The morning after the Radiohead concert was a slow-moving affair. Before my feet hit the floor I did a systems check; no headache, cognitive thought was functioning, and my parts & pieces were intact. I must be living right.
Sunday was a travel day. Atlanta had been beyond a gracious host, but time to shake the cobwebs, gather our debris, catch a shower, and get mobile before missing the late checkout deadline.
When you gotta get moving after an ambitious night out, I find the best way to guard against fatigue and a delayed onset hangover is to indulge in breakfast cocktails. It’s important to get your hops levels re-elevated and evened out.
While it’s sad to be departing Atlanta, travel days do have their positives when executed properly. My idea was to saddle up and rampage through a few notable establishments for a parting fix of Atlanta love.
Maia and I needed a plan, and in order to make that plan it would require a Bloody Mary.
My thought was to seek out inspiration at The Highlander. Open since 1992, it had a solid rep as a rock-n-roll dive bar, and seemed a sympathetic location to get our bearings straight as Radiohead’s music still rang from our ears.
Oddly, we found this devilish location tucked away quietly in a rather unremarkable Midtown strip-mall. Cheerful flower boxes hung welcomingly from the railings outlining the front patio, contrasting the black glassed front door and windows covered in a vast array of counterculture stickers. Inside the walls were hung with goth portraits, emblazoned skate boards, shadow box deities and one prominent psychedelic rendering of Edgar Allen Poe. Much, if not all of it, was for sale.
Our gaunt waitress was pale in complexion, with long straight jet black hair and lots of tattoos. She could tell what we were up to the night before and asked curiously about the Radiohead show. Having seen them previously, she was into discussing details about the set.
We took in the menu. The Highlander is known to have a solid kitchen that serves out of the ordinary comfort food, like Jamaican jerk chili, jalapeño corn fritters and oxtail soup. We easily could have dined here but I was looking for something else.
As I began searching through scraps of paper where I had written down local restaurants to possibly try, out came a tall and in-charge Absolute Bloody Mary, full of olives, peppers and celery. It was a vegetarian meal with a buzz.
With my vital signs starting to stabilize, I began serious strategizing of where to go next. Atlanta has world-renowned traffic and we didn’t want to go venturing across the city only to be sitting in our car. God bless the Google that provided destination distances and restaurant reviews.
We were in Atlanta, so serious barbecue was a legit option. A mere 12 minutes down the road from The Highlander was Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q. Texas twin brothers Jonathan and Justin Fox opened their Atlanta restaurant in 2007, after hosting backyard barbecues that grew to crowds of more than 250 guests. Here they smoke their hearty Lone Star-style barbecue over hickory daily.
Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q is regarded as a national and international destination for barbecue lovers. It’s a big dog in the Atlanta region. These boys move 10,000 pounds of pork and brisket each week.
We arrived on this Sunday to find an expansive parking lot overflowing. Fox Bros. is a melting pot of different folks crossing paths in mutual love for the consumption of smoked pig and cow. It was brimming with energy, as all knew this would be a taste treat.
That being said we opted not to stick around. Sounds crazy I know, but parking was a pain and there was a wait for seating. In our slightly damaged condition we were not feeling the hassle or the crowd.
Don’t get me wrong, I did visit the carry-out window to secure a double order of the fatty cut brisket. I may be particular but I’m not getting this close to a joint with a reputation like Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q and not give it a try. That would be crazy. The smoke infusion was super yummy, and the fatty brisket was beyond decadent.
Back to the Google I went, but this time I needed a sure winner. We had a six-hour drive to get started soon.
I credit our waitress, Christine, from Friday night at Noble Fin with helping to make this selection. She suggested visiting the Little 5 Points neighborhood to get a dose of local weirdness. I took notice of a Midtown cheeseburger joint, The Vortex, that happened to have a Little 5 Points’ outpost not five minutes down the road from Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q.
The different atmosphere of Little 5 Points (L5P) was immediate. It had a funky lo-fi feel, very hippy & trippy. As I heard it described, your five senses will be stimulated by the texture of L5P. Murals cover many building walls and windows, giving the neighborhood a vibrant landscape. Don’t look for chain stores here, they’ve been provided limited access to preserve the community’s character.
I fully appreciated that the marijuana dispensary in L5P shared a storefront with an Atlanta Police substation.
The Vortex is a well-known hangout spot, and impossible to miss – just look for the 20-foot giant laughing skull. It is an Atlanta landmark.
Inside is full of strangeness, up the walls and across the ceiling. The original Vortex bar was opened in 1992 in a cramped Midtown location by the three Benoit siblings, followed by the L5P location four years later. What started as a bar that wanted to feed their friends quality cheeseburgers has turned into a reliable establishment that is a frequent winner of “Best Cheeseburger” in Atlanta.
The Vortex is first and foremost a full on bar and only serves those 21 and over. Vortex also enforces an “Official Idiot-Free Zone.” The owners are big on wanting to maintain a fun place to drink and work. They do not tolerate poor behavior from rude or demanding customers. Clearly they have a sense of humor, but violators do get tossed. Check the House Rules or “Idiot Barometer” if you have questions.
They don’t play around with their booze selection. Hundreds of beers are on the menu, along with a substantial selection of bourbon, whiskey, and Atlanta’s largest offering of single-malt scotch. Atlanta magazine was impressed enough to give The Vortex its “Best Overall Liquor Selection in Atlanta” award.
I went with a Maker’s Mark & Coke to get things started. It was a little Kentucky to go with the soft drink of choice when in The Real Thing’s hometown. Picking up the oversized menu it was quickly apparent everything The Vortex offered was substantial and aimed to please. It’s comfort food on steroids.
The soft drinks come in “big-ass 32-ounce tumblers,” why, “because this is motherfuckin’ America,” or so the menu says. The sandwiches come king sized and are unique concoctions.
Take the trademarked Hot Southern Mess: A fried chicken breast topped with a fried egg, all covered with white sausage gravy, and served on Texas Toast. “It’s so damn good you’ll wanna slap yo’ mama.”
Priced at a reasonable $10.95, my immediate thought was this sandwich could lead to a coronary, but just wait, the owners have that concept cornered.
I was no joke hungry, and informed my server I wanted a bacon double cheeseburger. He paused, giving me a once over, and then asked, “you sure about that?”
The burgers at The Vortex come in big, juicy half-pound patties of premium ground sirloin. I did not need a pound of meat, and revised my order down to The Plain ‘Ol Original Vortex Burger, for $8.25, adding bacon & cheddar cheese.
Now about that coronary. Past the Signature Burgers, Non-Beef Options, and Old School Diner Burgers on the menu come the Coronary Bypass Burgers. I don’t know what consumes these monstrosities but it must be large and have the stomach of a goat.
Take the entry-level (single) Coronary Bypass Burger. Instead of hamburger buns, two grilled bacon cheese sandwiches anchor the top and bottom ends of this beast. Included are four slices of white bread, a 8-oz. ground sirloin patty, 10 slices of American cheese, one fried egg, nine strips of bacon, with 4 ounces of mayo. This is served with 10 ounces of spuds topped with 6 ounces of Cheesy-Cheese Goo, sprinkled with bacon bits. Estimated calories (w/side): 3,707, for $19.95.
There are double, triple and Quadruple Coronary Bypass Burger offerings, with the latter topping out at 9,606 calories, and costing a weighty $79.95, which is nothing compared to the medical bills this behemoth must visit upon its victims.
Meanwhile my measly half-pound bacon cheeseburger arrived cooked to a medium rare perfection, all pink and bloody. It was a hefty sandwich, dense and substantial in my hands, like true ground steak should feel. The succulent texture was rich and exploded with the flavor of beef seared over an open flame.
One bite and I became a Vortex believer. Sure this place has lots of attitude and swagger, but it can back it up with its bar service, knowledgable staff, and what I regard as arguably the best bacon cheeseburger I’ve had the pleasure of sampling.
The next time you’re in Atlanta, make a pit stop at the giant skull in Midtown or L5P. The Vortex is still family owned, and still fiercely independent. Be sure to bring an appetite and do remember to play nicely with others.
THE VORTEX | 438 Moreland Avenue NE | Atlanta, GA | 404.688.1828
FOX BROS. BAR-B-Q | 1238 DeKalb Ave NE | Atlanta, GA | 404.577.4030
THE HIGHLANDER | 931 Monroe Drive | Atlanta, GA | 404.872.0060