Briar Patch Restaurant, Hiram GA

Next week sometime, I’ll get around to telling you about why I ended up here, instead of at Bocado like I intended on this past Friday. Briefly, I found myself suddenly desiring a nice, comforting plate of chopped barbecue pork instead of the sandwich that I had been thinking about all week. There are a pile of barbecue joints around Atlanta on my to-do list, but the one that spoke to me the most was this old place way out Georgia 120, long past the point the road changes its name from Whitlock to Dallas Highway. From the Marietta Square, it’s about twenty minutes’ drive. I had only been to Briar Patch once before; when I had the Geocities barbecue page up, a reader in the area recommended that I come out this way and give the place a try.

It had been a really long time since I drove out this way at all – long enough to miss an unfortunate change. The El Pollo Loco where we used to eat is now an IHOP. That California-based chain made a big production out of moving into the Atlanta market about five years ago, but it kind of did a half-assed job, if you ask me. Not bad burritos, mind. They’ve a few stores left, I believe.

Anyway, the road takes you past Cheatam Hill Cemetery, where my father was laid to rest in his amazing, see-it-to-believe-it plain pine box, past the IHOP, past the gigantic, upscale Avenue at West Cobb, sister development to the nice shopping center between Marietta and Roswell on the same road, through a charming community called Lost Mountain, and to the Paulding County town of Hiram. Weirdly, I realized too late that I was out in this general direction just four days previously. My son’s middle school had a band competition at McEachern High and this place is only seven miles from that school. Let’s do a better job watching that odometer with gas prices like these, okay?

Not visible in the above photo: Seven hundred trillion ragweed pollen particles. Per hundred. It was a rough day.

This place is a big and definitely popular destination in the area. I got there at twenty past eleven and parking was already at a premium. Briar Patch employs a huge staff to keep things moving efficiently. The service line gets you to a couple of registers underneath three big video screens that show off the menu. It’s a big, full service restaurant with burgers and steaks as well as hickory-smoked pork, beef and chicken. I went with a “little” pork sandwich basket, which comes with fries and slaw, and asked for an extra cup of stew.

Weirdly, and I’m not sure what to make of this, they offer bottled water for free, but charge ninety-five cents for a cup of ice. I’m pretty sure that I’ve never run into this before.

I made the mistake (again!) of not asking for my sauce on the side. The sandwich, nicely priced at $6 with slaw and fries, comes drowned in their red tomato-based sauce. The chopped pork was very tasty, but I think that the amount of sauce really overwhelmed the meat. I was able to fork out a couple of nibbles that tasted much better on their own, or dipped in a really good spicy hot mustard sauce. I got a little cup of this for my fries. My doctor had, just an hour earlier, told me to lay off the spicy food for a week while my allergy-devastated throat heals, but the mustard sauce is just so good that I couldn’t resist a few contraband bites.

The slaw was really nice and creamy. I recall, from my first visit many years ago, not really enjoying it, but it was a pleasant surprise this time out. The stew was very mild, thick and chewy, and quite honestly the highlight of the meal. It tastes terrific, and it felt so good going down my gullet. I will say that the portions are really reasonable, but will probably feel small to people used to overeating with a plate of barbecue like I used to do. Since I’m trying to whittle down my portion sizes, I was pleased, but I can imagine some eaters might want to pay the extra dollar for a large sandwich.

I brought some Gregory McDonald to read, but was distracted a little by the decor. Apart from the mounted deer and game heads throughout the store, the top tier of the walls show off some painted artwork depicting Confederate soldiers fighting in Paulding County. (A drive from Marietta will take guests through a tiny sliver of Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park.) On the wall above the exit door, there’s a big depiction of a not-entirely Disney-styled Br’er Fox threatening Br’er Rabbit with a trip to the briar patch.

I’ve lived in Georgia all my life and consider Joel Chandler Harris a whimsical part of our common folklore, but was surprised to learn that neither of my kids has any idea who the heck Uncle Remus was. I know the tale in this painting from my third grade teacher reading it to us. I suppose that you can’t do that in school any longer.

Doug’s Place, Emerson GA

Would you believe that Randy and Kimberly finally got married? It’s only been a week, but we haven’t heard anything about them fighting over him taking her to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, so I choose to believe the honeymoon’s still on. Then again, he did write to let me know that he perceived a heck of a lot of Asian restaurants in Asheville, where they went, so who knows what they got up to.

Their ceremony was held on Red Top Mountain near Cartersville, and looking around for something to eat on the way brought up a restaurant in the small town of Emerson called Doug’s Place. This opened up a floodgate of forgotten memories, none of which, it turns out, really have anything to do with this very agreeable Southern-style meat-and-three. When I found a photo of Doug’s Place – the one on John Bickford’s very entertaining From My Table – I suddenly remembered that when I was a child, a chunk of Interstate 75 along this stretch was closed for a couple of years while the US Army Corps of Engineers was doing some sort of digging or reconstruction of Allatoona Lake. When my parents took me along for their monthly visit to see my grandparents in Fort Payne, we would exit early and drive up US 41 through Cartersville. On about three or four occasions, I swear that we stopped for breakfast around here, and wondered whether it might have been Doug’s Place.

It wasn’t – suspicion now lies on a Cartersville restaurant called Cody Jay’s which occupies a building that, thirty-odd years ago, was the home of a place called J.R.’s – but getting to the bottom of things was kind of fun. I first asked my mom whether she remembered what that place in Bartow County we would stop in the seventies was called. Unsurprisingly, since, to hear my mom tell it, whatever good times there ever were ended around the time Nixon got in trouble with the lib’rul media, and, perhaps not coincidentally, I was two, she didn’t remember any such thing. Mom carried Dentyne cinnamon-flavored chewing gum in her purse for the better part of fifteen years, but she thinks I’ve made up this story to confound her, because everybody knows that she hates chewing gum. Getting her to identify thirty year-old breakfast stops is like getting her to identify Godzilla films that were on channel 17 on a specific evening that my parents had friends over for pinochle when I was nine. She’s not very helpful with that, either.

Wherever we ate back then, it wasn’t Doug’s Place, but heaven knows I irritated two or three people trying to get to the bottom of it. Before this place became Doug’s about fifteen years back, it was apparently Morris’s, but the building itself dates to the 1890s. There are two small dining rooms and a large, screened porch to wait for a table, and some really delicious southern food inside.

We had an early lunch, arriving at Doug’s in between rushes. There were only a couple of recently bussed tables available when we arrived, and a long line developed while we ate. The interior of the restaurant is quite small, and it’s not possible to move around to the restroom or cash register without slightly jostling other guests.

The food is mostly quite terrific, although sadly, yet again, everybody else at the table enjoyed a better entree than me. I had the country fried steak with gravy, and I wouldn’t call it bad, but I certainly wasn’t in the mood for it after having a bite of Marie’s wonderful fried chicken, and one of the truly excellent chicken livers that Neal ordered. He concluded that these livers were even better than those at Vittles, which he enjoys more than me, and I had to agree. My daughter inhaled her gumbo, leaving me unable to comment on its quality, but I imagine that it must have been pretty good for her to down that much of it so quickly.

For sides, Marie enjoyed a small cup of broccoli and cheese soup. Neal and I each had baked beans which were quite good and I also had some delicious fried green tomatoes. Each of us also ordered the creamed corn. I would not call it great – Bear’s Den in Macon cooks up much better and much creamier – but I was still quite pleased. If I had taken my sides with a different entree, it would have been a superb meal rather than merely a very good one.

I am surprised that Doug’s Place has managed to stay so far off the radar of people who enjoy this kind of food. Obviously the locals enjoy it and with great reason, but this is quite genuinely the sort of thing that should attract a much larger crowd of travelers who love southern cooking, meat-and-threes, or any unique roadfood destinations. I noticed that the restaurant did post an article from Southern Living where they got a little praise, but doing what they do as well as this, there should be articles from forty different magazines and regular appearances on The Food Network. For now, we’ll call it one of the region’s best-kept secrets.