Don't know if I mentioned this before, but I pay the bills at my house by being something of a virtual assistant. That means I spend a lot of time at the computer, transcribing doctorspeak into electronic records, or possibly helping someone like my parents create a website for their bed and breakfast. To this end, I travel Interstate 81 between southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee up to 2 times a week. But since my son lives and attends college in Johnson City, this doesn't feel like work because it means we get to have lunch most weeks. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, however, my presence wasn't required in the volunteer state and the boy drove here for the big meal. So today, as I took up the work routine once again, and because it snowed and sleeted on me all the way, I felt a treat was in order.
Whether you're a smoked meat fan or not, I personally think everyone in America should eat at Ridgewood Barbecue at least once in their lives. Tucked up against the side of a mountain in rural Bluff City, with just enough parking for restaurant patrons and staff, Ridgewood is something of a monument to barbecue.
It's been written up in Gourmet magazine (a long time ago, but there's a copy on their wall), and this month was featured in the Travel section of Southern Living. The story of the Proffitt family, who started the business in 1948 and are still there today, can be found on the Southern Food Alliance BBQ Trail oral history, http://www.southernbbqtrail.com/tn/ridgewood_slideshow/ridgewood.shtml.
A stone's throw from Bristol Motor Speedway, on race weekend you can watch to-go orders fly out the door so teams can get their barbecue fix. Plenty of autographed photos of drivers line the walls, along with those of television and music personalities, a testament to Ridgewood's fan base.
But today there were no celebrities, just a determined foodie and her boy, along with a handful of others who braved this blustery first day of Appalachian winter. Arriving a few minutes before the "open" sign came on, I got to enjoy the quiet ping of icy white stuff hitting my windshield (the boy called it Dippin' Dots snow) while the smokehouse chimney puffed away.
Now, before you hear about the menu, a confession: I don't actually order any barbecue. For one thing, the sandwich is huge. See all that juicy, saucy pork goodness? For another, I can usually count on somebody at the table not being able to eat all of theirs.
But most importantly, the side dishes at Ridgewood are so crazy-good that meat almost becomes the "filler." Their baked beans are magically tangy/sweet and warm in their little crocks and rated Southern Living's best side dish mention. They also dominate reviewers' comments on sites like TripAdvisor and Google maps (urbanspoon.com has a copy of the menu). The fries, I'm told, are hand-cut fresh daily into these long spears with the skins left on and cooked the way Lewis Grizzard used to say his mama made them -- crispy golden on the outside while the inside is just this side of done. There's a big house salad that's always surprisingly fresh and while not ordinarily something you'd write home about - and this is where I was hooked - they make their own blue cheese dressing and as near as I can figure, use very large blocks of cheese and punch it up with a shake of cayenne pepper. The lovely servers bring the dressing to your table in its own bowl, and this is where you get lucky. There's enough for the salad AND dipping your fries. Look at those chunks!
If your mouth's not watering yet, check for a pulse. This blue cheese dressing is so renowned that it's earned its own spot on the menu.
And here's some more good news: My son and I split a sandwich and 3 sides for $18 and there's often some left for later when he's studying microbiological stuff.
Needless to say, it's a very satisfying way to celebrate the first snowy December day here in the Blue Ridge.
The Original Ridgewood Barbecue is located just off Highway 19E between Bristol and Johnson City, Tennessee. They're only open for lunch and dinner but if you're in the area, I hear this place serves a gooey bowl of breakfast cheese grits: www.EvergreenTheBellCapozziHouse.com. Also, their website is pretty cool.