Updated: Apr 16
As has been the case with our revolving sixsome of late, the Trailheads were just four hikers this week. George returned from Bend, OR, to join Brad, Roy, and Guy for a walk in the woods while Steve and Patrick hit the road, but not in a Jack Kerouac way. They are not that literate, or have a ravenous appetite for bennies and cheap muscatel.
Elvis and Fio were excited to be together on the trail. Their tails wagged overtime as they welcomed Nilla––Brad, and Barb's new five-1/2-month-old Jack Russell/Beagle mix. She's young but not shy. The threesome bonded quickly.
We all showed up in our appropriate Trailheads gear. Though Brad chided us. “Pig” shirts are for non-Chattahoochee hikes and “Hooch shirts are for Hooch hikes!” But what about our OG Trailheads shirts and the second and third generation Trailheads shirts?
We claimed to not understand Brad’s restrictive graphics standards. (We assume he is working feverishly on our guidelines manual.) Check out our new t-shirts with the theme "Hike The Hooch" (available on our site here) with ALL profits supporting Chattahoochee National Park Conservancy. Wear them at will. Brad won’t see you.
So where would Trail Master Guy lead us this week? As it turned out, not very far. We stayed in town and went to the Daniel Johnson Nature Preserve in the Druid Hills/Morningside/Lenox Park area (the sweet spot of that geographical Venn diagram). Amazingly, this lovely green space is in the middle of a neighborhood. But you'd swear you were far out in the country once you're inside nature's belly.
"How cool," Roy exclaimed as the team took off under the canopy of fresh greenery. "A nature preserve in Atlanta named after the revered lo-fi musical artist - Daniel Johnston. You know there are many photos of Kurt Cobain wearing a T-shirt featuring the cover image of Johnston's album Hi, How Are You.
And it seemed for a while that to get the indie cred you had to cover his song "True Love Will Find You In The End." Roy pointed out that Johnston's issues with mental illness were the subject of the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. The musical artist died in 2019 of a suspected heart attack. Here’s Wilco doing a lovely cover of his song.
"Wait – what?" Roy said when historian George gave a two-hour Powerpoint on the park's namesake. Roy thought it odd there had ever been two people with similar names, especially a unique one like "Johnson”-- with or without that pesky "t."
The park is named after Daniel Noble (no "t") Johnson. He was president of Johnson Estates, Inc., credited with developing large chunks of the Druid Hills and Morningside areas. You'll find his name all over these neighborhoods. The preserve was deeded to the city by the Johnson family in 1935. Nice people, right?
By this point, Roy was driving the group nuts humming or trying to hum the tune to "True Love Will Find You In The End." The dogs wailed as Guy, George, and Brad stuffed leaves in their ears and planned to leave Roy in the wilderness.
The trail is beautiful. Lush. Green. Shady. The path itself is well maintained. We saw a volunteer working diligently to clear out some invasive ivy. It's short, but we were glad because we often put sprigs of ivy into our hair for a devil-may-care look. Patrick tried it with what turned out to be Poison Oak one time. It was not a pretty look when his face broke out. If you do go off the trail and into the vegetation, you'll soon come up in someone's backyard. They all appear to have fences and fortifications to guard against invaders. Make a quick about-face, and you're back into the lush, old-growth forest.
There are several stones inscribed with information about the largest trees. They're Champion Trees––the big fellows. Give them a hug, and hear them coo in delight. These tall babies have seen some history. They're even older than us. Very impressive.
There's a lovely water feature with Rock Creek and the South Fork Peachtree Creek. With its rocky outcroppings and large stones worn smooth over the years in this natural flood plain, you can imagine you're in the foothills of North Carolina. But you'd be dead wrong. Please, stay with us––we were in Atlanta!
Owls were hooting everywhere. It was so hard to guess where we stood within the city. The pups found a cool beach area for splashing about and ran across some canine friends there. All the creatures, great and small, got along well. And young Nilla held her own with the pack. The girl got game.
After Guy led us down one more dead-end spur, we turned around and declared ourselves hungry. It was beginning to rain just enough that our natural canopy was no longer acting as a green umbrella. So where to go? Patrick is usually responsible for selecting the barbecue joints (based on in-depth scientific research, computer analysis, and wild-ass guesses). But with him away, we used our hive mentality to ascertain what barbecue joints were near.
Since we were in the city and there was a revered barbecue spot within two miles, we made the short trip to Fat Matt’s Rib Shack, an Atlanta institution. It has been around for 32 years, (The same number of years Guy and Patty have been married. For Fat Matt, it must seem like the blink of an eye, and for poor Patty, it must be an eternity.) and people swear by it. We were apprehensive. A couple of us had tried FMRS 15-20 years ago and weren't too impressed. Now admittedly, that was back when more people were smoking their lungs in the restaurant than smoking pork butts out in the back.
And they played the blues so loud your ears bled. It was hard to enjoy a meal back in that environment. But our buddy BA insisted we give it a go, and we trust her taste, so off we went. The rain that had been threatening us all morning finally unleashed. Everyone but Guy found parking spots in the small parking lot. George was on the edge of legality in his choice, but he's edgy that way. "Come and get me, coppers! I park where I want, and no steel cage can contain this bad hombre!"
We chatted up Wes James, who's been with Fat Matt's for 23 years. He told us the restaurant opened in 1990 after Matt Harper (who is not fat--did he have body issues?) left his job selling lumber for Georgia-Pacific. He developed Fat Matt's concept with help from restaurateur/musician Clay Harper.
You'll know Clay from Fellini's Pizza and La Fonda Latina. He also founded the barbecue chain The Greater Good. Many of you probably rocked with him when he was in The Coolies and Ottoman Empire. Wes is his brother-in-law. It's good to have smart people in the family, especially if they know their way around a meat smoker.
The interior has not changed since we were last there. Maybe there are a few more stickers. And a few more layers of smoke glazing the well-patinated walls. Ordering was easy. The woman at the window took our selections without questioning, and how could she? We ordered ribs! Fat Matt's is a rib shack, after all. Three of us balanced our lunch with a 1/4 chicken-1/4 rib rack meal. We got it to go so we could eat on the covered patio.
They didn't let dogs in 20 years ago and still don't today. Dogs have no table manners and prefer Jamaican music to blues. The meat was stacked between two enormous slices of white bread, acting as sauce and juice sponges. And tasty sponges, they were.
The chicken was smoky, moist, and delectable. The skin was a huge hit: crunchy and full of flavor--it added to every bite. Roy, coming from the land of Big Bob Gibson White Sauce, wondered just how incredible the bird would be dipped in a vat of white sauce before serving. But all he could do was imagine. The chicken was good alone. It carried the Fat Matt's barbecue sauce well.
The ribs were the star. Brad thought them as good as any we've had. Roy felt Herb's on Windy Hill might edge them out. But just by a hair. These babes came sauced. Herb lets you sauce your ribs if you want. Both are valid approaches. And both are outstanding. The St Louis-style jumbo pork ribs are hefty, with meat begging for plucking off the bone. They are full of flavor. Smoke, juices, and bark abounded. We were all juiced up to our elbows and it was worth it.
We went light on the sides. The slaw was fresh, crunchy, and sweet, with an underlying pop of vinegar zing. It held its own against the meats and sauce. The collard greens were meaty, flavorful, and green–healthy fare that's good for you. Brad tried the Brunswick Stew and loved it. Unlike last week's stew, which was a thick blend of vegetables and meat with a little juice, this stew was blended into a velvety meat/vegetable smoothie—a liquid flavor we shoveled and savored.
One knock for this reviewer, which was a biggie, was the lack of Coca-Cola products. Fat Matt's is a Pepsi joint. Serving Pepsi seems criminal in a Coke town. But the homemade lemonade made a mighty tasty Arnold Palmer. We wondered if the younger people working there would even know who Arnold Palmer was.
And what do professional critics think of Fat Matt's? When Anthony Bourdain sampled Atlanta's eateries, he said, "… it makes me happy. It tastes good. You should eat here."
We agree with Tony and miss him.
Get to Fat Matt's, grab a good parking spot, and eat yourself silly. Tell them Trailheads sent you, and watch their blank expressions as they say, "Who?"
Rating: Four Ribs*
Fat Matt’s Rib Shack
1811 Piedmont Ave NE
Atlanta GA 30324
*About Our Barbecue Rating System
Trailheads do not claim to be food experts, epicureans, or sophisticated palettes. We are hungry hikers who attack a selected barbecue venue and ravage our way through whatever smoked fare and fixings they're dishing.
Our reviews feature what we believe are the highlights of the menu we sampled. So our intent is not to trash talk the saintly folks who tend to smoldering smokers on hot, humid summer days. They are sacrificing themselves in the noble art of smoking meats and feeding the drooling masses. Many are independent entrepreneurs who are the backbone of this humming American economy.
Now that you know our standards, you may wonder why every barbecue place gets a four ribs rating. The answer is easy: our group has acclaimed designers, and they think the ribs graphic looks cool.
Who are we to argue? Enjoy.