On Saturday, July 23, my brother and nephew from Hong Kong accompanied me to Helen’s Bar-B-Que for lunch in Brownsville, Tennessee at my urging. Helen Turner began smoking pork barbecue 20 years ago. I learned about her a few months ago from a short documentary produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance after she received a Keeper of the Flame award in 2012. Ms. Turner is only the second female pitmaster I know about in the Mid-South after Ms. Payne on Lamar Avenue in Memphis.
We arrived to Helen’s around 1 pm and found Ms. Turner in the dining room talking with customers. Local and out-of-town diners treated her with a palpable awe and reverence. Most local customers ordered food to go. Seating is limited to two 4-top tables inside and two wooden picnic tables outside. We observed a few folks who drove from Memphis for lunch like us. We ordered lots of food to share: 2 pulled pork sandwiches with slaw and sauce (one with mild and the other with hot sauce), a rib sandwich with hot sauce, and a barbecue polish sausage sandwich with mild sauce and slaw, and a rib plate. We also tried Helen’s potato salad and baked beans.
The rib sandwich comes with 3-4 ribs. The smoked meat on the sandwich falls easily from the bone, but requires some effort to chew around the bone. I recommend asking the kitchen to bone the ribs for this sandwich for easier consumption. ⭐️⭐️⭐️
The pork sandwich pulled from the shoulder is the star of the menu. Ms. Turner smokes her pork shoulder without a rub over an open pit over the course of a day with coals fired from hickory and oak wood. Her approach is uncomplicated and simple, but labor intensive —especially in the heat of July. The slow-cooked meat teems with flavor from wood smoke and caramelized fat. We loved the spicy tanginess of the the mild and hot sauce. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2
We couldn’t eat all the food we ordered and shared with the exception of the juicy smoked sausage in a hot dog bun with spicy sauce and slaw. We passed the sausage around until none remained. I was so excited, I forgot to get a photo. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Helen’s Bar-B-Que serves potato salad warm and mashed with chopped green onions and hard-boiled egg – a change of pace from the cool, chunky potatoes you usually find. I usually don’t like them because they are often too sweet, but we all loved the baked beans which were spicy with only a hint of sugar. I could be wrong (and didn’t think to ask), but I think the beans were fresh – not from the can.
The food certainly draws customers to Helen’s Bar-B-Que, but the owner and pitmaster makes your visit feel special. When in her presence, you witness a woman who loves and excels at what she does. She serves her barbecue with warmth, generosity and hospitality, and her customers love her for it.
After lunch, Trey and I told Ms. Turner that my nephew Patrick traveled all the way from Hong Kong to visit. She invited us to see the pit where she smokes her barbecue. Ms. Turner gave us on a tour to the shack attached to the front building where in her warm smokey voice, she told us she smokes 10-12 pork shoulders a day. Black soot from 20 years of smoked barbecue covers the walls inside and outside the shack. She showed us the pit where she builds her wood fire each day and the separate open pit where she transfers the burning embers to smoke the meat. This simple setup is unlike any I’ve seen in Memphis, probably because of safety and code regulations. She graciously agreed to a photo with Trey and Patrick. When we finished the tour, she asked us to leave a message and sign the book she keeps of visitors who travel from outside Brownsville to her barbeque pit. Ms. Turner told Patrick that she would come to Hong Kong when he opened his barbecue pit. I believe she would.
Learn more about Helen Turner in this short film from the Southern Foodways Alliance. You’ll understand why she is a reigning Queen of barbecue.
Helen’s Bar-B Que
1016 N Washington Ave
Brownsville, TN 38012
11 AM to 7 PM, Monday -Friday
11 AM to 5 PM, Saturday
Closed on Sunday
HELEN’S BAR-B-QUE from Southern Foodways on Vimeo.
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