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Whitts Barbecue

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Folks in north Alabama are probably familiar with Whitt’s.  What I can’t understand is why their reputation hasn’t made it further south.  Central Alabama isn’t that far from Decatur, yet I was surprised to learn that Whitt’s has 20 locations in north Alabama and Tennessee.  To cover that much real estate without more prominent recognition across the state barbecue scene just baffles me.  Granted I didn’t know much about them until I made my official visit, but now I want to tell everybody…this is great barbecue!

Floyd Whitt first sold barbecue in 1966 out of a little set-up in Athens.  He designed the smokers and was the pitmaster.  His first day of business brought in $50.  His worst day brought in $1.60.  He must have been a visionary because he didn’t quit and spent the next two years developing his own technique and flavor.  When his son, Mark, took over, business began booming.  His daughter, Joy, is now the sparkplug that fires the Whitt’s machine.  Recently they shipped two pounds of pulled pork to Alaska and are building a social media and online presence.  Mark is now in charge of talking barbecue and telling stories, but he still has a keen eye on the process.  Four days a week they smoke 750 pounds of meat at the Spring Avenue location.  I wonder how much of that I could eat at once.

It's important to know that North Alabama does barbecue sandwiches a little differently.  It’s well known and sworn by that a sandwich must be topped with slaw.  I’m not sure where the geographic cut-off line is where this mode of thinking stops, but it doesn’t extend to Birmingham.  It may not even reach Cullman.  Having been raised just south of Birmingham, I wasn’t down with the slaw idea.  Then I had it by surprise at a couple different joints.  Then I went to Whitt’s and had it intentionally.  Now I know why folks love it and claim it’s the best pork sandwich in the state.

Whitt’s pulled pork is some of the juiciest I’ve found.  Before hitting the smoker, the shoulders are covered in Whitt’s spicy vinegar sauce, then get another dousing with their mild sauce midway through cooking.  This produces tender, smokey bites that are moist and flavorful.  The recommended way to enjoy it is on a roll with slaw and a little mayo.  That bite gives hits every sensation, hot, cool, crunchy, soft, creamy, sweet, acidic.  It’s where all good things come together.

The collection of sauces at Whitt’s is really unique, all of which are homemade.  There’s a red sauce that’s thick and sweet, a vinegar sauce that is mild and subtle, a thin white sauce that has a bite of vinegar without being sharp, and a hot vinegar sauce that is butter based and firey.  Be warned, when they say hot, this sauce is hot.  But it’s also flavorful, thoughtfully constructed with layers of spices to make it the best hot sauce I’ve ever had.

Everything we tried was beautifully seasoned and simple in preparation.  There’s nothing exotic coming from this kitchen, no mashups or funky twists on tradition, just tasty favorites that you’ll recognize and savor.  The ribs are pull-off-the-bone tender with a good chew.  The baked beans are sweet, rich and peppery.  Potato salad is made with firm russets generously covered in mayo, mustard and relish with a little celery for crunch.  There’s Brunswick stew, which is everything good about barbecue.  Then there’s the cold corn salad.  It’s a mix of plump corn kernels, tomatoes and peppers.  It’s a cool, refreshing bite that pops in your mouth and provides a reset from the fatty richness in most of the menu.

There’s so much more to Whitt’s.  Smoked turkey and chicken, mac n cheese, wings, potato wedges, cornbread, cookies and banana pudding.  Plus there’s a whiz kid Whitt named Silas, who posts Facebook videos of his own culinary creations that use ingredients purchased at Whitt’s.  The day we visited, he was working on a berry cobbler using their cookies as the crust.  Looks like the family business is in good hands!

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