Confession: I don't love barbecue. I know. Shameful. I grew up in the South and everything, but barbecue isn't something I crave—but sometimes I wonder if that's because my tastes have for so long settled for whatever is slopped on a bun at a sporting event, church picnic, or drive-thru.
Whether a barbecue fan or not, it can't be denied that West Tennessee is home to some of the nation's best, and interpretations of the vague title continue to surprise and impress locals and visitors alike. I figured it was time I gave my inexperienced palate a tour of Jackson's favorites, the spots I hear shouted from the mouths of fans all over town.
So in honor of National Barbecue Month, I present the Our Jackson Home/SnagMob Top BBQ Tour, featuring five local restaurants, and see who was voted best by our fans!
Exit 87 BBQ
2049 Highway 70 East | 850 Riverside Drive | 731.988.6222
Josh Wadley has been serving truckers, travelers, and plenty of locals at his barbecue stand for twelve years now. The convenient location right of the Interstate and outside of heavy Jackson traffic keeps the crowd big enough to stay open seven days a week, and Monday through Friday that's for twenty-four hours. So they don't have a problem selling the 400 pounds of pork they make each day (not to mention about 150 pounds of ribs, eighty pounds of chicken, and sixty pounds of sausage), especially with their location down south now open.
Exit 87 offers two sauces: a spicy vinegar-based and a sweet ketchup-based. Although Josh is the first in his family to dive into the barbecue business, these sauces are third-generation and available for sale for anyone who can't get enough. I went for the classic spicy, but don't worry, those of you who can't handle the heat: this sauce has just enough kick to linger, and even a kiddo would go for it.
The first thing I noticed about this sandwich (both watching it being made and taking my first bite) was the incredible texture. Not only is the meat moist, but the sauce is incorporated throughout, allowing the meat to hold together like a good chicken salad sandwich without spilling out of the bun. The meat is pulled fresh for each sandwich, and the cool, thin layer of coleslaw is the perfect complement without stealing away from the star of the show: the meat. The jumbo size for made one heck of a lunch, and I hardly had need for a napkin.
During my dining experience, I couldn't help but admit my typical barbecue apathy, but it turns out I was in good company! Josh himself hated barbecue until he was working in food service, determined to make a moist barbecue sandwich. Since he bought out the guy who originally employed him, he's been perfecting his craft, but he was quick to remind me that they're not just a barbecue joint. Exit 87 also prides themselves in their hearty breakfast, bologna, and various hot dogs.
Josh's barbecue sandwich was a good reminder that a great meal doesn't need more than two minutes to make—that is, if you dedicate a good twelve hours to perfecting the meat itself!
Reggi's BBQ & Wings
292 Parkstone Place | 731.660.8600
Originally from Cleveland, Mississippi, Eugene Pickett has been barbecuing in West Tennessee for thirty-two years, beginning in Memphis and transitioning into Jackson. The restaurant has seen the visits of many a celebrity, as you can see for yourself along their proud walls. Eugene accounts the business's success to its dedicated employees, two of whom are his wife and son, the former specializing in some scrumptious desserts. On top of its busy dining space, Reggi's stays popular for catering events with the sheer amount of meat they continue to produce.
Eugene is a believer in tomato-based sauces with a hint of brown sugar, and his basic recipe based upon his father's has remained the same through the ages. Due to also serving wings, Reggi's offers not just a typical mild and hot sauce but also an additional six levels of sweetness and spice with names like Suicide, Inferno, and Honey BBQ. But there ain't nothin' a little Reggi's Lemonade can't cool down.
While Eugene claims no "signature item," he suggested I try a combination platter to get a lil bit of e'rything: three sides, toast, and two meats of my choice. He prides himself in his beef brisket and ribs, so I tried those along with a couple of wings for good measure.
Talk about some tender meat! The brisket felt like an especially decadent alternative to traditional pulled pork, and to ensure a lack of chewiness, Eugene cuts across the grain of the meat. My meal was drizzled with just the right amount of sauce, thick and flavorful, and the toast serving as the perfect mop for scraps. The baked beans were sweet, saucy, and chock-full with pulled pork, while the slaw and potato salad added a cooler and creamier note.
With Reggi's emphasis on a diversity of meat smoked to perfection, you'll want to try every item (and sauce) on the menu. (We're talking bologna, chicken, polish sausage turkey legs—you name it.) You'll feel like part of the family the minute you walk in.
Pig House BBQ
1024 Campbell Street | 731.423.8566
Chef: David & Keith Clifton
Sauce: Vinegar base | Mild or Hot
Tasting notes: Moist, hearty, tangy
Learn more: Facebook
Celebrating thirty years of business this very month, Pig House BBQ's David and Keith Clifton, brothers, are dedicated to carrying on their father's legacy, prioritizing excellent customer service and proudly passing on their recipes to a fourth generation in their sons Tyler and Kyle, respectively. Mr. Clifton left Hicksville's famous 1929-established barbecue restaurant The Hut after five years of management, so their presence on the corner of Highland and Campbell has warmed the hearts of many nearby residents who want to carry the neighborhood's barbecue reputation.
"Fresh, not fast," is Pig House's mantra, but from what I observed, they're pretty quick on their feet as the line outside their drive-up grows steadily with customers old and new. The business is also perfect for families as they offer group packs and tightly-packed meats that stay moist for holidays and parties.
Pig House ain't afraid to get a little messy when they serve up their generous sandwiches, sauce-soaked ribs, overflowing potatoes, and—get this—barbecue stew. From the second David served up his first sandwich, I was stunned by the thickness of the pork, standing apart from the mush-like concoction some shops serve up. Pig House is also dedicated to retaining the moisture of the meat and adds plenty of vinegar slaw and sauce to their sandwiches to keep it juicy—but don't worry; they'll make it however you like if you want something a little different.
That in mind, like most every shop owner I visited, David couldn't claim a signature item, so he served me up a barbecue plate with dark meat, like I prefer. With their thin hot and mild sauces served on the side along with a bun, I was able to try a few combinations of my own alongside the classic sides of vinegar slaw, potato salad, and beans. They weren't kidding about moist meat, and it didn't take much sauce to give it the subtle sweet kick I like.
Pig House is where you want to go if you're looking for a custom order on the go where the meat it the star. As David puts it, "I'm only as good as the last meal I made," and for that, they're always improving their food and their service.
West Alley BBQ & Smokehouse
215 West Main Street | 731.300.4664
While West Alley BBQ stands out as a Jackson classic in my mind, I found it unbelievable that this favorite restaurant has only been in operation for three-and-a-half years. And although Jackson native Drew Baker has only been managing for about half that time, West Alley sits directly across the street from the two businesses his father operated when he was a child. (Talk about full circle!) Drew isn't in this biz alone, though. Nothing would be possible without pitmaster Jim Dandy (who the famous "Big Jim Dandy sandwich is named after), kitchen manager Geoffrey Hale, and the restaurant's awesome staff known for their excellent customer service.
Along with being extremely successful for its youth, West Alley stands out as a family-owned and minority-owned business, not to mention being one of a few restaurants in the downtown area. Like most of Jackson's other barbecue joints, West Alley also offers catering and carryout while still keeping their spacious dining room impeccable. I especially loved the industrial feel the former tire shop permeated.
According to Drew, the key to West Alley's incredible taste and texture is simplicity. Adding only a dash of salt and pepper before hitting the grill, Drew describes their meat as "unadorned," allowing the customer to determine how much sauce to should be added. He served me up a combo platter with his most requested meats: pulled pork and ribs. The tenderness and texture amazed me, and it was stunning how moist and flavorful the meat tasted without any sauce or special seasoning being added on the front end. And something about the perfection they achieve in their ribs made them miraculously un-messy to eat. Trying a little of both mild and hot sauces, I was pleased to find a great combo of sweet and salty, the hot sauce packing more flavor than heat. I was also pleased to find a crisp slice of Texas toast hiding under the pulled pork, a nice change from the often soggy hamburger bun.
Honestly, after visiting three other barbecue shops, I thought I'd be sick of baked beans and coleslaw, but West Alley's didn't disappoint. The beans were hearty and savory, a nice break from the often redundant barbecue flavors too tangy for my palette. The coleslaw was the perfect complement, having a lot of crunch, sweetness, and creamy undertones. While mayonnaise-based, the dressing was enjoyably light and had a bit of mustard added for a flavor I want to recreate at home.
West Alley has hit their stride for sure, and I'm eager to try their full list of meats, like pulled brisket, smoked sausage, and even turkey. Never underestimate the power of a little S&P on some darn good meat.
2384 Highway 45 South | 731.736.3460
"A small place with big taste." That's how Ricky Pierce describes his restaurant, Diddy's BBQ, whose location celebrated its eighth anniversary this past Saturday. After nearly thirty years of working in factories and cooking during his free time, Ricky opened a concession stand beside the South Jackson Popeye's in 2009 before moving to his current drive-thru/dining space combo. He now keeps busy serving customers and prepping orders for events as large as weddings.
Diddy's specializes in pork, ribs, and chicken and, like many barbecue joints, makes clear that "you just can't rush a good thing!" Ricky's key to flavor is to season the meat twenty-four hours ahead of time and give a little spray of sauce every thirty minutes while cooking. With most my other locations offering chicken but always preferring pork, it was quite refreshing to try barbecued chicken two way, both treated with as much care as any other meat. Ricky also is proud to offer whole shoulders instead of the traditional butts, allowing for a good variety of dark and white meat.
With classic mild and hot vinegar-based sauces (don't worry—the hot is more flavorful than spicy), Ricky believes that sauce is the complement to a good meat, not the star of the show. His customers can choose how drenched they choose to enjoy their meat, and I found that such a nice sheen to the skin only needs a few dashes to give a thin glaze for extra flavor. But if you're craving a thick ketchup tang, try the ketchup slaw, a concept common in the Carolinas that Ricky wanted to bring to West Tennessee. Their other slaw is mayonnaise-based, and both serve as a cool, crunchy addition to any sandwich, along with some classic baked beans and potato salad on the side.
Veering off from the menu combinations, Ricky very literally gave me a little bit of everything, serving up ribs, a chicken leg, a half-pork/half-chicken sandwich, and a sampling of each of his sides. And while I wish I had space to describe in detail every flavor, I'm gonna hone in on those killer ribs. I've had some darn good ribs on my barbecue tour, but Ricky's dry rub added a salty note I've been craving against all the sweetness of barbecue, and he ain't afraid to keep 'em a little greasy. Honestly, they were just as good without sauce for me, and the fall-off-the-bone quality was on point.
Diddy's has found a spice blend to remember and has upped the scale for oft-forgotten meats like pulled chicken. You'll feel like family at this friendly and flavorful spot.
And the winner is . . .
Exit 87 BBQ!
Thanks for voting!
Originally from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Katie Howerton moved to Jackson in 2011 to study Graphic Design and Drawing at Union University. She discovered Our Jackson Home in January 2015 and used it as a guinea pig for her senior design project, creating the first issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine. After graduating she was given leadership over Our Jackson Home at theCO, where she now runs the blog, designs the magazine, and coordinates events. She and her husband Jordan live in Midtown and are active members of City Fellowship Baptist Church.
Photography by Katie Howerton.