So I'm spending the night in Knoxville, TN after starting out the day by waking up in the back of a van in Bowling Green, KY. It's not as bad as it sounds. My father and I are on a fairly epic journey. We left Ann Arbor yesterday afternoon and headed down to Bowling Green. We camped out across the street from the Corvette factory located there. This morning, we toured the factory, then got back on the road. After some two lane driving through the hills of Northern Tennessee, we picked up a back seat for his golf cart (don't ask), and ended up in Knoxville. Tomorrow, we head to Bristol for the Nationwide race, camp out again, and to the Sprint Cup race on Sunday. Then we're back on the road, where Monday we may visit the National Museum of the USAF at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio before heading back to Ann Arbor. But that's not what I'm writing about right now. This is about barbecue.
I love my barbecue (or BBQ or Bar B Q, depending on what part of the country you're from). Being from the Midwest, I can't say that I'm from a place that has the best barbecue in the country. In fact, the height of Midwestern cuisine is tater tot casserole (from Minnesota), venison pasties (from the UP, and quite good), cheese (yep, Wisconsin), and Chicago style pizza (the best in the world). What this does mean, is that I'm not regionally biased about my barbecue. I give equal credit to the golden sauced pork of South Carolina, the brisket of Texas, and Memphis ribs. I love them all, and I can't get enough of any of them. So whenever I'm in the South, I have to get some barbecue.
I've been to Eastern Tennessee before, but this is the first time I've hunted for the best barbecue in town. Admittedly, I failed a bit in my research, but I also didn't know we'd be in Knoxville until about noon today. I attempted to consult Twitter, but ya'll failed me. So, I pulled up Google and did some snooping. There were two main factors in where my father and I chose to go: cost and location. From my Google quest, I've found that the two local favorites are Buddy's and Calhoun's. I also learned that Eastern Tennessee barbecue is largely influenced by nearby North Carolina, with a bit of South Carolina thrown in too. The barbecue here is smoked and pulled pork slathered in a thick, tomato based sauce.
Buddy's is conveniently about four our hotel. They've got a few locations around town, but we went to the close one instead of driving down to the river to go to a more scenic version. The place is a really interesting combination of fast food and sit down. You walk in and go up to the window and order, just like you do at many barbecue joints. The food arrives about three minutes later. Buddy's meals come with hushpuppies and two sides, all for under six bucks (just over eight for ribs). The unique part is that while you eat, an employee comes by to check on you several times. They bring you additional hushpuppies, refill your drink, and take care of your plate when you're done. I love this additional service.
Since Eastern Tennessee is a pulled pork area, I went with what they do best. I decided to go with baked beans and french fries for sides largely because I don't care for mayo products (ruling out slaw and potato salad) and my teeth suck (ruling out corn on the cob). My heaping pile of porky goodness (thank you Anthony Bourdain for a great term) and I went to a table and the journey began.
I want to talk for a minute about the hushpuppies that they served. For those of you who are unfamiliar, hushpuppies are a Southern tradition. They're small spheres of fried cornmeal batter. It's like cornbread, only better. If they're done properly, you get a crispy shell on the outside and when you bite in, you find warm cornmealy goodness that is super moist and delicious. These weren't any hushpuppies. These are quite possibly the best hushpuppies that I've ever had. In addition to the normal cornmeal there were a few additions that purists may not enjoy. Joining the cornmeal were diced and lightly sauteed onions and some small green flecks that I couldn't identify. Given the color and appearance, I'm guessing that they were either chives or green onion. These little spheres were perfectly fried, producing a roughly 2mm shell of crispy goodness. Inside was steaming hot and more moist than the best of chocolate cakes. Overall, these are the best magical little concoctions to ever come from the South. I could talk about these for longer, but the main event is the pork.
Much like Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, Alton Brown, and really every great foodie, I love my pork. If I believed in God, I'd say that pork is God's gift to man to make up for the poorly designed human body. This pork was good. It was cooked perfectly, which is hard to find in a restaurant. There's only one complaint that I can make about the cooking. It was very apparent that their meat was pre-smoked, chilled, and then reheated. As anybody who knows barbecue will tell you, chilling the meat between smoking and cooking causes the flavor to deteriorate. Though it was chilled and reheated, the smoke on the pork was pretty decent. I'm pretty sure it was hickory, but I have yet to hone my smoke identifying ability as much as I'd like.
I'm a stickler for sauce on my barbecue. I'm not somebody who says that it must be there or must not, but if it's there, it better be good. I was less than thrilled with the default sauce on the pork at Buddy's. It is mild, sweet, and rather plain. I've had better sauces from a two dollar bottle from the grocery store. Luckily, that sauce is not the final note in this song. At the table, like all good barbecue places, was more sauce. The mild sauce was there (in case you wanted to pour more mediocre on top of your perfectly decent pork), but there was also what they termed their "hot barbecue sauce". This stuff is amazing. More hot sauce with little sweet than barbecue sauce with a little heat, once I slathered the pork in a bath of this sauce, it sang. Let's be clear. I'm not talking about an angels from the heavens type of singing, but it was easily Taylor Swift in a slinky dress singing. The hot barbecue sauce provided just enough heat to let you know that you're alive, but not so much that you regretted it later. It had enough sweetness to balance the heat of the sauce, but not so much to overpower it. It had a richness and depth that can only be found by simmering your pot full of sauce and spices for hours on end. If they bottled and sold this sauce, I'd have bought one on the spot. However, there's something I'd change. The sauce was thin. I was quite surprised when it came out of the bottle as runny as it did. Despite that issue, I thought it was quite excellent.
I won't spend much time on the sides because, frankly, they're forgettable. The baked beans had far too much sauce and were rather bland. I've had better baked beans in a school cafeteria. The fries were a little better, but still sorrily lacking. The crispy outer shell that Buddy's performed so excellently on their hushpuppies was completely absent from the french fries. They weren't soggy, but that was their only redeeming factor.
I've got to say that for a quick look around Google, Buddy's is good barbecue. If I were in a pinch and needed some good barbecue fast, I'd get it again. However, If this is the best barbecue in Eastern Tennessee (which some reports claim it to be), the competition isn't very stiff. The pulled pork at Buddy's is rather disappointing when compared to the best I've had. Though, when you're comparing to Hog Heaven in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, most barbecue is disappointing. Luckily for Buddy's, I've never been to the Salt Lick, west of Austin, Texas.