Bar-B-Que Shack, Athens GA

Here’s a restaurant that’s never really received a fair shake from me. The Bar-B-Que Shack, which opened in 1993, has been around long enough to reasonably qualify as the oldest surviving joint of its kind in Athens. There are older – much older – places in nearby Danielsville, Watkinsville and Lexington, but unless I’m forgetting about one, all of its peers – Carrithers, Spring House, J.R.’s, Peanut’s Redneck – have long since gone. The two Fresh Air outlets might claim to have been around since the 1920s, but that’s when the original store down in Jackson opened. The ones in Athens didn’t open until 1996 or so. The one on the west side of town, between the Pepsi plant and Bogart was the site of Peanut’s Redneck – and yes, that really was its name, Peanut’s Redneck Bar-B-Q – when I moved to town in ’89. J.R.’s opened sometime in the mid-90s, in the building that once housed Walter’s. That was a mid-eighties favorite of R.E.M., who recorded a “theme” to the restaurant that appears on their odds-n-sods 1986 LP Dead Letter Office. That building is now home to Hollis’s Ribs. The turnover in barbecue places in Athens has always seemed just a little brutal.

But the Bar-B-Que Shack always suffered in my book for its location. See, when I lived in the city, I always went somewhere for barbecue on Saturday afternoons. Yeah, I could have driven to Bar-B-Que Shack, but I also could have driven another twenty miles down the same road to Lexington and gone to Paul’s, which was not only my favorite in the world, but served up a very similar recipe. They both offer North Carolina-styled whole hog, a really nice side of hash – both joints call it “stew,” but it’s not Brunswick-styled and it has far more in common with Carolina hash – and they both offer terrific vinegar-heavy sauces.

So the question always was: “Do I go for the really good meal, or do I go for the really, really good meal?”

I want to say that the same problem hit me going north of town. Yeah, I could have stopped at Bill’s in Hull, or I could have kept going up the same road another twenty miles to Zeb Dean’s. I’ll tell you the truth, if you live in Athens and you’ve got a car, you’re spoiled for choice.

Bar-B-Que Shack keeps slightly better hours than Paul’s. They’re open three whole days each week, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. This does mean that one reason I haven’t stopped by in the last year and a half is pretty simple. I only just started working Thursday as a short day, instead of Wednesday. So with a Thursday free, I asked Randy whether he was free to go back to the old college town – he and I met there as students twenty years back – and take a break from his business craziness. I was really looking forward to trying the Shack again. It had been a pretty long time; probably the last time I visited was shortly after Marie and I started dating, most likely in early 2007. That was another little strike against it, actually. Marie preferred another BBQ place, the excellent Jot ’em Down.

Anyway, Bar-B-Que Shack is one remarkably consistent restaurant. It looks and feels exactly the same as when I first visited, not too long after the owner, Mary Hart, opened the place. There’s a pitcher of sweet tea and five bottled sauces already on the table when you take a bench, laminated menus on green construction paper awaiting your consideration. It’s not like it’s a menu full of choices – the only question that I ever ask is whether I’d like to spend $8 for a regular-sized plate or $10 for a large – but I have heard that the chicken and the ribs here are pretty good, too. The sauces are all really great. They have a traditional Carolina vinegar sauce, either mild or as a “hot and sour,” or a dark, but thin, tomato-based sauce in three degrees of spice. The extra-hot really is a knockout, with a stunning aftertaste; I strongly advise you try that on a bite or two of bread before pouring it over your chopped pork.

One extra note for anybody looking to give this place a try: give yourself an extra two or three minutes to drive through the completely bizarre neighborhood right behind the restaurant on Reed Street. The identikit, ugly duplexes in this community are just fascinating to me, and while I’m no expert in residential architecture, I have never seen homes like them anywhere. The unkempt lawns, very low prices on the rental signs and boarded windows indicate that this is a dying neighborhood, and the 2010 crime statistics back that assumption, but the design of the homes is so incredibly unusual that I find it an irresistible attraction.

Most of you, I expect, given that extra few minutes would probably choose to indulge in Bar-B-Que Shack’s banana pudding instead. It is, by any measure, some of the best that you’ll ever have.

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