Review: Barbecue, bourbon — and grain bowls at Loyal Q

Let me describe a platter of barbecue for you.

It all starts with an aluminum tray, rectangular and simple, with a piece of butcher paper cut to fit. Atop it, your eyes will no doubt be drawn to the thick slices of prime brisket cut from the deckle side, thick black bands of smoky bark wrapping around the meat, whose fatty marbling now drenches the paper below it. Aside that, a kind of culinary opposite: half-moon slices of pale white turkey breast, a light amber touch of smoke on the edge. There are a couple of more meats — a pile of tangled pork shoulder and a link of sausage — along with a pile of house-made pickles (a little acid to cut all of that fat). Sides of beans, slaw and mac and cheese arrive in little paper boats.

Can you tell me where you are? Where is this region of barbecue? Are you in Chicago or Kansas City or Charleston or Birmingham or Austin or Atlanta? The answer, of course, is that this is Texas barbecue, specifically in the Austin-style made nationally popular and recognizable by Aaron Franklin. For all of that specificity, though, that sentence doesn’t really tell you where you are anymore. Texas barbecue is everywhere these days, including at the corner of Johnson Ferry and Lower Roswell roads in east Cobb at Loyal Q and Brew (a second location is set to open soon at 3655 Old Milton Pkwy. in Alpharetta).

Aside from the style of barbecue, Loyal Q is a restaurant with a distinctly Atlantan pedigree. The chef in charge, Dan Diersen, cut his teeth working at Local Three and Muss & Turner’s before relocating to Chicago to (what else?) make Texas-style barbecue as sous chef of Green Street Smoked Meats. As you walk in the front door of Loyal Q, though, you might recognize the other half of the restaurant’s pedigree. This is the work of owner Bob Campbell, who has years of experience running locations of Taco Mac, perhaps Atlanta’s most successful local chain for draft beer, wings and watching sports.

The Loyal Q style is cut very much from the Taco Mac cloth. Want a pint of craft beer? Try one of its 32 taps. Want a sip of bourbon? The list of “brown spirits” here covers the front and back of a sheet of paper in fine print, offering everything from Evan Williams 1783 ($7) to George T. Stagg ($70). Want to watch a game? I tried on three separate occasions to count the number of flat-screen TVs here, but kept losing count. Rest assured that no matter where you sit (bar, table or booth), you’ll have dozens of screens to look at.

As for the barbecue, I’m pleased to report that the stacks of split oak that line the sidewalk in front of Loyal Q are not mere decoration. By the taste and bewitching scent that accompanies the meats at Loyal Q, they are using no small amount of wood in the smokers here and are delivering rather impressive results.

To begin with, that brisket is every bit as juicy and fatty as the intense marbling of prime brisket promises to be and consistently tender in my experience. The bouquet of oak smoke is strong, as is the peppery rub, though neither is quite strong enough to balance out the enormous fatty richness of the deckle side. (What you’ll want is one of the house-made pickles, which come generously piled on the platter, to help balance the richness.) You also can opt for a cut of brisket from the lean side.

Not all the other meats are quite as impressive. The smoked turkey breast, here as with other joints that have picked up this Austin-style quirk, seems to be more of a gesture to the health conscious or non-beef eaters of the world than anything else.

The St. Louis cut ribs are glazed with a touch of sweetness that shows admirable restraint (there’s no dripping sauce here) and allows the flavors of the peppery rub and that oaky smoke to stay dominant. The pulled pork benefits, too, from that strong smoky flavor, but suffers from the lack of a good vinegar sauce on the table. All of the house-made sauces here (spicy, mustard, espresso, house) have the sticky, thick qualities that remind one of ketchup or sugar.

Though these meats are the backbone of Loyal Q’s menu, the food offerings are much like that bourbon list. There’s something for everyone, including a number of salads and grain bowls. I laughed when I first saw these on the menu. A grain bowl just doesn’t seem to fit in a barbecue restaurant.

I tried it anyway, ordering the Southwest grain bowl with tri-colored quinoa, grilled corn, avocado, spinach and black beans. I couldn’t figure out one reason in the world for this place to serve a kind of middling, too cold, unsatisfying salad except as a kind of apology to non-meat eaters.

On the other hand, I discovered atop that forgettable quinoa bowl a much more memorable item: an added topping of hot smoked Scottish salmon for $7. Of all the things I ordered at Loyal Q, this salmon surprised me the most. The exterior reminded me a little of the pork ribs: a lightly sweet glaze finished with a strong punch of smoke. Inside, the flesh was mild and moist, just fatty and satisfying enough.

Perhaps it is not fashionable — I don’t believe the smokehouses in Austin are putting sides of salmon in their smokers these days — but it is the sort of surprise that barbecue could use a little more of these days. I’m surprised to say this, but the next time I go back to Loyal Q, I’ll be looking forward to the salmon.

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