Latham’s Meat Company is a combination butcher shop and barbecue restaurant on the northern edge of Jackson, TN. As soon as I stepped out of my vehicle into the parking lot I was greeted by the smell of smoke and slow-cooked pork. The outstanding ribs I got inside the restaurant showcased everything dry ribs have the potential to be, and looking around outside the restaurant after my meal demonstrated why it would be nearly impossible to recreate such perfect barbecue in a more urban setting.
There is nothing fancy about Latham’s. Once you go through the front door you are in an aisle that takes you past a row of drink coolers and freezers full of produce along one wall, then past the large butcher section occupying the back of the store before you finally reach the barbecue counter on the opposite corner of the building from where you entered. The food comes on a styrofoam plate with plastic utensils. I was happy to see that I got the same 32-ounce cup for my ice water as the people who ordered fountain drinks. I hate when restaurants treat you like a second-class citizen for ordering water and give you the equivalent of a child’s sippy cup.
A real, no-fooling, old-fashioned country butcher shop. That's ham hocks on the left, fat back in the middle and hog jowls on the right.
My ribs were served dry and when I asked about sauce the cashier told me that there was hot and mild on some of the tables if I wanted to track some down. When I tasted the ribs I understood why the sauce was an afterthought. They didn’t need any. Both the vinegary sauces were good, and I used some of the hot to give some extra kick to my relatively bland baked beans. But the ribs had such a great, complex smokey flavor that it seemed like a waste to add any sauce to them. They were charred crispy on the outer edges and tender and juicy in the center with perfectly rendered fat and the pink coloring that comes from absorbing plenty of smoke. The slaw didn’t appear to have any mayonnaise or mustard in it. It looked like it was just a damp pile of shredded cabbage and carrot, but the taste was amazingly complex. It had a good vinegar kick, balanced with sweet and spicy elements.
I’ve referred to the place as Latham’s Meat Company since that is what the front of the building says. However, the sign out by the road says Latham’s Old Fashion Butcher Shop and Whole Hog Bar-B-Que. Meanwhile, the front door calls it Paul Latham’s Bar-B-Que Restaurant. The multiple names reminded me of the Bill Latham's restaurant I ate at recently in Henderson, TN, so naturally on my way out I asked if there was any relation. I was told that he is supposedly a relative but they don’t really know each other. I was intrigued by the idea of two distantly-related men, sharing a last name, who ended up owning humble-looking restaurants with outstanding barbecue, totally independent of each other, that are less than 30 miles apart.
When I left the restaurant I saw one of the key elements to creating great barbecue. Like many barbecue restaurants, they have a large, cinder-block building that they use for cooking. Outside of the building there were multiple stacks of wood and several 55-gallon barrels, with smoke billowing out of them, that were being used to create lump charcoal. That's an old-school approach to real barbecue that requires plenty of space and is totally impractical for most restaurants, who are frequently forced to accept the often necessary evil of gas cookers. From the butcher shop geared towards real, from-scratch cooking to the traditional barbecue, Latham’s Meat Company is a living glimpse at the genuine southern culture that is slowly disappearing to make way for Wal-Marts and Cracker Barrels.