When I stopped for lunch Wednesday at Backyard Bar-Be-Cue on Main Street in Brownsville, TN, the first thing that grabbed my attention was the sign in front of the store promising sweet potato tots. I’d never had a sweet potato tot before so I ignored my standard ordering rules and tried some with pulled pork and slaw. The tots were exactly what you’d expect if you have any passing familiarity with both sweet potato fries and regular tots.
Brownsville, located in between Jackson and Memphis, is the sort of small town where the local Chevy dealership still hosts a big lunch for all the area farmers every year after harvest time is over. Backyard, like many of the barbecue joints I’ve visited, is heavily decorated with pictures and statues of pigs. These days most restaurants and grocery stores seem to go out of their way to remove any and all reminders that the meat they sell was once part of an animal. But barbecue places don’t shy away from the fact that pigs are their reason for being.
The pulled pork at Backyard was excellent. It managed to be tender and juicy yet slightly crispy at the same time thanks to the wonderful charred meat from the outside of the shoulder that was included in the serving. A skilled barbecuer can make the outer edge of a shoulder or butt a glory of concentrated flavor since it gets so heavily infused with smoke, rub and sauce. The smart ones make sure that this meat gets evenly mixed in with the rest so that everyone who orders pulled pork gets some with their serving.
The pulled pork I tried the next day at the Bar B Que Pit in Olive Branch, MS, was the exact opposite of Backyard’s. It was somehow soggy but tough. Olive Branch is yet another former small town outside Memphis being overrun with generic suburban development and the restaurant was located in a strip mall on notoriously overcrowded Goodman Road. But I got my hopes up when I saw three types of homemade dry rub sitting on each table -- regular, spicy and sweet. And when the extremely friendly owner brought out my pulled pork there was a bay leaf in the sitting in the sauce providing evidence that it was part of a homemade batch that had recently simmered on a stovetop. But the flavor and texture just wasn’t there.
In between Backyard and the Bar B Que Pit, in both geography and quality, was the Pig-N-Whistle in Bartlett where I ate on Friday. Getting to Pig-N-Whistle was far bigger ordeal than I expected, with crazy traffic flowing out of the park next door and police officers everywhere. When I made it to the restaurant, a cheerful collection of Republicans told me that Presidential candidate Herman Cain had just finished delivering a campaign speech in the park.
The Pig-N-Whistle is about a block away from the Brad’s Bar-B-Q I tried in September. Like Brad’s, the food was of good “Memphis average” quality, but the serving of meat was about half the size of what I got from Brad’s.
UPDATE: The Pig-N-Whistle in Bartlett is currently closed. The Millington location is still open, and I was also more impressed by that store.