Committing to an opinion about the quality of any particular barbecue seems fraught with peril—barbecue is a subject that comes with deeply held, nearly religious conviction. And like religion, there are many sects in the faith of 'que, and all are equally certain about the veracity of their vision of heaven. Still, Parton's Smokin Butz BBQ warrants the risk—this is good food.
Located on Chapman Highway just across the Sevier County line, Parton's serves up excellent versions of all the fare you'd expect from a place called Smokin Butz, but there are fresh tweaks to the standard offerings; Parton's also serves a good burger, an excellent fried apple pie, and some other unexpected treats.
You may well wonder what makes the results of one man's smoker so different (and better) from another's. Owner John Parton claims it's just a matter of "burn and learn"—a process of trial and error that began some years ago with a neighborhood friend. "Some of our recipes, like the ones for our baked beans and sweet potatoes, have been in the family for years," he says, but much of what makes Parton's worth a short ride southward is the result of his drive to try, try again.
Of course, a good smoker is essential and Parton constructed his own version: "That smoker out front, I built and rebuilt that thing three times before it was right." Parton doesn't mind talking barbecue technique, choice of wood (his is oak, hickory, and cherry), and the mysteries of good sauce, but he's not compelled to over-talk it; primarily, he's a good host.
In fact, one of the first things you'll notice about this place is that it's friendly—and not in the forced, I'm-paid-to-like-you way. Parton and company offer a sincere welcome-to-our-home experience that's much more a part of the Southern ethos than a slab of smoked meat.
Parton offers homemade sauces from sweet to head-warming, but he wants you to add them: "Our whole goal is to let you eat without sauce and add it if you want. We figure [from the kitchen's point of view] if you sauce it, you're hiding something or trying to add moisture."
Aside from barbecue, you'll find a big burger that tastes a lot like what you'd expect from a good drive-in burger joint; the kids will get a kick out of BBQ Spaghetti; and everybody will love the Smokin' Nachos. The side dishes are all commendable, but don't miss the stand-outs like macaroni and cheese (you'll want extra), a good sweet potato and brown sugar casserole, the sweet corn muffin that comes with a glaze, and the tender green beans that are decidedly old fashioned thanks to bacon renderings.
But there's more here than meets the eye, and to fully know the place and its treasures, you'll want to keep track of it via social media (Facebook and Twitter). Otherwise, you might miss the appearance of the lunch buffet and various specials. Even so, there's enough daily goodness to qualify this as a stop on the food-lover's pilgrimage.
Ribs: Restrain yourself from automatically reaching for the sauce—these tender, meaty beauties are delicious unadorned. The whole rack is a big proposition, but these are sizable enough that a smaller portion, available as an option for Parton's combo dinners, will sate the craving and let you try the equally delicious brisket, pork, chicken, and/or ham.
Smoked Sausage Dinner: It's tempting to overlook this option in the face of those ribs, but it's worth having on the table. The sliced sausage is tossed with well-cooked green peppers and onions to form a nice, smoky union. The dish is slick with the right amount of fat, and smoke seasons the whole plate without annihilating the basic flavors of the components. The green peppers add freshness and the sausage adds, well, it adds sausage in plump, plentiful, and satisfying-to-bite slices. In terms of both taste and texture, it's a mouth-pleaser.
Fried Apple Pie: There are several tempting sweets here, including a Hershey Bar Casserole, but Parton himself recommends this one—and he recommends it with a dollop of soft-serve. It's a big half-moon of sugar-and-cinnamon-dusted apple- (or peach-) stuffed crust with a light and pleasant chewiness that's a perfect match to a pool of slowly melting ice cream.