Tomlin’s BBQ, Rabun Gap GA

Last month, Marie and the boychild and I took a little day trip up to the mountains to enjoy the fall colors. This is the sort of trip that we might have made every fall before we had a baby; we’ve agreed that our son is a little too prone to racing ahead of us and not hearing “stop” to be quite ready to visit Tallulah Gorge, but we hope that we’ll be comfortable with taking him next year. Continue reading “Tomlin’s BBQ, Rabun Gap GA”

Mountain Man BBQ & Grill, Dillard GA

Coming back from our trip up to Asheville, I had hoped that we might stop somewhere for a barbecue snack. We were disappointed, after all, to learn that Fiddlin Pig had closed, and a weekend is just incomplete without some barbecue. Of course, traveling on a Sunday through western North Carolina, it’s a little hard to actually find a barbecue restaurant that’s open. It’s not until you’re back in Georgia that you get a few options.

The towns of Dillard and Rabun Gap are much more traveler-friendly. Here, I count three barbecue joints within about four miles of each other, all serving up on Sundays. The first of these that travelers will meet on the way back to Atlanta will be Mountain Man. This might very well be the northernmost barbecue restaurant within Georgia’s boundaries. You can probably lob a tennis ball into North Carolina from here.

This restaurant originally opened, under different ownership, in the 1980s, but it has been run by the Fotopoulus family for almost fifteen years. When they moved down from Chicago, Mountain Man was just one storefront in a small strip mall, but they have grown the business so that various dining rooms line the entire length of the property. Architecturally, it’s a real mish-mash. The food that they serve is just terrific, and a real traveler’s delight.

We arrived around 2:30, and the dining room was about a third full. Not bad for a Sunday, I’d say. We kept our orders simple. Marie and I each had chopped pork sandwiches, served with excellent homemade potato chips and, sadly, not-at-all-excellent slaw. Our daughter had a bowl of Brunswick stew, thick with lots of chopped and ground meat. We thought it was pretty good stew, but it was improved by adding some barbecue sauce to the bowl. There are mild and hot varieties of the usual brown ketchup-vinegar mix. The mild was too sweet for my taste; the hot was really good. The pork was nicely smoked and just a little moist. I found it tastier than the justifiably popular stuff available down the road at Oinkers in Clayton.

I was interested to learn that the family started serving Chicago-styled pizza as well. Apparently, they started baking them for the friends that they made when they moved down here, and were persuaded that they should add the pizza to the menu and sell it in the restaurant. The growing success of the restaurant has resulted in a sprawling building with multiple dining rooms and a large menu. Honestly, though, the pizza would have to be pretty amazing to distract me from the barbecue. I can’t deny, however, that I’m awfully curious.

Hillside Orchard Farms, Tiger GA

There’s one other little place – so far – that Marie and I love to visit up in Rabun County, although I’m sad to say that this one tries my daughter’s patience just a little. Between Tallulah Falls and Clayton, there’s apparently a little town called Tiger. We haven’t found the town itself – it’s allegedly a stop sign and a post office somewhere along Old US 441 – but a few miles south of where that town is said to be, in an unincorporated community called Lakemont, you can find just about the best roadside jam-n-cider operation I’ve ever discovered. There are a few signs, but it’s still easy to miss. It’s called Hillside Orchard Farms, and if you’re driving north from Tallulah Falls up US 23, look for the signs and you’ll turn to the left and then make an immediate right and go about half a mile.

I think I like this place so much not just because of the quality of the canned and bottled treats, which I’ll get to in just a moment, but because of its isolation and ever-so-brief feeling of peace and absolute tranquility. It’s a very old-fashioned tourist stop, the sort that I imagine might have been common in the pre-interstate days. Apart from the sales room, there is a small restaurant which we have not tried yet, a cornfield maze, a nice little walk up to a petting zoo, a lazy little river that borders the property, and a “gold mine” for the kiddies complete with a little prospector mannequin. In the fall, there are some additional stands where locals sell some arts and crafts and occasionally, like this past Saturday, a bluegrass band plays for the visitors. If you think that there’s anything nicer than sitting back on one of the last warm weekends of the year enjoying some beautiful scenery and bluegrass in Marie’s company, you’d be mistaken.

All of this, however, bores my daughter silly. Well, she is only eleven.

Let’s be fair; plenty of roadside stands have jars of jams and preserves that have suspiciously similar and cautiously-worded labels about how they’re specially bottled for the operation in question. Short of an interrogation, you’re probably not going to know exactly for sure whether the bottle of “vidalia onion steak sauce” you can buy at A. Schwab’s in Memphis is all that different from the bottle whose label uses the same wording and the same font that you can buy at Hot Thomas in Watkinsville. It amuses me to think that there’s some outfit that makes house brand sauces for big grocery store chains four days a week, and then changes the packaging on Friday to ship out to all the roadside stands to con tourists.

I can’t speak for everything in Hillside Orchard’s inventory, but I do know for sure, now that I’ve seen it, that they do have a large canning and bottling facility about another half-mile up the road. And their sales room is sitting on a pretty big plot of farmland, so I’m comfortable believing that a fair chunk of their products are, genuinely, locally-made. Now maybe that “vidalia onion steak sauce” with that tan label and italic font isn’t, but when you’ve got a place offering all these fresh apples and other fruits along with bottles of these amazing ciders, I choose to believe the best.

The jams and preserves are all completely wonderful. We’ve tried quite a few as spreads for biscuits and loved every one. We have also tried a few of Hillside Orchard’s ciders and enjoy the spiced apple and the peach very much. My favorite, however, is the muscadine cider. A half-gallon of that is absolutely worth six bucks, but every once in a while, we have lucked on an inventory clearance and got a big bottle for three. I did kind of frustrate myself on the drive home, though, when I realized that I had intended to pick up a bottle of strawberry cider and give that a try, but plain forgot.

Fortunately, we’ll be going to Asheville again this month and will be driving right through this neck of the woods. I’m awfully curious about that strawberry cider. I wonder whether it might still be on sale?

Oinkers, Clayton GA

The first time that we went up to hike at Tallulah Gorge a few years ago, we dragged our exhausted carcasses back to the visitors’ center and asked where we could get some good barbecue in the area. The nice lady at the gift shop didn’t skip a beat. “It’s about ten miles up the road,” she said. “Do you mind the drive?” Y’all have probably figured out that I certainly don’t object to a fifteen minute trip for good barbecue.

Going north from Tallulah Gorge, where we try to visit about twice a year, Oinkers is on the right a couple of miles after that new-looking overpass that they built for the Rabun County High School. It’s pretty easy to miss; if you make it into the morass of fast-food chain restaurants of downtown Clayton, you went too far. We’ve come to Oinkers three times now, and each time enjoyed a good Saturday lunch with an absolutely packed house and a parking lot where about half the cars sport Rabun plates and half are from out of town. US 23 runs from I-40 and the Great Smokey Mountains Expressway, near Asheville, through Atlanta and to points down south, so it’s a perfect artery for travelers looking to enjoy the fall colors. In fact, we’ll double-check the mileage later this month, but Oinkers seems to be right around the halfway point between our place in Marietta and the city of Asheville.

Locals and travelers alike have learned that this is a lunchtime destination, and arrive in bulk. There is always a wait, even when it rains, as it did on us about a year ago, and then you have to worry about them running out of food. Well, maybe you don’t have to worry, but I’ve never seen a place that posts quite so many notices about how they only prepare enough food as they think they might need on any given day, and might run out. Evidently, this was once a problem, and so they’ve tried to get the word out that it doesn’t matter how much people might want to eat here, the restaurant might well get overwhelmed.

Oinkers’ specialty is chopped pork with vinegar sauce, but this is definitely a sauce that novices to Carolina-style vinegar need to sample sparingly. Fortunately, for people like Marie who prefer their sauce tomato-based, they also offer a “sweet sauce,” thick and tasty with molasses. Me, I like the hot vinegar sauce, which packs a very nice, peppery punch.

After our most recent trip to Tallulah Gorge last week, we settled on having two small meals. I wanted to revisit the wonderful Hawg Wild down south in Clarkesville, but I also wanted to talk about Oinkers, so we resolved to do both. Oinkers was, as usual, completely packed, and so the staff kindly sat us at the servers’ table.

Between the three of us, we had a sandwich and a plate of chopped pork, along with some fries, stew, baked beans and applesauce, with a slice of peanut butter pie. My daughter and I agreed that the pie needed a tall glass of milk, but that was about the only complaint we could levy against the “snack.” Between authentic and interesting food and service which somehow finds a way to be attentive despite a madhouse of customers, Oinkers has carved out a niche as a local favorite, and if you’re planning to take US 23 up to Asheville from Atlanta, you will quickly find this a very agreeable halfway point.

Other blog posts about Oinkers:

Punkerque (July 28 2006)
Buster’s Blogs (July 24 2009)