Tipton County Tennessee Pit Barbecue
Uptown: 5538 Magazine
Barbecue is a rapidly-growing restaurant category in New Orleans these days. I count thirty-one barbecue specialists around town as of this morning. And that’s doesn’t include the pop-ups.
It was not always thus. The New Orleans Eat Book–my 1991 restaurant guide–lists only two real barbecue joints. One was the long-running Harold’s Texas Barbecue. The other was Tipton County Tennessee Pit Barbecue.
In that time, Orleanians neither knew or cared much about barbecue. The few places that sold it other than the two above were coating meat with barbecue sauce and baking it. Period. If there’s a universally-accepted requirement for real barbecue it’s smoke. And not the bottled kind.
Tipton County smoked its meats convincingly. Slowly. With an emphasis on pork. As its name averred, the place purveyed the Memphis style of barbecue. That was something new to most local palates.
The two distinctive qualities of Memphis barbecue are pulled pork shoulder and pork ribs served not with sauce, but with a dry rub. The pulled pork had to be cooked long enough and with sifficient clouds of steam than the meat could be pulled off the bone in shreds. Sliced or (worse) chopped pork is anathema in Memphis. The dry style of ribs was less insistent. Most people try a rib or two with just the dry rub, but then they reach for the sauce.
Tipton County added one more unfamiliar player to their tables: a vinegar-based barbecue sauce. This was nothing like the barbecue sauce New Orleans people knew. It was sloshy, for on thing, lacking the ketchup-like thickness of the familiar bottled sauces.
The owners went out on a hickory limb with that idea. Even calling it Memphis style was a stretch, since vinegar-based barbecue sauces are more common in the eastern part of the state into the Carolinas. (Tipton the county is in extreme western Tennessee, just north of Memphis, right on the Mississippi River.) You’d dash it on the meat at the table from an oil-and-vinegar cruet, more as a condiment than as a sauce. It was a turn-off for some people.
But I never heard a discouraging word about the ribs. They were smallish spare ribs of pork–bigger and meatier than baby backs, but smaller and tastier than those gigantic hog ribs frequently seen hereabouts. They were smoked in a standing position, so that the fat basted the lean and then dripped off. Very little fat remained when the ribs come to the table. This gave the meat has taken on a fantastic smokiness and a perfect slight chewiness.
The beef brisket was decent, but took a back seat to the pulled pork and ribs. Side dishes ranged from pretty good (onion rings and fresh-cut fries, the latter far ahead of their times) to excellent (beans and cole slaw).
And then there was the potato salad. It was extravagantly delicious, and when I brought a television crew from Channel Eight to do a piece on Tipton County, I saw why. The chef demonstrated that the best way to combine the ingredients was to reach into the bowl of still-warm potato chunks, mayonnaise, green onions, mustard, etc. and to start squinching it all with your hands. The chef had particularly dark skin, and the contrast with the white potato salad as it squeezed past his fingers was almost alarming on the close-up.
Tipton County even had an offbeat dessert: chess pie. That’s something like a pecan pie without the pecans, and very good.
The building was cool. It was the former Friendly House, whose distinctive stucco building with its big round windows served bus and streetcar drivers from the old Arabella Station (now the Whole Food Market) across the street.
Not long after Tipton County opened, Corky’s–another Memphis operation–opened in Metairie. Neither place would prove to be a trendsetter; it would be over a decade before serious barbecue began smoldering widely around town. Tipton County itself didn’t last past 1994. It was followed in its space by Vizard’s and a string of other restaurants up to the current occupant, Slice Pizzeria.
Finally, the restaurant had the longest official name of any restaurant about which I wrote a review. I remember having to fool around with it to make it fit on one line.
This is one of more than a hundred recollections of memorable restaurants dat ain’t dere no mo’ (to use my musician friend Benny Grunch’s famous line). Links to all of them can be found here. Peggy Scott Laborde and I put a lot of these together in a heavily-illustrated book called The Lost Restaurants of New Orleans, published by Pelican and available at bookstores everywhere. Great Christmas gift!