BIG WILLIE’S HOT STUFF
written & photographed by CARL DANBURY, JR.
SEDGWICK RESTAURANT GROUP (SRG) HAS ALWAYS BEEN A BIT AHEAD OF THE CULINARY CURVE IN THE NORTHSIDE. They brought us Vinny’s on Windward when few decent Italian options were present. They quizzically shuttered Van Gogh’s only to unveil the Mediterranean vibe-centric Bistro VG. When residents seemed content with the national or regional chain steakhouse options, they opened upper tier steakhouses (Aspens) in both East and West Cobb. Then, SRG gained more notoriety when their first Pure Taqueria location in Alpharetta captured the attention of trendy suburban diners who craved margaritas and guacamole more than a Numero Tres at the one-in-1,000 gringo-friendly Mexican restaurants that dot our landscape.
Early in 2017, SRG reinvented the Theo’s Brother’s Bakery space in The Avenue West Cobb (which is adjacent to Aspens West), in part to pay homage to a long-time employee who was born and raised in South Carolina, and a Maryland-born chef who hoped to re-create some of the Lowcountry cuisine that he craved during his culinary school days in Charleston. They also hoped to capture a bit of the burgeoning Nashville hot chicken craze, but apparently birds of one feather don’t flock together in West Cobb, as a competitor blocked the use of the word chicken in the new title. No matter, Big Willie’s is really hot stuff, in both name and execution.
William “Big Willie” Page picked vegetables at his grandfather’s peach farm in rural South Carolina. He and his brother would drive an old 1966 Ford Galaxy that was as big as a tank to the farm, and jam the trunk full of produce. They shelled or shucked all the veggies under an old poplar tree, and then passed them along to their mom who often spent the entire night cooking and canning them. He enjoyed those southern staples and some of the menu is reflective of those meals his mother made.
Executive chef Jordan Daniels said that, according to his parents, southern food was “the devil” while he was growing up in Baltimore. “I was 19 before I had grits, collared greens or black-eyed peas,” he said. “I was adopted by the South after my journey through southern cooking.”
After a few months of research, testing recipes, experimenting with cooking methods and onerous taste testing, the hot stuff was unveiled. The menu is a hodgepodge of well-conceived, borrowed (if not slightly tweaked) interpretative southern recipes.
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack is credited with starting the hot chicken craze in Nashville. Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish has its legion of fans too, while others say that Hattie B’s perfected the craft. At Big Willie’s, Daniels tried so many different methods that he wasn’t sure if he would ever get it right.
“We tried wet brine, dry brine, keeping the chicken in the cooler before frying it, letting it come to room temperature. Finally, I thought, ‘Why complicate it and try to make it something that it isn’t?’ Chefs tend to do those kinds of things and get lost or drown in their own techniques,” Daniels admitted. “It’s best when you do things right and keep it simple.”
In this case, that meant flour first, seasoned buttermilk mixture second, and flour again before frying. The results are glorious: crispy skin, great flavor and lusciously moist chicken available in four degrees of spiciness (mild, peckin’, red rooster or cock fighting), and extending to tenders or legs, wings, breasts and thighs. Like many of the dishes we sampled, Big Willie’s chicken has an artisan appeal you won’t find often in suburban Atlanta.
The menu screams old school southern, yet whispers softly in your ear about uniqueness. Big Willie’s country fried steak with sawmill gravy uses cube steak from a family farm in Alabama. The slow cooked brisket served with South Carolina mustard or chipotle BBQ sauce comes from two farms in Nebraska known for their prime cuts of Black Angus, “to make sure that the cuts are all coming from the same place, same region,” Daniels offered. The smoked pork chops, served with red eye Tabasco gravy, are provided by Patak Meat Products in Austell, a wholesaler and retailer since 1981. Other quintessential southern items include the chicken biscuit (served all day, every day and even on Sunday), a favorite among Avenue workers and nearby high school students, and the shaved-fried catfish, which is served on a sandwich or plate. It is uncommonly battered, crispy and a touch lighter than most. That it’s dipped in Big Willie’s comeback sauce provides us yet another reason to return.
Daniels added a meatloaf sandwich to the menu because it is one of his grandmother Jenny’s favorite recipes, while Page added his favorites from a typical Thanksgiving meal: roasted turkey, cornbread dressing and homemade cranberry sauce, all from his own family’s recipes. The side dishes may not be revolutionary, but they are nonetheless excellent. Try the Carolina red rice, which is another throwback item that you’ll rarely see on any menu.
“Red rice is my favorite side,” Daniels said. “We use cayenne pepper, hot sauce, tomato juice, regular country sausage, Worcestershire and onions.” Collared greens, creamy cole slaw or southern potato salad also are solid. And speaking of salad, there are three salads on the board to appease those tough-to-convert former Theo’s customers who appreciated lighter options. Desserts include banana pudding, key lime pie and the cobbler of the day.
“This is the kind of food both William and I love to eat, even though we shouldn’t!” Daniels exclaimed.
“All of our parents used to eat like this,” Page interjected. “My dad died at 96 and my mother at 93. My father’s youngest brothers are twins, and they just had their 90th birthday.”
Now that’s hot stuff.