As I make my way across the South sampling barbecue, I spend a lot of time driving down winding two-lane backroads, for many of our best pit-cookers are found far off the beaten path. One of the great joys of such journeys is rounding a bend and spying the sign for a barbecue restaurant you’ve never heard of and hitting the brakes to give it a try.
I’ve been putting in a lot of miles on Interstate highways, too, especially when I need to make the long haul from one state to another. Just this weekend I was hustling from Nashville up to Owensboro, Kentucky, trying to make it to a couple of mutton joints before their mid-afternoon Sunday closing times. The anticipation was making me down right peckish, and it seemed wise to stop off for a quick chopped pork sandwich to tide me over.
But at each exit I passed, the big blue “Food - Next Exit” sign offered a permutation of logos selected from the same dozen or so fast food franchises, and not a trace of the magic letters “BBQ.” And that got me thinking: how come it’s so hard to stumble upon barbecue restaurants when you’re traveling on the Interstate?
Part of it has to do with how businesses are given a chance to put their logos on those big blue signs, and the deck is somewhat stacked against barbecue. Though rules can vary from state to state, spots are generally offered first to those restaurants close to the exit (within 3 miles). When there are more than six candidates, priority is given to those that are open during breakfast hours and operate at least six days a week—criteria that tend to exclude many barbecue operations.
For those that make the cut, the spots come at a cost of between $1,000 and $1,500 per year. That’s a lot less than billboard advertising but still more of a marketing expense than many shoestring barbecue businesses can spare.
Some classic barbecue joints, like Couch’s in Ooltewah, Tennessee, have made the cut and are actually on those big signs. Others, though, operate in quiet obscurity just a few hundred yards away from thousands of hungry potential customers zipping by on the freeway.
So don't rely on the big blue signs and their colorful logos. Here are five of my go-to barbecue joints that are conveniently located just off an Interstate exit, requiring less than a two mile detour to enjoy plenty of tasty barbecue without holding you up too long from getting to wherever it is you are going.
Got your own Interstate pit-stop favorite? Let us know about it.
Fuller’s Old Fashioned Bar-B-Q I-95 Exit 20 (.25 miles) 3201 N Roberts Ave Lumberton NC (910) 738-8694 www.fullersbbq.com Hours: Mon. - Sat. (11:00 am - 9:00 pm), Sun. (11:00 am - 4:00 pm)
Fuller’s has a huge all-you-can-eat buffet, which includes chopped pork barbecue and a whole lot more—namely, the local Lumbee Indian specialties, like collards and round, flat discs of cornbread.
Couch's Barbecue I-75 Exit 9 (1.5 miles) 8307 Old Lee Highway Ooltewah, TN (423) 238-4801 www.couchsbbq.org Hours: Mon. - Sat. (11:00 am - 8:00 pm)
Get one of Couch’s signature sandwiches, with a warm griddled bun and pork sliced so thin it’s almost shaved. Be sure to opt for hot slaw, too. Finely minced and spicy hot, its recipe is a closely-held family secret.
Heavy’s Bar-B-Q I-20 Exit 148 (1.2 miles) 2288 Sparta Road Southeast Crawfordville GA (706) 456-2445 Hours: Fri. - Sun. (9 am to 9 pm)
Heavy's decor is everything that you could want in an old-school Georgia joint, and the pork sandwiches and Brunswick stew are every bit the match for the setting.
Golden Rule Bar-B-Q and Grill I-20 Exit 133 (.25 miles) 2504 Crestwood Blvd. Irondale, AL (205) 956-2678 www.goldenrulebbq.biz Hours: Mon. - Sat. (10:30 am - 8:30 pm), Sun. (11:00 am - 8:00 pm)
The Golden Rule in Irondale, Alabama, has been serving pork plates and pork sandwiches for over a century. It's now grown into a small chain in and around Birmingham, but the Crestwood location is not only where it all started but also conveniently located just off the I-20 offramp.
Carolina Bar-B-Q I-77 Exit 49B (1.3 miles) 213 Salisbury Road Statesville, NC www.carolinabar-b-q.com Hours: Mon. - Thu. (10:30 am - 8:00 pm), Fri. - Sat. (10:30 am - 9:00 pm)
If you don't have time to make it over to Lexington, the capital of Piedmont-style North Carolina barbecue, you can still get a taste for the iconic style at Carolina Bar-B-Q, which is just off I-77 in downtown Statesville.