Helen’s Bar-B-Q in Brownsville, TN

Posted by on June 1, 2015

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Helen's Been Working Her Pit for Years

Helen’s Been Working Her Pits for Years

The search for real-pit barbecue has led an ever-increasing number of enthusiasts to travel, write, and produce vlogs (video blogs) on the subject, all in an effort to attain some perfect formula. In search of that bbq gold, Helen’s Bar-B-Q should not be overlooked. Helen is a barbecue artisan. She’s been honing her fiery craft for many years. In fact, I dare say that this lady’s smokin’ many of the “big league” bbq restaurants in the Memphis tri-state area when it comes to smoked meats. At Helen’s Bar-B-Q in Brownsville, TN, you won’t find smokers that look like refrigerators, or pits that plug into the wall. There are no temperature gauges, probes or electrical wires-just a really old school, dry-stacked cinderblock pit covered with a simple steel lid. This is the heart and soul of authentic southern barbecue. And truth be told, many of the “big-leaguers” could learn a thing or two from Helen. Now here’s how her setup works. In her pit-house out back, she burns whole logs down to coals in one pit (essentially a fireplace), then shovels those coals into the other pit, where she smokes the meat. Simple, but this bbq treasure chest transforms a tough piece of meat into smoky, tender, barbecue bounty. Helen has yet another pit in the kitchen, where she keeps said bbq treasure warm for service. The smoky aroma of that meat dripping over wood coals was alluring and before I knew it, I asked her if I could move into her pit-house. “I’ll just place a cot right by the pit, if that’s OK.” My request earned a smile. “Move right on in!” she chuckled.

A Simple Cinder Block Pit Smokes Some of the Best Barbecue Anywhere

A Simple Cinder Block Pit Smokes Some of the Best Barbecue Anywhere

Helen was kind enough to give me a sample of her pork shoulder, which was juicy, tender and perfectly smoky. As delectable as it was, I was in the mood for ribs, so I opted for the rib sandwich. It had all the same elements of bbq perfection that I experienced in her smoked pork shoulder, plus a beautiful, crusty bark. Here’s how I enjoy a bbq rib sandwich-eat two bones, then pull the meat from the other two bones and enjoy a bbq rib sandwich with the rib meat, sauce and slaw.

Only about 45 minutes outside of Memphis city limits on the way to Nashville, Helen’s Bar-B-Q treasure is worth a leisurely early afternoon drive.

Helen's BBQ Rib Sandwich

Helen’s BBQ Rib Sandwich

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  • The ribs were both tender AND juicy. Not every pit-master achieves this proper balance. No dry meat here.
  • The shoulder was, just as the ribs, both tender and juicy. I barely squeezed the pork shoulder and juices dripped everywhere.


  • The ribs had a perfectly balanced and natural wood-coal smoky flavor. No electric smoker there.
  • The shoulder also had a perfectly balanced wood-smoke flavor for my taste.

Bark-The shoulder and ribs had nice bark. The bark on the ribs offered slight resistant chew-just like I like it. Tender meat inside, crusty bark with slight chew outside. It’s all about the contrast in textures.

Sauce-The sauce was a standard sweet-n-tangy. It’s not uncommon in the south for small bbq joints to use store bought sauces, sometimes doctored up a little. I believe I saw some bottled sauce in the kitchen at Helen’s Bar-B-Q. Just remember that the essence of true southern barbecue is the smoked meat. Sauces and seasonings are just condiments.

Slaw-The slaw was a tasty mayonnaise-based slaw, which complimented the pork well.

Thanks for visiting my Memphis bbq blog! Tim Shirley

Helen's BBQ with Her Pit-House Out Back

Helen’s BBQ with Her Pit-House Out Back

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3 Responses to Helen’s Bar-B-Q in Brownsville, TN

  1. Marti Robertson

    Would love for you to include Bigg Butts Bbq in your review. They are located 70 miles from Memphis in a small town called Leachville Arkansas . They are family owned and operated famous for pork steaks, ribs and homemade southern dishes including fried chicken, fried fish and frog legs. We are located in a small town of about 1600 people but we pull from 4 states weekly. They have been featured in Southern Living and Arkansas lLiving and Delta Magazines just to name a few. Come to Leachville and check out the best kept secret in Northeast Arkansas, a Bigg Butts Bbq restaurant and catering.

    • Tim Shirley

      I’d love to Marti. I took a bbq tour of Blythevile, AR last summer. Wish I’d known back then. I’ll definitely keep you guys on my radar. By the way, apologies for taking so long to respond. For some reason my comment notifications are not working properly.

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