories and Sugary Sauce

A few days after I finished undergrad, I began five years of working for three newspapers in rural Georgia. I first moved to Elberton, where I was educated in virulent racism, church revivals, drunken murder, and barbecue. Every weekend, a cloud of smoke floated over the town, as men lit roadside pit fires where they roasted pigs and chickens. Some of the pits were behind virtual shacks and others had picnic tables. People gathered at every pit to socialize.

You can get delicious barbecue in Atlanta, but nothing comes close to the lived experience of that time. An exception may be Pit Boss BBQ in Hapeville, not far from the airport. It’s ramshackle and the moment you open the door you are enveloped in smoke. Open about 10 years and also operating in Stockbridge, Pit Boss has three rooms. The order area was continually crowded on a Friday night, although the cashiers moved things along at amazing speed. There’s a fairly large dining room on the right, but almost all the tables were pushed together and reserved for a team of female athletes from Jersey. To the left is a bar with seven television screens. It was obvious a lot of the customers were regulars.

The most confounding part of the experience at Pit Boss is the menu on a sign above the ordering station. It includes dozens and dozens of items, so plan to step back for a long read. There’s brisket (sold out), chicken (including wings), sausage, and ribs served as sandwiches or straight up with sides. There are also burgers. Annoyingly, you can’t create a combo plate with two types of meat of your choice. It’s ribs and wings or a quarter chicken only. There is one combo that lets you choose any three meats, but it’s $32.

Feeling frantically pressured to order, three of us ended up with pulled pork, back ribs, coleslaw, mac and cheese, Brunswick stew, baked beans, collards, and pork rinds. Yes, pork rinds: a huge serving, hot, crispy, porky, some the size of your palm. As for the meats, I had a problem. I grew up eating the vinegary, sometimes mustardy barbecue sauces of the Carolinas. I do not like the ketchupy, super-sweet sauces that rule in Georgia. Now, if the meat is smoked properly with a good dry rub, the sauce is virtually irrelevant, so the back ribs – not spare ribs – at Pit Boss were tasty on their own. Alas, the pulled pork was dry as hell. There was no way to eat it without adding the red candy coating. The hot sauce, by the way, isn’t hot. I tried three different bottles and never got a buzz.

The best of the sides was the collards. The cornbread was weirdly doughy, so there was no soaking up the collards’ pot liquor. The coleslaw was average. The mac and cheese consisted of miserably sticky little shells and mystery cheese. Baked beans and Brunswick stew, just like the sauces, were sugary. I’m talking sweeter than the peach cobbler. Portions generally are small but, somehow, the kitchen plunked over a pound of meat on my plate, instead of the quarter-pound I ordered. I took half of it home and hit it with the vinegar.

Okay, I sound really down on this place. But the fact is I loved the experience because it smothered me in more nostalgia than ketchup. I’m also aware that my dislike of ketchup-based sauces is personal. That’s the standard and my friends seemed happy with it. So if you like traditional Georgia ‘cue, this place is for you.