The Artful Epicurean: Sweet Auburn BBQ experience transcends thyme and space
By Molly Morris, A&E editor
Coming from Northern Michigan, I’d always heard about the magic that is southern BBQ but had little-to-no experience with it at all. Juicy pulled pork, richly baked mac ’n’ cheese and fresh, crisp coleslaw were like my foodie unicorn — I believed that they existed, but never had the unearthly honor of basking in their majestic presence. All of this changed, however, when I had dinner last week at Sweet Auburn BBQ in Virginia Highlands.
Sweet Auburn BBQ is nestled in the center of where Little Five Points, Virginia Highlands, Druid Hills and O4W join together (the area that is sometimes referred to as Poncey-Highlands), making its mark as the most delicious stop for pulled pork this side of the Mississippi. The restaurant’s humble beginnings started in the form of a food truck, traveling around and winning the hearts (and awards) of events like the Suwannee Wing Festival and the Chomp and Stomp chili cook off. Owner Howard Hsu got together with a few of his BBQ-lovin’ buddies and brought their flavor to Sweet Auburn Market, soon growing faster than they could keep up with and moved to their current location in Poncey-Highlands. This location has two full dining spaces, ample seating and a full (and very trendy) cocktail bar to serve their customers to full satisfaction. The key to Hsu’s success with Sweet Auburn BBQ comes from his Asian-southern fusion upbringing — traditional American recipes with Asian pizzazz, such as pimento cheese wontons served with a sweet chili sauce and lemon grass short ribs. Once you experience this place, you’ll be coming back for seconds, thirds and maybe even fourths.
So first, let’s talk about the food. It is out-of-this-world amazing. I haven’t had a dish there that I thought “meh … not too shabby.” Every single thing I’ve tried, from appetizers to entrees, has been a total “YASS QUEEN!” moment. To start, we had the pimento cheese wontons, which are basically pimento cheese wrapped and flash fried in a wonton wrap and served with a side of homemade sweet chili sauce. The savory nature and melted goodness fire up your tastebuds for what is guaranteed to be a good meal from here on out. I also ordered the strawberry lemonade, which at first looked scary because it had strawberry seeds floating around (I’ve got some mad texture issues), but it was delightful and refreshing.
Before we knew it, our food was on the table, and piping hot. I’m also thankful when the food is even a little too hot because I know it hasn’t sat under a hot lamp waiting for the staff to finish texting their freshest Tinder match. Before I tell you about my order, let me explain their menu briefly — you can order from a set menu, just like any other restaurant, with finely crafted entrees. However, if you flip over the menu you have a “create your own” option where you can order varying amounts of pork, chicken, ribs and brisket with a choice of two sides (from a list of 15 different sides). This is totally the way to go, because you can basically pig out to your heart’s content (and this is exactly what I did). I went with a quarter pound of pulled chicken and a quarter pound of sliced brisket, with a side of skillet green beans (to die for) and mac and cheese. Your dinners also come with two slices of Texas toast and pickles, with the option to put one of two (or both) of their BBQ sauces on your noms. One sauce is a Carolina vinegar and the other is a standard BBQ — thick and smokey.
You can’t leave Sweet Auburn BBQ before you’ve had dessert. I opted for the banana pudding, which has layers of pudding, banana slices and whipped cream with Nilla wafers tucked around the side, all topped with a drizzle of bourbon caramel sauce. I’m not usually big on banana-flavored anything, but this was a little taste of heaven. My friend got the pecan pie, which was just as delightful. We finished the evening with full bellies and completely satisfied tastebuds, waddling to the car with our food babies.
The ambiance of Sweet Auburn only adds to the charm and experience. Decorated in a truly rustic chic approach, the wood panel walls, farm tables and metal chairs give a laid back and comfortable vibe. The wait-staff was incredibly friendly and gracious, showing their own personalities but also upholding a high level of customer service that is hard to find. While it was packed on a Friday evening, our wait was only 15 minutes and the food came out quickly even for a place buzzing with customers.
I cannot express the level of love I have for this restaurant, from it’s easy atmosphere to the nirvana-esque experience that is their food. All of this and it’s inexpensive, to boot! My advice is this: Go there on a weekday for lunch, or plan ahead for an early evening weekend dinner, take some friends and give your tastebuds a little study break. Bon Apetit!