Texas Monthly has named its first fulltime BBQ editor – and here’s my vote for his first out of state visit – Dead End BBQ in Knoxville, Tennessee. As this championship-winning neighborhoody restaurant rightly declares in its tagline – “the search is over.”
Dead End BBQ opened shop about a decade ago near the tonier suburbs of Knoxville at the end of a dead end street where neighbors gathered to barbeque and honed their talents. Now it's a gathering place for those in the know in a highly competitive culture of sauces, rubs, ribs and brisket - from local politicians and University of Tennessee faculty and administrators to truckers, students and moms with strollers -- all with a favorite plate and very high standards.
I always go for the combo plates (you get two choices from the pulled pork, beef brisket, smoked chicken and sausage) and a couple of sides, like Mayor's Beans and Red, White and Bleu Slaw. The meaty St. Louis ribs are irresistible - just wear a larger belt size than normal to pack it all in.
While the BBQ method is central, the sauces and rubs can truly distinguish one BBQ house from another. People I know have large collections from places they've visited. I took home special rubs for pork and chicken since I couldn’t carry the amazing liquid BBQ sauce through airport security. (While some people pack wine bottles from Napa Valley and BBQ sauce from Tennessee in their checked luggage, I'm not so daring and don't fancy arriving home with a new wardrobe freshly stained in many shades of red.) Spice rubs, just as potent in containers of glass or plastic, are far more trustworthy as flying companions.
If you can’t make it to Dead End, stop downtown on the river at Calhouns. Now this is a place that gives new meaning to "heapin' portions." My server suggested I order a child’s portion – that turned out to be 4 lean but tender meaty ribs and a large scoop of pulled pork – to which I added Smokey Mountain Beans and steamed broccoli (the only green vegetable in the joint besides salad). “That is food for a very large child!” I gasped - and happily (for $11) completed about two-thirds of the offering.
If you're traveling along Interstate 81 through far east Tennessee en route to Virginia, the go-to place is Ridgewood Barbeque in Bluff City. I've not had the pleasure, but it's national reputation and local popularity add up to doing somethin' right - and their Hickory-cooked hams are a specialty. Yet BBQ-lovers are an opinioned lot - so, bottom line, it's all in the eatin'.