In November 2006, Mark Graves returned to his hometown of Decatur after an impressive run at some impressive Charleston, South Carolina, restaurants to open Marko's on 2nd.
He was a fresh face to the area dining scene, and the 26-year-old was hungry to make a name for himself with his downtown eatery.
I was also a fresh face as the restaurant critic then, but the modern Southern cuisine the man I still consider to be the most talented chef in the area served me has stood the test of time. I still have not had better meals than some I had at Marko's.
After 11 years, Graves closed the restaurant, took a factory job and was content to spend more time with his young daughter.
But I knew his days of cooking were not over.
I could tell from the many messages we exchanged where he was asking me about a new place or chef, or telling me how unimpressed he was with a new place or new chef. He once even confidently told me he ought to open a place in Fort Wayne just to kick the “butts” of some of those places that were garnering so much attention.
Well, he didn't come to the Summit City, but Graves, now 41 and with touches of gray in his beard, is back in his original location with Soul Pig BBQ. Graves built a smoker in his backyard during his time away and that is what led him back. Though I was eager to taste his barbecue, I was a little disappointed he wasn't doing what he did best before.
But Soul Pig proved to me that not only has Graves mastered the smoker, he is still sprinkling in the unique Southern dishes I grew to love along with his smoked pork, brisket, chicken and turkey.
He still makes fried green tomatoes as good as anyone. The tangy, fresh, firm tomatoes used in this appetizer were heavily coated with deftly seasoned fine cornmeal dredge, and his creamy Cajun remoulade was the perfect counterpoint – creamy, spicy and cool to contrast the hot, crunchy tomatoes.
Graves' mastery of cornmeal breading was even more evident on one of his Friday specials.
My catfish po'boy had a gigantic fillet of fatty, moist, meaty catfish on a hoagie bun that was encapsulated and guarded by a hard shell of crunchy breading that was a tad dark from spices. It was a tasty barrier from the sliced tomatoes and shredded lettuce underneath and the delicious, runny tomato and jalapeņo remoulade all over the top and dripping down the sides.
Another masterful part of the menu also did not incorporate the smoker, but Soul Pig's burgers are legit.
The Southern Pride Burger was a busy, messy, endeavor, but it all worked. Its well-seasoned 8-ounce patty was topped with pulled pork, American cheese, bleu cheese slaw, barbecue sauce, garlic mayo and house-made Cajun pork rinds. The oozing cheese, creamy slaw and crispy rinds sung beautifully together and it was a burger I will go back for.
The Pimento Bacon Cheeseburger was much less busy but just as impressive. It had melted house-made pimento cheese completely covering the bacon and oozing out from under its brioche bun all over the wax paper-lined cookie sheet it was served on. A smear of garlic mayonnaise was the only other condiment, but the house-pickled onions and cucumbers that garnish every plate were a necessity to add a little texture and acidic contrast.
Soul Pig's spot-on french fries were also a necessity as a side because dragging them through some of that cheese was heavenly.
The bourbon and brown sugar baked beans and potato salad were the only other sides I would call must-haves. The beans were clearly made properly to still be al dente; they were joined by tons of smoked meat scraps and the sweetness of their gooey sauce was addictive.
The potato salad was loaded with bacon and had a thick dressing that clung to the soft spuds nicely. If you like bacon, this was the side for you.
The jalapeņo cheddar cornbread was so moist it ate like spoonbread and its sweetness was welcome. However, the jalapenos were unnecessary and bordering on unwelcome. The collard greens were also al dente with a nice bite but a little too strong in vinegar.
Soul Pig's Vidalia salad really highlighted the cucumbers and sweet onions that were raw and crisp with just a hint of buttermilk dressing on them. They were a far cry from my aunt's good ol' runny, soggy cucumber salad.
The only bad side was the macaroni and cheese, which had a gritty base and pasta that was soft and overdone.
All of the smoked meats were brilliant.
The brisket was tender, juicy and fatty and I liked the chopped version, which Graves said marinates in its own fat after being chopped, better than the sliced.
The pulled pork and ribs were just right – smoky, moist and tender – but the turkey, chicken wings and sausages were more impressive.
Soul Pig has sweet traditional and zesty vinegar-based sauces on each table, but several more can be requested, and all are made in house. The Alabama White and honey mustard were a scrumptious change of pace, and the thick, sticky spicy was dotted with a plethora of dried chiles. If that wasn't enough, a couple of fruit-infused variations – a five-spice pineapple and raspberry version – were delicious, too.
Soul Pig is a far cry from Marko's in terms of looks. Where Marko's was upscale and ornate, the Pig features mostly picnic tables in the family room and features exposed brick walls dotted with photos of rock 'n' roll and blues icons.
Windows leading to the bar side, which still has that old gorgeous bar, allowed music to filter in a bit, but noise was never an issue.
The service was hit and miss. On a busy Friday night, the main courses took awhile and my server was missing for too long at times. During lunch when it was much slower, the service was splendid.
Restaurant: Soul Pig BBQ
Address: 135 S. 2nd St., Decatur
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Smoking status: Non-smoking
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Fried green tomatoes ($6.99), wings ($7.99 for six; $14.99 for 12), pimento burger ($11.99), Southern Pride Burger ($12.99), po'boy ($12.99), BBQ platters with two sides ($10.99 for one meat; $13.99 for 2; $16.99 for 3; $44.99 for family feast of 5 meats and 4 sides)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★★ 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: ★ (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
Soul Pig BBQ
Out of a possible five