So there I was in Huntsville Alabama again.
I know that’s not really fair, since I didn’t write up my last trip to Huntsville. Think of it as having been a scouting expedition. For what, you ask? Why, pig, of course!
So here I am, doing what I always do in Huntsville, which is finding new and wonderful places to eat pulled pig. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I have to go to meetings and stuff too, but I really just come here to eat. Last time I was here, I was introduced to Dreamland Barbeque. It wasn’t just good – it’s the second best pulled pork I’ve ever had in my life, and the place where I had the best pig (in Florida, of all places) isn’t there anymore. Dreamland was good enough that I bought the tee-shirt.
I’m going to pause in my narrative before we get to the food, though, to say a few words about Huntsville. In Huntsville, I found people not only polite – please, thank you, and they tend not to interrupt you, nor one another – but also proud.
The town was called Rocket City USA back in its heyday, and the people here remember that. They helped put man on the moon, testing the Apollo systems and building the Saturn series of rockets – driving down the highway from the airport, this goes from noticeable to inescapable when you pass a Saturn V rocket standing sentinel by the road. It’s an enormous monument to the engineering history of a world, a nation, and this town in particular. Reflected in the people I met was an underlying sense that they’d been part of something greater than themselves once, and they’d like to do it again – with a quiet reserved understanding that lightning does not tend to hit in the same place twice. Not that nothing’s happening there now, but you have the sense that it’s a town standing capable and ready, hoping to be called back into action if the US ever gets its space program back in high gear.
They also tend to be more liberal in outlook than I confess I expected; I find the drive-through condom store to be a case in point. I nearly drove through myself, just to check the going rate, but SOBUMD and I have been married so long that I can’t remember which elbow the condom goes on. Besides, I was saving my money for pig.
I wore that Dreamland tee-shirt while flying back to Huntsville this time, and I had no fewer than eight people comment on it – and the Hat, of course, but for a change the Hat took second billing. Many told me that I needed to go to the original Dreamland, which is in Tuscaloosa. That being a bit of a hike from Huntsville, the other place I was told to try – by several folks – was Big Bob Gibson’s, across the water in Decatur, Alabama.
Sunday night, however, was Wintzell’s Oyster House, which was recommended by dint of it being walking distance from my hotel, plus the front desk gave me a coupon. I dined under the watchful eye and tender care of the delightful and helpful Becca, who told me that despite being an Oyster joint, they had a fantastic Ribeye. Since I can get a fantastic Ribeye lotsa places, up to and including my house, I stuck with the seafood – fried alligator, fried whitefish, fried crab claws, fried hushpuppies, fried shrimp, fried crab, and oh yeah, oysters. Fried. The beer was very good, a local IPA, and the seafood gumbo (which was not, in fact, fried) was one of the best I’ve ever had. Also in the category of ‘best I’ve ever had’ were the green beans – you simply cannot get green beans cooked like that in the Northern climate, probably because we lack the bacon of our convictions.
Becca also told me that I had to go to Thomas Pit if I wanted really good pig – and when was the last time your check from your waitress included directions to another restaurant? She used to live behind Thomas Pit and grew up with the smell. I made a note of it, thanked her, and made my slow way to my hotel, 60 feet away. By the time I got back to the room, I was pretty fried myself.
On Monday for lunch, on the advice of Good Jim Coleman, I found – in the fullness of time, after driving right past it twice – the Old Greenbrier Restaurant, which boasts a bathroom attendant, great sweet potatoes, and wi-fi. There’s a big sign as you walk in: “Try our Sweet Potaters and Wi-Fi!” It does sound like a hell of a combo meal, but as we know, I came for the pig. The nice young lady who waved me in set a large basket of fried hushpuppies on the table by way of saying hello; this could have been a meal by itself, and I mean for a family of four. Their pulled pig plate – and I will have you know that I ordered a “small” – came out with a baked sweet potato the size of my fist (I never did get around to trying the wi-fi), a side of passable cole slaw, and nearly a pound of pig. They have their own vinegar-based hot sauce; the good news was that it was delightful. The less good news is that the pig needed it – the flavor was excellent and well smoked, but it was dry enough that the sauce was a blessing. I have to guess that the pig is probably less dry on a Saturday night.
Leaving Greenbrier I realized that there are, in fact, quite a lot of choices in dining out here – I drove past Mom’s Place, which (unlike in the DC area) doesn’t stand for anything, except insomuch as I’m sure Mom’s stands for a decent lunch and won’t stand for anything less. If there had been less than a pound of pig on my recent plate, I might have stopped out of curiosity.
Monday’s dinner and Tuesday’s lunch were both at Dreamland, and yes, it’s that good. We sat in front of the rail – that would be the rail that separates the diners from the fire over which your dinner is cooking, or had been cooking for the previous 8 or 12 hours. We got to watch one of the pit men throwing hickory logs the size of my leg on the fire. This is living!
Tuesday dinner was Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur. It turns out they don’t focus on ambiance, atmosphere, anything but pig. It was good pig, with sauce that went from good to great to fantastic with the white, bbq, and vinegar sauce, in that order. The ribs were falling of the bone and completely off the hook – they win for ribs, hands down.
At Dreamland, the motto is “Ain’t Nothin’ Like ‘Em Nowhere” – and they mean it. They have decor, including a road sign hung in the men’s room stating “No Dumping Allowed.” The Greenbrier restaurant seems to have a motto on the order of “we’re as surprised as you are” – which makes some sense, considering the signs in the place have signs on them, most mentioning that these were the original signs put up when the place opened in 1952. Plus, you know, they have a bathroom attendant.
Big Bob Gibson’s might have a motto. If so, I suspect that it says “Big Bob Gibson’s wins BBQ awards.” The closest thing to a cute sign in the men’s room was a pamphlet on the urinal stating that I was special to someone, and urging me to consider letting Christ in to my heart. Since my heart was not what I was holding at the time, I left the pamphlet there.
They have no beer, no pictures, and no TV – not that that last one is a loss, but it did confirm that going elsewhere for dinner and Monday Night Football for the boss the night before had been a really good idea. I finally put my somewhat greasy, sticky finger on what was lacking: They had no sense of humor. There was no banter, there were no smiles. It could have been a soul food joint, but it lacked soul. The food really is that good, but you have to be able to smile. I won’t be back.
Since there was no laughter, on the way back we made our own, starting with what I’m reliably told is an old and famous furniture store, regrettably named Badcock. You have to assume that’s a family name – what exactly do you name your sons there? “Really”? “Gotta”? This lasted until we passed “Cumming’s Aeronauticals,” whereupon the remainder of the ride devolved into riffs concerning marriage between these two noble houses – “Mrs. Sawyer Badcock-Cumming, from Afar, AL” being the culmination of about 12 minutes and 8 miles worth of effort.
There being only one way to clear away the gutter of our minds at this point, we stepped into the bar at the hotel to quench our prodigious thirsts and listen to bad Karaoke being sung badly by people who might once have known better, but for whom, by now, all hope had fled, taking with it their dignity, honor, and sense of pitch. Since I walked in with none of those things to start with, I was glad to leave before finding Katy Perry’s Last Friday Night on the list. SOBUMD, when hearing of this, remarked that “at least it would have been short.” When asked to clarify, she confessed she meant my career, had I sung that – or anything else – for my boss and co-workers. Ah, fame is such a fleeting, fickle bitch…
Wednesday meetings were early and reasonably quick, and I decided to venture out before finding the airport. Having no particular destination, and being on my own recognizance, I started out toward the historic part of downtown Huntsville. I’d been driving all of 8 minutes when a white utility van with some kind of company logo passed me on my right. I stayed behind him for a few minutes before my brain kicked in and read the name, which was “Smokey’s B-B-Q” over a pair of crossed burning logs. “Call us for catering!” Mind you, this was just after noon local time.
Like my close personal friend Dirk Gently, I do not always arrive at my originally intended destination, but I find I usually end up where I need to be. “Self,” said I, “Follow that van!” I decided he was probably driving back from dropping off someone’s yummy porcine lunch, and even if he was on the way to drop said lunch off, he had to drive back sometime – and besides, he had Alabama plates. It couldn’t be that far, right?
It wasn’t that far, but he stopped in front of a Restaurant Supply Store. When he got out, I explained that I was an itinerant migratory lifeform with a tropism for pulled pork, and he gave me a brochure and apologized for not having any with him so he could give me a sample. He also gave me directions, and I was right – Smokey’s is local, for reasonable definitions of local. The directions sounded somewhat familiar, and in a moment got to the words, “You’ll see Thomas Pit on the left, and we’re about three blocks past that.”
Clearly, this was a sign, further oracular intervention from the Road Gods – two people in the food business mentioning Thomas Pit. The quest was on! I drove, first, to Smokey’s – as on any quest, certain rules and niceties must be followed, conventions adhered to, if one is to win though to one’s prize.
Smokey’s is a walk-up/drive though in Madison, and a copy of the Decatur Daily newspaper was on the wall, highlighted. Evidently someone there ran a somewhat inadvisable story about how the good, upstanding, and humorless people of Decatur were clearly beloved in heaven since they got to eat at the award-winning Big Bob Gibson’s, while the “hapless people of Madison have to settle for something called Smokey’s.” That’s a direct quote. The note included the paper’s phone number for the editorial desk (888-353-4612, if you’re so inclined) and exhorted Smokey’s eaters to give the Decatur Daily a piece of their mind, if not a piece of their pig. I got the smallest plate of pig I could, and tried it both with and without the sauces – note that the Smokey’s motto is “The Difference is the Sauce!” The pig was good, with pink smoke lines, nice flavor and texture, on solid par with Big Bob’s and comparing well with Dreamland (although not quite that good) and the hotter of the sauces was the better. Better hapless than humorless, Decatur. I thanked them and rolled down the road a short pace to the aforementioned Thomas Pit.
Becca was right. With sauce or without, Thomas Pit has the best pulled pork I’ve ever had. They’ve been doing this since 1932; I guess they’ve got good at it. The place is small and decked out with Western and Texas theme decor, also from 1932 by the looks of it. I think. I couldn’t look away from my plate for long – someone might steal my pig! They have a vinegar hot sauce that is perfectly adequate and wholly unneeded. This pig needs no adornment. It’s melt-in-your-mouth pulled pig. It’s a hot pile of pig that melts in your mouth after exploding with flavor all over your tongue like a razorback hog bursting from a pen toward a feed trough. Wow. I have a new number one – that place in Florida, just over the bridge from Amelia Island, isn’t there anymore anyway, and it was only almost this good. They must have some kind of rub on that pig.
Wow. Thank you Becca! Thank you dude from Smokey’s! Thank you to the Road Gods, and to foodies everywhere!
As I drove away around the back, I saw the smoke house and snapped this picture, which does not do justice to the smoke or the smell – you can’t see it very well, but the chimney has flames shooting from it; smoke was seeping out everywhere. As I watched in rapturous awe, an old pit man stepped out of the door to wipe his brow. He was sweating like a – he was sweating a LOT. He looked old enough to be Thomas – there are natural properties of pulled pig and smoke that will preserve a man from 1932 until today – but I suppose probably wasn’t. I gave him the thumbs up and the shouted superlatives of my assessment and he grinned to the extent he could and said, just like in the movies, “Ya’ll come back now, ya hear!”
I will, Mr. Thomas. I will.