Restaurant Report: Backwoods Bistro

6625 Maynardville Pike, 865-377-4634

Rusty Culbertson is a man driven not only by his passion for quality, but also by what he doesn’t like. When he decided to open Backwoods Bistro, he promised himself that he “would take everything he hated about restaurants, and make it right.” That’s a principle that’s easy to articulate but harder to accomplish; still, the Backwoods Bistro has been humming along nicely for the last year, and Culbertson remains as particular as ever.

Situated just near the bottom of the ridge that divides Halls from Fountain City, Backwoods Bistro makes its home in the former digs of a Time Out Deli in Halls Black Oak Center. It’s an open space, and you order your meal at the counter from a blackboard menu; grab a seat, and someone will deliver your food.

Culbertson is especially passionate—and meticulous—about his burger. He has all sorts of guidelines about how the condiments are arranged, from where the pickles go to how ketchup, mustard, and mayo are applied. He’s usually at the restaurant, so you can ask him all about it. But where he is most exacting is in the quality of the meat itself: “Everything is fresh, really fresh. We grind whole, fresh chuck every day. It’s never frozen, ever. Frozen meat is tougher and it always tastes different, so we never use it. You can taste the difference. And when we trim rib-eyes for our Philly, we include the trimmings in our grind.”

In fact, everything that Backwoods serves is made fresh and on-premise with one exception: “When people start to order I tell them that we make everything fresh except the onion rings—that’s the one instance where I think that what we can buy is better than what we can do here.” Otherwise, Culbertson’s wife, Melissa, keeps the place stocked in homemade desserts, the fries are hand-cut, and the dressings are made daily. Pinto beans and slaw are made every couple of days, but Culbertson promises they’re “actually better the next day.” He is particularly proud of the rich, homemade mac-n-cheese, and it is pretty tasty.

In fact, the menu is full of tasty things (try the Loaded Potato Salad), but not so many as to make it a confused jumble of any old thing that you can throw on a griddle or in hot oil. The menu has a sensibility that emerges from Culbertson’s practical side: “I don’t have food waste. If something doesn’t sell, we don’t keep it. We keep things simple because people almost always migrate back to the basics.” At Backwoods Bistro it’s easy to see and taste why.

Must Haves

The Burger: One of the very nice things about this burger—aside from the aforementioned freshness of the grind—is the texture of the whole sandwich. It has a great crunch that comes from the buttered and lightly grilled buns and the crisp lettuce. There are a number of ways to dress it up, from caramelized onions and bacon to chili and slaw. There’s usually a burger of the month that’s indulgent and fun—for May it was topped with BBQ sauce, bacon, and mac-n-cheese.

Bacon Ranch Fries: Throw caution to the wind and treat yourself; it’s the ultimate answer to the munchies and a real pleasure to eat. The fries and bacon are great, but what makes this so noteworthy is the liberal application of the Bistro’s homemade ranch dressing. It’s a lively concoction that brings fresh tang to every bite and gives the decadent snack a fresh and light personality that loaded fries usually lack. Beware: It’s tough to share these.

Beef Brisket Sandwich: This is the Holy Grail of the place. No kidding. The Backwood’s method involves a slow, slow smoking that results in a luscious brisket that’s so unctuous, so tender, so rich that it’s nearly like a perfect execution of pork belly. The sauce, as you might expect, is a secret formula, but it’s called Bar-B-Yaki and you can clearly taste hints of soy. Regardless of its make-up, its deft application to the very good, nearly sexy brisket makes this sandwich a double deadly sin—you’ll lust for it and be tempted to gluttony.