At last, my trip had brought me to Montgomery, and it was time to start heading home. I had decided to go north via US-231, which connects Alabama’s capital with the towns of Oxford and Anniston at I-20, and from there it would be just an hour and a bit home. Now, it’s with this last leg that I really do feel the need to kick myself. Back in part four of this story, I explained that it simply did not occur to me that the sun was going to go down and I would be driving part of this journey at night. Somewhere in Anniston, I am aware that there’s a barbecue joint called Goal Post that has one of the most amazing neon signs of them all. It’s a wonderful, animated thing that has a “football” travel along wires from the roadside sign to the restaurant. (There’s a pretty lousy twelve-second clip of it on YouTube. Hey, look at that. It’s next door to a Jack’s! I told you those things are all over northern Alabama.) I have said that I want to see that darn sign at night, and it just flat out did not occur to me to get directions and go see it as the last stop of the tour. I really am a numbskull.
At any rate, I did have three last stops on the tour planned. The first of these was Hog Rock BBQ in Wetumpka, a little suburb just north of Montgomery. Now, I’m always happy to learn more about the history of restaurants, and it is almost always a dead cert that I will find the restaurant’s staff happy to answer questions and share stories. Hog Rock was no help at all.
The two servers with whom I spoke were certainly very good at the “serving food to guests” part of their jobs, but they did not know a blessed thing about Hog Rock’s history. I read, from their T-shirts, that there is another location in Phenix City. Neither of them knew which of the two was the original. The interior of the building, which is covered in old Pepsi advertising, is very old-fashioned, and features a lovely old diner counter that curves in a great arc around the cash register. Do you remember the Double R Diner in Twin Peaks? The counter is like that. Neither of the ladies could tell me what restaurant had been in this space before Hog Rock.
I was disappointed by the staff’s lack of a sense of history, but the food here is nevertheless really good. The chopped pork is smoky, moist and really tender, certainly in the upper tier of the meals that I sampled on the trip. I had it with the hot sauce, which is sticky and brown and had a terrific kick to it. I asked whether they cut their own fries here. They don’t, but my server bragged about their onion rings, which she said were really delicious. I decided to go with slaw again instead. It was served atop lettuce, which I thought was a nice touch. Hog Rock, like Real Pit a few hours earlier, has stew on the menu, and, likewise, calls it camp stew. I’m not sure why I wanted to go with slaw over it, but everything was just fine.
This was a good place, and I am glad that I selected it. Despite not having the conversation that I was looking for, I certainly had some fine barbecue. I could not linger, however. I was ahead of schedule, but I also learned the hard way the previous day about how the early sunset impacts things, so I got on the road. As US-231 leaves Wetumpka, it winds drivers through some really gorgeous country. I’m not kidding; the road has some surprising gentle hills and curves through wonderfully neat trees and meadows. I bet this looks amazing in the fall.
I was bound for the town of Sylacauga and a restaurant called Slick & Slim’s a couple of miles outside town. Now, I phoned this place in December to confirm they were still in business and how late they stayed open. In between that call and today, they either closed or moved. I found the mailbox all right, and a house that looked like it had been converted to a business ages ago and abandoned. I stopped at a gas station for a quick fill-up and a pit stop and asked about it, and the girl had never heard of it. I pressed on through Sylacauga, which has a fabulous old downtown business district and just glows with a sense of “stop here, buy a house and retire.” You know those small towns that just have that vibe? This is one. I’m sure that driving through as the sun went down, gorgeously, filling the sky with reds and blues, helped.
By now, I was even further ahead of schedule, which was nice, as I was starting to get a little keen to get home and see Marie and the children. I had one last stop on the schedule, and that was a place called Miller’s in the town of Talladega. This is a name that most people in the south have heard, as it is about twenty miles south of an astonishingly huge NASCAR speedway by that name that sits smiling at I-20 between Oxford and Birmingham. Talladega’s downtown appears to be quite surprisingly vibrant and full of late-night restaurants and bars, and the commercial strip just north of downtown a traffic-jammed mess of red lights and people making the rounds of the national chains. I saw all that a little later, because Miller’s is just south of the action.
We don’t make political endorsements here at the blog, but this post is going up on Monday the 12th, and it would be churlish of me to not mention that the restaurant’s owner, Donnie Miller, currently the ward 3 representative on Talladega’s city council, is standing for a circuit court election tomorrow. If you’re in Talladega County, go and exercise your right to vote. Thank you.
Donnie himself wasn’t at work Saturday night, leaving the place in the capable hands of three staffers. It was a quiet evening, and so slow that the activity and traffic that I would see as I got up the road where the action was surprised me. Perhaps that’s why this location has seen several places come and go. Apparently, the building was erected in the 1960s as one of those kinda-like-a-Dairy-Queen places that I enjoy so much (like Mrs. Story’s, Dari Spot or Jiffy Freeze) before a barbecue place called Old Hickory moved in. For about fifteen years, starting in 1990, it was the home of Campbell’s BBQ. That business moved north to where all the business was before Miller got started in 2006.
Like a lot of barbecue places, this is every bit a family restaurant with some other choices like burgers. Miller’s has a gigantic one called a “barnburner,” and I was surprised to see that they offer three entirely different types of fries for whatever taste: steak, crinkle or spicy. It was good pork, Boston butt over hickory, and served with either hot or mild brown sauce.
It’s all outdoor seating on old picnic tables here, and it was a darn fine night to enjoy a last meal before heading home. This was a very warm winter, with just a hint of chill in the breeze. I spotted three more barbecue restaurants on my way back to I-20, one of them the relocated Campbell’s, and had ample money in my pocket since I stayed under budget and didn’t get to stop south of Sylacauga after all, but I missed my family and I was full, and while it wasn’t a knockout, Miller’s was a fine way to cap the trip. I sure do wish I had thought to go find Goal Post before I left Alabama, though.
So that wraps up my initial circumnavigation. As I said back in part one, it was nowhere close to being as comprehensive as it could have been, as I missed out on southeast Alabama almost entirely. I think that the state is criminally neglected by barbecue fans, bloggers and writers, and I encourage all my peers to consider spending a little time here. Quite apart from the state’s well-known destination dining – Dreamland, Gibson’s, Brick Pit – there is the eastern central scene with its thin mustard sauce and chipped meat, or Birmingham’s successful launch of at least three well-known regional chains – Jim & Nick’s, Golden Rule and Full Moon – or just digging in to all the places in Talladega and Calhoun Counties, as there seem to be a couple of dozen. And of course, there is Huntsville and a couple of places just east of there, but more about that in these pages in about two weeks.
On that note, it would be entirely possible to just follow the course that I took and get an incredibly good sampling from the places that I did not stop. I visited twelve barbecue joints over two days, but here are an additional sixteen places that I saw as I drove past, and which at least appeared to still be in business, plus one drive-in that I included on the list because I love drive-ins. Also, you could plan to visit Rogers in Thomasville or Back Porch in Jackson, each of which I hoped to visit but did not.
Wallace Hickory House, near Rockmart GA
Al & Mick’s, Snead AL (3rd Degree Berns has been here)
Seymore’s BBQ, Winston County AL (possibly closed?)
Smith’s BBQ, Addison AL
Pork & Beans Bar-B-Q, Double Springs AL
Hamilton Drive-In, Hamilton AL
Sam’s Smokehouse, Fayette AL
Bama BBQ, Tuscaloosa AL
Outlaw’s BBQ, Thomasville AL
Bar-B-Quing With My Honey, Mt Vernon AL
Hall’s BBQ, Castleberry AL
Bradshaw’s BBQ, Wetumpka AL
Smokin’ S BBQ, Wetumpka AL
Buddy’s BBQ, Talladega AL
Campbell’s BBQ, Talladega AL
Big Daddy’s BBQ, Monford AL
S’More BBQ, Douglasville GA
One final note: I stopped at the Georgia welcome center to stretch my legs and looked over a tourist-encouraging sign about some river festival in Augusta. As I arched my spine with my hands clenched into fists, I saw that it was off exit 190.
All that I could think was, “Heck, that’s only three hours from here.”