Don’t let Chicken City fool you, the good people of Gainesville and Hall County know their way around some barbecue.
Dry rubs, sweet sauces, dripping ribs, hot chicken with smoked and crispy skin wrapping juicy dark meat and all the pork butt anybody could handle — here are a few of the best locally owned shops (in no particular order) to grab a solid plate of barbecue in the county.
Smoke House BBQ
This beloved Oakwood shop is a women-owned and women-operated shop — a rare find in the sweaty, smokey work that is barbecue.
Rae Vaughan and her mother, Wayne Vaughan, own Smoke House BBQ, and Rae runs the restaurant with her team starting at 11 a.m. six days a week.
The shop smokes all of its meat overnight for about 12 hours and specializes in classic Southern pork barbecue, but the team throws just about anything over the hickory.
“Georgia really doesn’t have what you call Georgia-style barbecue,” Rae said. “We’re kind of a melting pot because we pull from the Carolinas, the Kansas area, from Alabama, so we kind of get a little bit of everything.”
Smoke House’s meat is dry-rubbed, smoked and served with sauce on the side. And like the meat itself, the sauce comes from all over. The restaurant serves a Kansas-style sweet, a “sweet heat,” Carolina vinegar and an Alabama white sauce.
If you’re looking to try something a little different, go for the beef shoulder. It’s braised right in the smoker for a beef flavor that is more Southern than Texan.
“Think of it as a Sunday pot roast that’s smoked,” Vaughan said.
For the first-timer in the shop (if any of you actually exist), she recommends you grab a pork plate, a cup of Brunswick stew and some macaroni and cheese. You might also try some banana pudding.
Smoke House BBQ is still settling into its new digs on Atlanta Highway.
Sherry’s Bait and Barbecue
Past the Dawsonville Highway bridge over Lake Lanier as you leave Gainesville sits a barbecue place that — as the name suggests — is the fisherman’s one-stop shop before a day on the lake.
Coming up on its fifth year, Sherry’s Bait and Barbecue remains the most recent arrival to Hall County’s barbecue scene. It’s owned by Terry and Sherry Richards.
The restaurant is named for Terry’s three loves: his wife, fishing and barbecue. The shop covers the usual regional styles but has a few curveballs: It smokes a brisket over hickory, combining the Texas cut of choice with Southern smoke (classic brisket is smoked over oak), and the Richards smoke a tri-tip cut of beef in a central California style.
Sherry’s Bait and Barbecue shines with its ribs, which are smoked overnight, wrapped in foil and served falling off the bone. But the restaurant has an off-menu item that is one of Terry’s favorites: competition-style ribs.
If you call ahead, you can get a rack smoked to order. Unlike regular ribs, competition-style ribs hold onto more of their juices and tug at the bone, making them a little less tender but a more meaty rib.
If you’ve never been to the shop, Terry recommends you try the classic plate: a pulled pork sandwich, slaw and beans (both made in-house). If you’re a barbecue snob, give the three-meat plate a shot to see how the pork, beef and chicken stack up together.
Johnny’s BBQ has been fogging up Cleveland Highway with its mighty hickory smoke for more than 25 years.
Pork and chicken run the show at this roadside staple north of Gainesville, from classic Southern pulled pork drizzled with the restaurant’s original barbecue sauce to downright healthy (relatively speaking) rotisserie chicken wings.
But though Tharpe and Judy Ward are smoking pork, they’re not smoking butts or shoulders. Instead, they opt for whole hams — 25 pound legs that have a whiter meat and plenty of flavor.
“Once we pull it, pick and chop it, it’s really lean. You won’t find any fat in it,” Tharpe said, waving to the black, fiery-hot box holding the hams. “These will smoke all day and then we’ll put on six to 12 tonight.”
Johnny’s chicken is put through a rotisserie smoker, and it’s one of the few barbecue places around that serves up both white and dark meat. Most shops avoid white meat because, while it’s moist right out of the smoker, you might be able to patch drywall with it after it’s sat for a while.
But not at Johnny’s, where chicken is served by the half or the quarter, dark or white meat.
If you’ve never stopped by at the Wards’ restaurant, Tharpe recommends the pork plate with Brunswick stew, slaw and beans.
Moonie’s Texas Barbecue
If you’re looking for barbecue straight out of central Texas, Moonie’s in Flowery Branch or Gainesville is the place to go.
Owned by Jason and Brooke Martin, the shops on Atlanta Highway in South Hall and John Morrow Parkway in Gainesville rely on Jason’s Austin roots (and a whole lot of white oak) to sling the meanest brisket in the county.
By rubbing their brisket with salt and pepper, wrapping it in butcher paper and smoking it through the night over white oak, Moonie’s turns one of the toughest cuts of cow into a dripping, juicy, salty, tender slab of barbecue.
The couple and their crew rely on white oak for a mild smoke that lets the beef do the talking on the plate.
“Hickory and mesquite are more of a bitter wood — you can get a lot more smoke flavor, where oak is kind of a medium-to-mild wood where you taste more of the meat instead of the smoke,” Jason told The Times after the opening of his Gainesville location in 2017.
The brisket at Moonie’s comes two ways thanks to the cut itself. Brisket has a lower, leaner portion that makes up the majority of the cut and an upper cap that is fattier and, when it comes out of the smoker, juicy to the point of falling apart.
Creamed corn, mac ‘n cheese, brisket chili (and don’t go looking for beans, because there are no beans in chili), and Brunswick stew round out the menu as premium sides.
And, being in the South, Moonie’s serves pulled pork, chicken and sausage — all smoked over the same white oak.
The Hickory Pig
You’ve never met anyone like Phil Beaubien, proprietor of The Hickory Pig.
In his 70s, Phil is about as likely to drop and show you his push-up regimen (he’s in top shape and doesn’t go to the doctor, don’t you know) as take your order. If you ask for a business card, he’ll stamp you out a piece of cardboard, slice it into a rough rectangle with some scissors and hand it over.
His roadside shack has been a favorite of the Atlanta magazine writer looking for an out-of-the-way, eclectic barbecue joint.
And with a roadside shop in the mysterious place between rustic and ramshackle, The Hickory Pig fits the bill. Phil has been written up in Southern Living, Atlanta Magazine and Garden and Gun.
“It’s a little dumpy looking place, a little, tiny place, but somehow I’ve survived,” he said.
For the past 30 years, Phil has been smoking pork, ribs and burgers around the back of his shack on Thompson Bridge Road. Pork you can get all week long, Phil said, but you’ll have to stop by over the weekend to catch some of his ribs.
And then there is The Hickory Pig hamburger. When you think of burgers, the smoker is likely not the first cooking method to come to mind.
But hear Phil out. At $4 a pop, fresh-ground beef is smoked over the same hickory that handles the pork. The patty is laid on a hot bun with ketchup, mustard, pickles and nothing else. It’s a presentation Phil said he picked up from one Truett Cathy, of whom you have probably heard.
If you’re not up for a burger but want to give something a shot at the The Hickory Pig, Phil recommends a sandwich and a Brunswick stew.