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Treat your ears and taste buds on this all-American road trip.
Story by Chris Chamberlain
Consider this a second helping of “Eating Your Way Down the Music Highway,” as we here at Foodie Travel USA showcase more of the best dining options along Tennessee’s Music Highway, the official designation of the strip of Interstate 40 that runs between Nashville and Memphis.
The route is only about a four-hour drive between the two major cities, so really, what’s your hurry? Take your time and savor some great out-of-the-way restaurants with a short side-trip or several stops off the main highway. If the word “barbecue” isn’t enticing enough, consider at least taking a break from watching mile markers click by to stretch your legs where the air smells delicious.
While not as well-known as a barbecue state compared to North Carolina or Texas, Tennessee definitely houses talented pitmasters. Both Nashville and Memphis have earned vaunted reputations for smoked meat emporiums like Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, Peg Leg Porker and Edley’s in the state capital and legendary joints such as The Rendezvous, Central BBQ, Cozy Corner and Payne’s in the Bluff City. In our first post about Tennessee’s Music Highway, we mentioned two fantastic barbeque spots: The Loveless Cafe outside of Nashville and B.E. Scott’s Bar-B-Que, one of the last practitioners of traditional whole hog barbecue remaining in the state.
But some of the greatest places to find exemplary ‘cue are outside of the big cities, in tiny cinder block shacks off the main highways—the sorts of places you can find by looking for piles of hickory logs stacked outside or just by following your nose to the source of that sweet smoke. You can start your sojourn from either end of the Music Highway, but let’s kick it off heading west from Nashville.
White Bluff is just over a half-hour down the interstate, and it is perhaps best known as the home of Carl’s Perfect Pig, a restaurant with a name that sounds boastful, but isn’t. Carl Teitloff has been slow-cooking meats over an old-fashioned open pit for more than 30 years, and some of his customers have been regulars since the very beginning. Best known for tender fall-off-the-bone pork spare ribs, Carl’s also serves up smoked pork shoulder, a fine chopped sirloin patty, ribeye steaks and fried catfish. Particular attention is paid to down home Southern side dishes like pinto beans, fried okra, baked apples and smoky collard greens. Come hungry!
Shaky’s BBQ Shack in Bon Aqua is the sort of place where the operating hours are from lunchtime until the meat runs out, just the way a proper joint should be! Specializing in pulled pork, Shaky’s offers a concise menu of sandwiches on a bun, sourdough bread or Texas Toast, and that’s pretty much all you can always expect. However if you’re lucky, you might show up on a day when Shaky has been smoking pork ribs, chickens or even a whole chuck roast to use in pulled beef sandwiches. You can add traditional barbecue sides like mac n’ cheese or BBQ beans, but the recommended play is an order of the famous Shaky taters.
Papa KayJoe’s BBQ is an institution in Centerville, the county seat of Hickman County. Thanks to its hand-pulled Boston butt sandwiches, Papa KayJoe’s has become a destination for barbecue aficionados from surrounding counties all the way to Nashville. Simply seasoned with salt, the meat off the smoker doesn’t need a sticky sweet sauce to dress it up; in fact, the sandwiches are served without sauce (although there are bottles of house sauce on the table if that’s your style.) Cooking over hickory coals in open cinder block pits covered with sheets of corrugated metal, the pitmasters at Papa KayJoe’s put out impressive amounts of smoked pork, beef brisket, chicken and turkey to satisfy just about any palate.
Hurricane Mills is right before you reach the bridge over the Tennessee River, which also flows into Kentucky Lake, so it makes sense that Rochelle’s Bar-None Barbecue also offers an excellent plate of fried catfish. But if it’s barbecue you seek, rest assured you’ll find some fine pulled pork, ribs, beef brisket, smoked chicken and wings. The small barn-red shack is as country as a corn cob in the best possible way. A favorite of folks traveling to or from the lake, the folks at Rochelle’s will be happy to fix you a plate to go if you feel the need to get back on the road.
On the other side of the river, Shands Fish n’ BBQ is an old school fish house that serves up catfish (fried or Cajun grilled) plus smoked meat by the pound or by the plate. Pork shoulder and ribs are the specialties of the house, but if you haven’t had a thick slab of smoked bologna it’s definitely time to experience that Southern treat. (Just don’t tell your cardiologist.) The friendly staff knows how to treat customers like family, so you can expect to feel at home.
Jackson, located a little over halfway between Nashville and Memphis, has a unique style of barbecue. Pork shoulder sandwiches often feature chopped meat topped with creamy small-diced coleslaw that has a tangy mustard bite. Regi’s BBQ & Wings makes a fantastic sandwich, but also showcases some specialty dishes that are more often associated with Memphis. BBQ nachos and spaghetti might seem like odd ways to serve smoked pork until you consider fact that the traditional versions of those dishes basically feature meat with some sort of tomato sauce, and that smoked pork barbecue sauce is just a substitute for salsa or Italian gravy. True to the restaurant’s name, the menu also features some bangin’ wings!
If Helen’s Bar-B-Q was in Memphis instead of in Brownsville, it might be one of the most famous barbecue joints in the state. As it is, Helen Turner doesn’t even have a website or Facebook page for her tiny restaurant, but the Southern Foodways Alliance has recognized her with its “Keeper of the Flame” award and filmed a documentary about how she creates exemplary barbecue in a simple pit covered with sheets of cardboard to hold in the smoke. Turner’s husband starts the fires early in the morning so that she can work all day to have plenty of amazing meats ready to serve at lunch and dinner. There are just a few seats inside the small dining area and a couple picnic tables outside, so ordering to go is a smart option. Grab an extra smoked bologna sandwich to snack on during the ride home!