Monday, September 8, 2008

Burgers, Fries, and All the News

While we were traveling around southwestern Virginia, I thought that the jam sessions were the “news center” of the community. It was the place where both performers and listeners passed around news about the health and activities of other members of the community.

In northeastern Tennessee, I think the local eateries serve this function. Examples of the sources of “the latest” are the Tipton Café in Greeneville and The Original Ridgewood Barbecue in Bluff City.

Tipton’s Café has been around for decades. Small--four chairs at two tables and thirteen stools at the counter--this is the kind of place where locals have been eating for years and consider the owners and staff as friends or family.

While we were waiting for our food and watching The Price is Right on the TV atop a refrigerator, one patron asked the owner’s daughter if her mother had heard about “Joe” who had been diagnosed with cancer and had three months to live. Suddenly, all of the patrons (who all seemed to know “Joe”) joined in the conversation.

These are people who have grown up eating Tipton’s hamburgers and consider these unique burgers to be the standard. What makes them unique? During World War II, when the restaurant was known as Linton’s, the owner stretched the meat and kept costs down by adding bread. It is this tradition that the current owners have maintained. This results in a very moist tasty sandwich with the bread retaining all of the meat juices. But it results in a burger that has a softer texture that I can only compare to meatballs and that probably can’t be fully appreciated on one visit.

We’re not going to assign a rating--that would be unfair to the restaurant’s heritage and the sense of home that the patrons feel for the restaurant, its owners, and staff.

So there I am, sitting in my chair at Ruby’s United Hair Designers, and I ask “Where do y’all go here for good barbecue?” In one voice, a chorus responds "Ridgewood Barbecue--they have the best barbecue and their beans are great and so is their cole slaw."

So we had to take ourselves off to Ridgewood for their barbecue pork sandwich. Getting to Bluff City was no easy feat. Ms. Tom Tom, our friendly GPS road guide, decided to have a nervous breakdown and couldn’t figure out where we were and where we wanted to go. After a few false turns, she finally got us on the right road and when we arrived shortly after twelve noon, the parking lot in front was packed with cars.

Now, Ridgewood’s barbecue deviates from the norm in a number of ways. First, they use hams and not shoulders. Second, the meat is sliced instead of pulled or chopped. Third, the smoked sliced meat is heated on a flat top and sauced before being placed on a mega bun. We decided to order one pork barbecue sandwich, one beef (also sliced) barbecue sandwich, an order of hand-cut fries, cole slaw, and baked beans. Because I want to sauce my own meat, we asked that both sandwiches be served without the sauce, and we used the squirt bottle placed on the table.

Both the cole slaw and beans lived up to their advance billing. The slaw was of the chopped variety, of course, but was coated with a light and slightly sweet dressing. The beans were the perfect blend of sweet and tomato. The fries on the other hand, while they had good potato flavor, definitely lacked the crispness one expects from twice fried potatoes and can best be described as flabby.

I can’t say why, but I was not fond of Ridgewood’s house barbecue sauce, so it was good that we ordered the sandwiches plain so that we could add sauce in moderation. Of the two sandwiches, the beef beat the pork. The beef was juicy and had a good smoked flavor. To me, the pork barbecue was dry, but that could be a function of our asking for it unsauced.

Our assessment of Ridgewood Barbecue is very good but not great. I don’t forgive flabby fries so have given this restaurant 4.0 Addies. Our next Addie post will talk about a barbecue restaurant in Kingsport that comes close to greatness.

Note: One of my non-restaurant food finds has been Duke’s mayonnaise. Other than the fact that it contains no sugar, I am not sure how it differs from the two better known national brands. But after the first batch of egg salad that I made using Duke’s, I was hooked. It is great mixed with mashed chipotle peppers for spreading on a BLT, great in ham, chicken, or egg salad, and this weekend I used the recipe on the back of the bottle for Duke’s Mac and Cheese. Decadent!!

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