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Thursday, September 29, 2016
Helen's Bar-B-Q (Brownsville, TN)
To call Helen's Bar-B-Q an institution would be quite the understatement. Helen Turner, one of the few female pitmasters in the South, has manned (womanned?) the country-style open pits at her namesake barbecue joint for the past thirty years. With that in mind, I figured that a slight detour off the interstate and over to Brownsville, Tennessee was well worth the added travel time. If nothing else, the massive cotton fields that lay betwixt would be rather scenic, and perhaps the impending Memphis traffic would die down a bit by the time I finished my pit stop.
Helen's exterior signage is so worn and faded that I had to pull a u-turn just to find the place, missing it on the first pass. The term "hole in the wall" comes to mind, although "dilapidated house" might be a touch more accurate. They do have a couple of tables inside, but at non-peak hours these mostly seem to function as an employee lounge area. No skin off my back, it was nice enough outside that their picnic tables were a welcome dining choice.
You won't find any multi-meat combos advertised on Helen's menu, but don't be afraid to ask. Helen is a sweetheart, and she's more than willing to accommodate custom orders. I went all-in with a plate of pulled pork, ribs, and Polish sausage with their obligatory accompaniment of beans, potato salad and coleslaw. Even though I typically take my barbecue sauce on the side, I decided to take a chance with Helen. I did, however, stick with the mild sauce, so as not to tempt fate any more than necessary today.
Theirs was more of a mashed potato salad than the diced-spud variety that I'm accustomed to. Still, it was rather tasty, especially with all of the pickles mixed in. Frequent readers know that I'm not a big slaw fan in general, but Helen's was pleasant enough. I did like the finely shredded cabbage, since me and big hunks o' vegetables aren't always on friendly terms. The beans had sort of a mild sweetness to them. They were fine, but I think a little jalapeño would have really sealed the deal.
I'm not entirely sure that the sausage qualified as Polish, seeming closer to the standard bright red hotlinks of East Texas fame. It had a great flavor with just enough spiciness to make things interesting. I do prefer my links to come with more of a snap to the casing though, the kind that you'll only find with sausage that's actually been cooked on a heated surface, whereas this link struck me as more boiled than smoked or grilled. Nonetheless, I still ate the whole thing with a smile on my face, so that should tell you something.
The pulled pork was tender and commendably juicy. I longed for some bark, but the well-rendered fat made up for things in that department (mostly, at least). Smoke shined through the barbecue sauce beautifully, meaning that the sauce is there as a flavor addition rather than the sole source. Just as God intended. Helen's sauce has a base that's not quite tomato, not quite vinegar. But one thing's for sure, it's delicious.
By the look of their ribs, I was expecting overcooked, fall-off-the-bone mush. I couldn't have been more wrong. The rosy meat was perfectly cooked and perfectly smoky, with just the right amount of seasoning to compliment without being overpowering. Much like the pulled pork, the ribs showcased a great marriage of natural flavors and sauce, each standing its own nicely.
I'm still a believer in predominantly sauceless meat, but Helen's Bar-B-Q almost brought me over to the dark side. Well done.
1016 N. Washington Ave
Brownsville, TN 38012