RE: 1st Glee Club Meet-2004-Tennessee BBQ
Mon, 02/23/04 7:40 PM
Trip Report volume 1:
On Saturday February 21, 2004, the West Tennessee Barbecue and Glee Club (Al the Mayor, Bushie, JiminKY, Poverty Pete, Sundancer and I) held its first official meeting at 8AM at the Waffle House at exit 172 off I40W near Dickson, TN. Al and Bushie called the meeting to order by claiming that they had already been out scouting the area for barbecue and had in fact found two places in the area though only one was open. Al and Bushie further held that since they had already found ham biscuits and ribs they were clearly the superior cue hounds while the rest of us were just old toothless porch dawgs suitable only for making disagreeable noises and odors (and conveniently overlooking the fact that the rest of us had at least a 45 minute drive to get there and that the ribs they found weren't worth eating). Dissenting opinions were aired and coffee ordered. As there was no other business, the meeting was adjourned as soon as the coffee was finished and we hit the road around 8:30AM, with Al the Mayor and Poverty Pete doing the driving.
Because we started out several miles west of Nashville, the drive down the interstate was a short one. Less than an hour after leaving the Waffle House, we were pulling off the interstate via exit 108 at Parker's Crossroads onto Hwy 22. Our first destination was Neely's Barbecue which was mentioned in a sidebar to a July 2003 Bon Appetit article written by John T. Edge. We drove a few miles and realizing we had come too far, pulled off to (yes ladies) ASK DIRECTIONS. The fact that we also needed to take a bathroom break did not in any way influence this decision. We discovered in doing so that Neely's had gone out of business. After convening briefly, checking the map and synchronizing watches, we adjusted our itinerary and went to Hays Smokehouse as it appeared to be the next closest place, though I had originally marked it to be the last place to stop. Apparently the barbecue gods were watching over us, as this may have been the single best move that we could possibly have made.
It was still not quite 10AM when we pulled into the large gravel parking lot at Hays Smokehouse. There were a couple of cars parked around the edges of the restaurant and the sweet odor of hickory smoke was perfuming the air from a building out back. As we pulled up, a gentleman exited the building, which we took as a good sign. On the other hand, the sign on the door was flipped around to say "Closed". I noticed that the sign by the door said that they opened at 9AM, so I went on inside and inquired whether they were open. They allowed as how they were and that the sign should have been flipped the other way and we should just come right on in. I went back out and waved for everybody else to join me.
Now we are a fairly impressive group to darken the door of any restaurant, but Hays took us in stride -- and is an impressive operation in every respect. The restaurant can fit a lot of people inside and is well laid out to handle volume, even to the extent of distinguishing between an order-in line and a pick-up line (for called-in orders). Though it was empty when we arrived, I could easily imagine what the Saturday night crowd would look like, with a full parking lot and people standing in line waiting to order (on the right side) or to pick up (on the left). The ladies inside could not have been nicer. I had printed out copies of the interview write-up from the SFA website to give to each place we had scheduled to visit and used this as an ice-breaker and to sort of explain how we all happened to be visiting their place (and also to explain why we were pacing ourselves a bit, as opposed to just stuffing our faces). I handed the printout to the nearest lady and started talking before Jim could even commence to flirt.
The ladies quickly took pity on us and, in just a few moments informed us that Mr. Hays was the fellow we had seen when we drove up, that he would surely want to talk with us, that we should probably get the sampler platter (which had pulled pork, chicken and ribs plus a couple of sides), that we could make ourselves comfortable at the long table over on the side where they would sometimes take their own breaks, and that weren't we just the sweetest things to come visit them and that they would surely take care of us. Which they proceeded to do in spades. They had the food prepared and delivered to us in just a few minutes time and Mr. Hays came over and shot the breeze with us while we ate. And eat we did. The food was first rate. Excellent smoky flavor (unsauced), perfect tenderness (on both the cue and the ribs), even the chicken was very tasty. The sauces served here were of a type common to this area -- reminds me of a NC vinegar sauce with some tomato added, but not a lot of sugar and not a lot of spice.
A very affable fellow, Mr. Hays explained how he got into the business, what it was like to run the place, details of how to cook the hogs (wood, temperature, time, size, yield, etc…) and a whole host of things. One very important thing that he pointed out (and which we would see proven out later in the day) is that you have a fairly sophisticated customer in these parts and it can affect how you should order. Unlike (many?/most?/all?) North Carolina whole hog barbecue operations, the folks in this area do not chop and mix all the different parts of the hog together. Here it tends to be pulled pork, and most customers specify which part of the hog they want their cue from (shoulder, ham, loin, etc…). He claimed that 90% of the people who walk in the door and ask for bulk barbecue will ask for it that way (as in "Gimme a pound of backstrap"). If I recall correctly, he said that his favorite is from the middlin', which is essentially the narrow band of meat along the side (what usually would end up as bacon).
Mr. Hays then took us out back and showed us his cooker. This was quite an impressive piece of machinery. There were three different compartments on the cooker, each of which had four racks that spun around inside the smoker, essentially forming a huge rotisserie. Each rack was big enough to hold half a hog, so he could cook six whole hogs at a time if need be. The cooker also had metal drawers in the bottom which pulled out. There was a mesh grid toward the top of the drawer for adding coals to, which would then fall through the grid into the bottom of the drawer as they turned to ash. Outside was a large freestanding contraption that essentially formed a large chimney starter for transforming hickory blanks from a drumstick factory into wood coals to cook with. A front-end loader stood nearby for loading the wood into the starter. Quite a slick operation and one which could be done with much less manual labor than the traditional pit. Enough said. This was the absolute best place we went on this trip and I thank my lucky stars that we decided to go here first. Highly, highly recommended. This was, I believe, our consensus #1 stop…
…to be continued…