Real pit barbecue is isn’t quite endangered, but it’s increasingly rare. Most restaurant pits are modern smokehouses with metal racks and brick walls. Helen’s pit really is a pit: a hole in a barn-like back house behind the small dining area. There is no grill, electricity, or thermometers. It more like a bonfire than a restaurant kitchen. One pit makes charcoal from lumber and the other smokes pork over the charcoal.
Most restaurants wouldn’t dream of doing things this way. It’s a whole lot of work, and it makes the place smell of soot. One look at Helen’s and you can see what rustic pit barbecue does to a place. The walls are stained like the last tooth of a lifetime pack-a-day smoker. The whole place is tinted with a film of smoke.
Helen herself works both the pit and the counter. She’s friendly and modest about her talents, and humble about the exquisite nature of what she’s created. Not only is she one of the true traditional barbecue artists in America; she’s one of few women to master the pit at a top-tier smoked-meat destination.
Are Helen’s efforts and years smoke inhalation worth it? Some might not notice the delicacy created by long, slow smoking. There is no bright pink smoke ring on the ribs, and the pulled pork won’t make your eyes water. At first bite, you simply taste tender, juicy pork. But then gradually its smoke flavor becomes known– a flavor you will taste all day.
Helen’s slaw is just our style, made with fluffy, finely chopped cabbage, more vinegar than mayo. It adds a tart punch to the salty meet and sweet sauce on the sandwiches. Ribs are truly great, some of the best we’ve had, but the pulled pork is even better. It isn’t too smoky or salty, and it isn’t overly studded with bark. It’s a little bit of everything, with a clear pork flavor. The sauce is fairly good, but the meat is everything. We wouldn’t recommend adding sauce any beyond the slather that comes on the sandwiches. Sides are simple and good, with sweet barbecue beans and a zesty potato salad accompanying the meat on plates.
A Tennessee barbecue stop isn’t complete without a bologna sandwich, and Helen makes a mighty fine one. The sugar and char are turned way up on the thick slice of bologna, which is a good thing. The salty processed meat requires some help. All considered, it’s a superb sandwich and one that instantly that converts us to BBQ Bologna lovers.