St. Louis begat dry rub pork ribs, Texas begat barbecue beef brisket and tomato-based sauce, South Carolina begat pulled pork with a sweetish, mustard-based sauce, North Carolina begat pulled pork with a vinegar-based sauce.
And Knoxville? Where barbecue is concerned, we've done no begetting.
"Usually, everybody that follows barbecue is a purist, and has to have their particular kind," says John Antun, the founding Director of the Culinary Institute at the University of Tennessee who moved here from Columbia, S.C., in 2005. "But Knoxville is a town of disparate populations; because of UT and TVA and Oak Ridge National Laboratories, we come from all over. Consequently, the barbecue that has sprung up is much more varied—we brought it with us. We have no real barbecue identity."
Even Knoxville's own Buddy's Bar-B-Q, established in 1972 and now including 13 company-owned stores and four franchises, has a sauce mash-up. "When my parents [Buddy and LaMuriel Smothers] opened their first restaurant on Kingston Pike, they wanted to give Knoxville the sauce they wanted," says daughter and current marketing director Suzanne Lindsey. "They did several and people got to say which one they liked the best. The result has been described as tomato-based, and it is, but it has brown sugar, and a little tartness, and vinegar, and mustard. It's got a little bit of heat but it's not too hot, because we offer Texas Pete on the side."
Then there's Calhoun's, which won the title of "Best Ribs in America" at the prestigious National Rib Cook-Off in 1984, just a year after opening its two-story barn on Kingston Pike near Pellissippi. It has since expanded to nine locations, including two in Nashville and one in Lenoir City. But while the restaurant is on the culinary map, Knoxville itself remains an anonymous collection of barbecue lovers, rib eaters, "if you smoke it they will come" types—without a barbecue style to call their own.
But we're fans, worshippers almost. And our interest in hefty barbecue plates, messy racks of ribs, and smoked whatever, tofu to turkey, is not just holding strong, it's growing. Proof positive: Humble East Knoxville establishments such as Dixson's are going strong, with Chandler's Deli celebrating its 10th anniversary this month and Scruggs' Real Pit Bar-B-Que serving up ribs and pulled pork and special sauce from recipes that have changed very little since it opened some 35 years ago. "The only difference is I don't sell as many ribs as I used to," says Scruggs' owner John Roberts. "I'm selling more pulled pork, which is a little less expensive; the economy is dictating what we sell."
At least five new places have joined the fray in the past year, including entrants from wunderkind Knoxville chef Bruce Bogartz (RouXbarbeque in Rocky Hill) and the Dead End BBQ competitive team (the self-named restaurant on Sutherland Avenue).
Then there are the new festivals and competitions, like the 1st annual Pork Knox Q-Fest held at the World's Fair Park in late April and/or the 2nd Annual Bloomin' Bluegrass and BBQ Festival held this past weekend in Sevierville.
From the vantage of 27 years in business, Calhoun's has seen other barbecue places come and go. "We think highly of our competition, and in Knoxville, pulled pork and barbecue ribs only get more popular as time goes on," says Barry Frick, Chief Operating Officer for the restaurant group. "Barbecue is a romantic food, people put a lot of care into it. It also mirrors the tradition of the area where we live, where families get together and cook things outside. That's just what we do around here, and we love it."
John Roberts, Scruggs' Real Pit Bar-B-Que
Here's how long ago John Roberts and Guy Scruggs began Scruggs' Real Pit Bar-B-Que. When Roberts' sister, Mary Cook, the third partner, couldn't see eye to eye with her brother, she called him a "male chauvinist pig" before quitting. They both laugh about it now, as if it were a spat from last week, not 1974. "When we began, there were only three places cooking what I call ‘Afro American' ribs," says Roberts, a decidedly Caucasian retired schoolteacher from Vine Middle School who owns a farm in Union County and a liquor store, Little John's, that's right next to Scruggs' on Magnolia. "Brother Jack had a place on University Avenue, there was myself and my partner, a black man named Guy Scruggs, and Celeste on Chestnut. She might cook a box or two of ribs, but she was very independent. She didn't care if she sold you a rib or not, but they were so good people would stand in line to get them."
Back then, they started a barbecue joint because "we wanted to do something different," says Roberts. They soaked, pit-smoked, dry-rubbed, chilled, cut, and then baked barbecued ribs, in that order, the same way Roberts and pit boss Clarence Easterly do two or three times a week nowadays, 35 years later. They barbecued pulled pork, and poured their hearts into creating a sauce. But it wasn't a recognizable type. "Hon, I don't know what style the sauce is, it's a combination of all of them and has some catsup," says Roberts. "Ambrose Kirk, a real close friend who taught school with me for 30 years at Vine, his mother came up from Mississippi and taught us how to make the sauce; then she stayed and helped us open up."
Guy Scruggs died in a boating accident in the late '70s; Roberts bought his estate and kept the name.
In the old days, Roberts was teaching at Vine Middle School and managers mostly ran the restaurant, with his wife, Virginia, coming in on weekends. Today she works more shifts, and daughter Janet Morgan "runs all of it," says Roberts. "I spend time here, but I don't do a lot of work. Mostly I just get in the way."
Chris Ford, Sweet P's BBQ
While Chris Ford was traveling with the rock band Grand Torino, he didn't realize he was also creating a back-up plan for his post-rock career. "When the band was on tour, I spent a lot of time at divey, off-the-beaten-path barbecue joints, dives, bars, soul food places—some were all of the above. I was eating great stuff, exposed to all sorts of good barbecue." Back home, starting in 1996 at age 23, Ford started cooking barbecue for the band. "I was not much of an adult," he says. "We had a bunch of us, we were really poor and all lived together. We bought a smoker and started cooking barbecue, like pork butt. It's a really cheap way to feed people."
When the music stuff ended, Ford discovered he had a plan B already established. "I had been a line cook at the Old College Inn during college [studying communications at UT] and at that point, I really didn't want to work for anybody; I'd never held a job. I had a lot of friends in the pharmaceutical business, so I started catering business lunches, cooking barbecue, of course."
Ford's specialties are chopped pork smoked for half a day in a pit smoker of mixed hardwoods, dry-rubbed St. Louis style pork ribs, beef brisket, and pulled chicken.
His restaurant, opened at the Willow Point Marina about a year ago, introduced a new item, the barbecued burrito, a tortilla wrapped around pulled pork or chicken with beans, slaw, and barbecue sauce stuffed in. "My cousin and business partner, Jonathan Ford, that was kind of his idea," says Ford. "When we were trying to put the restaurant menu together, we'd seen a lot of different uses of barbecue, like barbecue nachos, and wanted to do something different."
Ford's amused by the swell of barbecue places in Knoxville. "When I started five years ago, there was not a lot of barbecue in town—it was sort of dominated by Calhoun's and Buddy's, which each had their own niche, All-American food and fast-food barbecue. I wanted to start a more old-school place with soul food sides. Now it seems like everyone has the same idea."
But that's cool. "In the South, we love our barbecue. Even with all the new restaurants, I think we can support them all."
Bruce Bogartz, RouXbarbeque
Bruce Bogartz, a 1989 graduate of the Philadelphia Culinary School, can remember being interviewed by the Atlanta Journal Constitution upon his return to Knoxville some 12 years ago to super-charge a succession of restaurants. The question: If you had one meal left, what would it be? His answer: pulled pork and banana pudding. "I've been interested in barbecue for like a million years," he says. Yet, the upscale RouXbarbeque in Rocky Hill is his first extensive foray into sharing barbecue with the denizens of Knoxville. With his typical creative approach, he's got tried-and-true pulled pork and beef brisket on the menu, but also such signatures as lamb ribs, barbecue tofu, and eggplant, all receiving at least a touch of hickory smoking.
This is also Bogartz' chance to show off some sauce. "If it had to line up anywhere, it's sort of North Carolina, vinegar-based, but maybe a little heavier on the catsup," he says. Knoxville likes it, that's for sure. "We're going through 75-80 gallons a week already." He's also got an inspirational hot sauce—habaneros, serranos, and jalapenos boiled in vinegar with tomatoes then pureed—that he mixes with the barbecue sauce base for a hot barbecue sauce.
Bogartz isn't turning his back on his long-standing love affair with fine dining. "I like high-brow, sure," he says. "But my romantic notion of the food experience would definitely be barbecue. It's finicky, it's challenging. I don't think people realize the work involved. But nothing has heart and soul like barbecue."
Knoxville BBQ barons spice up the barbecue menu with these five creations:
Smoke House Wings—Dead End BBQ
Here to expand on our city's already advanced fascination with fried or baked hot wings are these smoky, spicy tempters. The award-winning competitive Dead End BBQ team seasons the wings with Dead End Rub, smokes 'em for two hours, then broils them, and trots them out with ranch or blue cheese. Right now, the wings are available naked or tossed with sauces of varying degrees of heat: Buffalo style, chipotle hot sauce, or "crazy hot" habanero. By the end of May, Dead End will also have a spicy barbecue version available.
Never one to slight vegetarians even with his poshest cuisine, chef Bruce Bogartz is lavishing barbecue taste on all manner of veggies at his newest enterprise, RouXbarbeque in Rocky Hill. Like the meats, vegetables such as eggplant, yellow squash, and zucchini are dry rubbed with a signature rub, hickory smoked, then finished in a wood-burning grill. Some of that eggplant lands in Smoked Eggplant with Pimiento Cheese and Roasted Pepper sandwiches; the vegetables and tofu make their way onto barbecue plates and into Chopped BBQ salads. "As harvest time comes for other vegetables, we will work those in," says Bogartz. "Anything that will stand up to the grill I would certainly barbecue—these vegetables are firm when they're done, not soft and mushy."
Smoked Bologna Sandwiches—Buddy's Bar-B-Q
Suzanne Lindsey, the only daughter of Buddy's founder Buddy Smothers, remembers eating fried bologna sandwiches as a child. But the barbecue bologna sandwiches that have been available at Buddy's the past few months are different—and the same. "When my husband was like, ‘We're going to try bologna,' I was like, ‘Seriously?'" says Lindsey, who is also Buddy's director of marketing. "But it's a comfort food people remember from growing up. And adding the smoking—everything smoked is good, it gives the bologna flavor to die for." Buddy's had noticed other barbecue places online entering the BBQ bologna arena, and tried the concept at the Kingston store. The meat is smoked in pits, then sliced thin and grilled. "Just enough to brown the edges," says Lindsey. "We put it on a bun with a choice of toppings, but most want American cheese, mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato. When we expanded it to the other stores, it started outselling our smoked turkey and smoked ham sandwiches, and I knew it was a menu item here to stay."
Barbecued Meatloaf—Sweet P's BBQ
Chris Ford of Sweet P's lays no claim to inventing barbecued meatloaf, but he does feel like he's perfected this version, which is the Thursday special. "There is this place in Harlem, Amy's, and I got the meatloaf recipe from them, although they actually use cabbage in theirs and I don't. I bought a square pan at Walmart, put some holes in it so it could take up the smoke, and we started putting the meatloaf in the smoker for two hours." He mixes ground pork and beef and country sausage for the meatloaf. "Then we put a lot of love in," says Ford. "I roast the garlic and onions and peppers—green and red—and it does have our Sparky Sauce, the thick sauce we use." When it's cooked/smoked, Ford finishes his creation with a glaze made of ketchup and chipotle puree.
Smoked Salmon—Brickyard Bar-B-Que
Jeffrey Baernes has been smoking salmon for Brickyard Bar-B-Que in Powell since its opening in 2008, and making it for himself a lot longer than that. He cooks it in a smoker he's had for years, chills it thoroughly, and then sells it at the restaurant on "Q" plates with choice of two sides, atop salads, or by the pound. On his own time, he likes to make smoked salmon salad, chopping it up with peppers and onions and mixing it into cream cheese. Another favorite: salmon-salad-stuffed jalapenos. "I stuff whole jalapenos with the salmon salad and hot pepper cheese, wrap them in bacon and then grill or bake. They're not cheap, but they're excellent."
See our soon-to-be outdated guide to Knoxville barbecue joints here.