Saturday, May 31, 2014

Two New Jackson, TN, Barbecue Joints - West Alley and Diddy's

During the months I was working on my soon-to-be-released book I built up a backlog of new restaurants I need to post about. Two new barbecue joints have popped up in Jackson, TN, recently -- West Alley Bar-B-Q & Smokehouse and Diddy's Bar-B-Que. I've already been impressed by the abundance of good barbecue in Jackson, which makes deciding where to eat a difficult decision when I am working there.

I first noticed West Alley Bar-B-Q a few months ago on the same section of Main Street in downtown Jackson where the short-lived Heavenly Diner was located. The Heavenly Diner didn't just close; it seemingly disappeared, building and all. I was driving down the street looking for it, wondering if I'd lost my mind, when I noticed the banners for West Alley Bar-B-Q near the gravel lot where the Diner had been.

When I pulled up to park beside the building I immediately noticed a man cooking pork shoulders in a couple of barrel cookers appropriately located in the alley beside the restaurant. The building obviously served as a garage in a previous life and since the weather was nice the front bay doors were open, creating an open-air open air juke joint vibe.

The restaurant has a stage and a bar and obviously serves as a nightclub/music venue at night. The daytime atmosphere was relaxed and inviting, making it a pleasant place to grab lunch. The menu also includes other Southern foods like catfish, but I'd already smelled shoulder cooking in the parking lot so I ordered a shoulder plate with beans and slaw.

Everything on the plate was good, although nothing was spectacular. the sauce was a little sweeter than I prefer, but it was used sparingly enough that it wasn't a problem. It was a solid enough meal that combined with the friendly service and sunlight coming through the open bay doors I'll gladly stop back by for another shoulder plate anytime I'm nearby at lunchtime on a pleasant day.


I won't order a rib plate from West Alley again, which is what I tried on my second visit. The cheap cut of spare ribs was tough and relatively flavorless other than the overly sweet sauce it was drenched in. The restaurant is just west of Highway 45, and anytime I'm in Jackson for work I travel the section of highway that takes me north from the area around West Alley past Back Yard Bar-Be-cue and Latham's Meat Company, both of which offer far superior ribs.

Further south of West Alley on Highway 45 I discovered another source of outstanding ribs when I stopped in at the newly-opened Diddy's Bar-B-Que. I had been familiar with the Diddy's name for years due to an intriguing sign I'd noticed for years in an empty lot next to a supermarket on Highway 45 just south of South Side High School. 

The sign had always announced that barbecue was available in the lot on Friday and Saturday nights, weather permitting. Naturally I'd always been curious about the set up, but I was never in Jackson on a weekend night to check it out. Then about a month ago I saw that the sign had been changed to announce that Diddy's was moving into a permanent restaurant location a little further down the street just south of the Super Wal-Mart.

The restaurant wasn't open yet on that day, but on Wednesday I checked back and saw a parking lot full of cars so I pulled in to sample the food at the humble-looking little metal building. I was already confident the food would be pretty good, since the owner wouldn't be opening a restaurant unless he had built up a solid base of customers willing to go to an empty lot on weekend nights to eat his food.

I decided to skip the easier-to-cook shoulder meat and go straight for my ultimate test of a barbecue joint, a dry rib plate with beans and slaw. When I ordered I got hit with a question that threw me off for a minute -- "Ketchup or mayo slaw?" Ketchup slaw? In all my life of Southern eating I'd never heard of ketchup slaw. I ordered the mayo-based with my meal, then thought about it for a second and asked if I could get a small sample of the ketchup slaw.

I normally prefer vinegar or mustard based slaws to ones dominated by mayo. The ketchup slaw had a nice vinegar bite to it, but the sweet ketchup taste that accompanied it made it a little off-putting when eaten by itself while waiting for the rest of my food. I'm not a big fan of ketchup other than using a little of it on foods like French fries and burgers so I wasn't surprised that a serving of cabbage coated with it just seemed wrong to me. But I have friends who love piling ketchup on everything, to the extent of seeking out Canadian ketchup-flavored potato chips, so I could see where some people would love it.

The rib plate with the mayo slaw looked much more like what I was used to. And the beans and slaw on it were pretty standard renditions. The ribs didn't look like they were anything fancy either, until I tore into them. They were incredibly juicy with a deep smoke ring. The meat pulled clean from the bones but still maintained a nice, meaty texture. The outer bark had a delicious pepper flavor. They were everything I look for in great ribs, meaning my dilemma of deciding where to eat ribs when I'm in Jackson just got even more difficult.

Diddy's BBQ on Urbanspoon