Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Keeping the Old-Fashioned Flame Alive - Helen's

On Monday I got a tip on the Memphis Que Facebook page about an article in
Garden and Gun Magazine profiling three rural west Tennessee barbecue joints. I had never heard of any of them, even though two were in areas I visit while I am working. Yesterday the same friend who told me about the article posted this video from YouTube about Helen's Bar-B-Q in Brownsville, TN, which was one of the featured restaurants:

When I looked Helen's up on Google Maps I found out it was right down the street from one of my scheduled stops for the day, so I knew where I'd be going for lunch. It's a small place with a small sign in a relatively crowded row of buildings near the center of town. Even knowing roughly where it should be I still drove past it twice before I finally spotted it.

One I found it I immediately noticed the smoke house out back. I knew from the video that the restaurant's owner, Helen Turner, burned wood down into charcoal for her barbecue. And I knew from my experience at Latham's Meat Company in nearby Jackson, TN, that the hot, labor-intensive process can yield some incredible results.

The last time I ate barbecue in Brownsville was at the Backyard Barb-Be-Cue on Main Street. Helen's definitely has a different vibe than the spacious chain restaurant full of neon lighting. The dining area at Helen's is a small space with two large tables surrounded by chairs. Black, white, young and old; the steady flow of customers coming through sit together to enjoy their barbecue. There was a line of people waiting to order almost the entire time I was in the building, but the friendly crew in the kitchen kept it moving. Any time I see loyal customers flocking to an old, independent restaurant I get ready for some good eating.

Coals from the smoke house are also used to keep the meat warm while it is waiting to be served in the kitchen's giant oven. My baked beans were served out of one of the Crock Pots sitting over to the right.

I ordered the chopped pork plate, since everyone in line was getting either the plate or a jumbo sandwich. I asked for the spicy barbecue sauce on it. When the woman taking orders, who ended up being Helen Turner, had asked the young man in front of me in line if he wanted spicy sauce he answered with an emphatic enough "no," to let me know that it was going to be genuinely hot.

A plate at Helen's comes with beans, slaw and potato salad that are all made in-house. The place doesn't have a fryer and once you taste the potato salad you understand that it doesn't need one. I generally order potato salad with my beans and slaw when a place includes three sides with a meal and it usually ends up tasting like it came out of a plastic tub from a grocery store. The potato salad at Helen's is absolutely perfect -- light and creamy without tasting like mayo, and packing just enough mustard. The slaw had a perfect balance of mustard and vinegar and the meaty, flavorful baked beans were simmering in a Crock Pot when they got added to my plate. I respect any restaurant that maintains a short, simple menu of items that are all done right. 

The meat had a great smoke flavor, which was no surprise. It was tender and juicy but still had a generous sampling of deliciously charred outer crust mixed in with it. The sauce added a nice spicy kick, but like the spicy barbecue sauce at Payne's it was also very sweet. The meat had enough flavor to keep the sauce from overpowering it, but on future visits I'll see if I can get the sauce on the side. I know some people love to have their meat swimming in sauce, but the cooking technique used at Helen's is an old-fashioned art form and I want to be able to savor all that wonderful smoke crafted into the pork.

Helen obviously knew most of the customers coming through her door. She asked me where I was from since I was an unfamiliar face and taking photographs. After I finished eating she came out of the kitchen to ask what I thought about my meal. Someone had just given her a copy of the same magazine article that brought me to her place. When I told her how good everything was and explained a little about the blog I was doing she showed me to the smoke house where I got a first-hand look at just how labor-intensive her cooking style is. It combines patience, timing and artisan experience with hard work in the smoke and heat to produce something no modern kitchen can truly recreate.


Helen's Bar Bq on Urbanspoon 


  1. I was planning to visit Helen's this Saturday. 5/9/15. I looked to Google maps for directions which reported the store as permanently closed. I called the store number and got "this number has been disconnected."
    I am kicking myself for not going sooner.
    Thought you might want to know.

  2. Replying to my own mistake above. Helen's is not closed. I could not believe that such a long standing establishment would suddenly close so I checked again. I found a different phone number on their facebook page and called.
    I spoke to Helen and she said they were definitely still open.
    We are going today.

    1. Glad to hear it. I was planning to stop by next week to check it out. May stop by anyway. Don't really need an excuse to eat there.