Alabama pit stops: 5 of the best gas station barbecue joints
Alabama excels at the gas station barbecue – a sub-genre of one of the few truly American cuisines – which is tailor-made for lovers of the open road
Gas station barbecue is just what it says it is: homespun food, cooked yards from the petrol pumps, in small kitchens. Ribs, pulled pork and chicken wings are served on paper plates at simple table settings inside the garages, overlooking aisles stacked with engine oil, anti-freeze and rubber hoses. It is not surprising Alabama excels at this road-trip cuisine of convenience: the deep south’s Yellowhammer State reputedly has the most barbecue restaurants per capita of anywhere in the US.
My barbecue odyssey started in Pell City, 30 miles east of Birmingham – Alabama’s biggest city. Butts To Go is just off Interstate 20 at a Texaco garage run by 64-year-old entrepreneur Wade Reich. The magic happens a few paces from the pavement in four smokers. In Alabama the pig is king, and Reich smokes it over hickory. But there is also brisket and chicken, and pecan-smoked hams and turkeys are seasonal specials. Reich took over the gas station in 2008 and spotted a gap in the market when a rival barbecue garage closed.
“There’s not much money in gas,” he told me.
Pulled pork, Reich figured, could make up for the plunge in profits at the pumps. He experimented with a barbecue on Memorial Day in May 2009, serving meat platters. By Labor Day, in September, Reich was cooking every weekend; Butts To Go is now open seven days a week.
Reich uses a dry rub, akin to a steak seasoning, containing pepper, garlic and salt. Full-flavoured Duroc pork comes from Smithfield, Virginia, and is also used for spare ribs and baby back ribs. All the dishes are available for takeaway but, for the authentic gas station barbecue experience, it is essential to fill a tray with juicy smoked meat and take a seat at the 12-cover “restaurant”.
A two-bone rib plate with two sides (choose from baked beans, coleslaw, wedges and baked potato salad) costs $6.99. Specialities include Reich’s lemon-and-pepper smoked chicken wings ($4.99 for six pieces) and “drunken chicken” ($14.49). For the signature boozy bird, a chicken is placed on a 12oz beer can and smoked for three hours. As the alcohol heats up and evaporates, it bastes the inside of the chicken, keeping the flesh juicy.
A foil tray contains a selection of sauces in plastic bottles, such as the smoky, tomato-based Cattlemen’s BBQ Sauce (“not sweet, not sour”) and Frank’s RedHot Sauce. But for local businessman and Butts’ regular Larry Daugherty, it is all about the purity of the smoky protein. “To me, it is the hickory smoke. Some people use cherry, but I don’t like that,” he said. • 410 Martin Street North, Pell City, on Facebook
Two hours’ drive south from Pell, off Interstate 65, is the former cotton town of Greenville, where an all-female crew serves up about 100 plates a day at BBQ 65 on Pineapple Highway. The smoker at the back of the Shell station uses hickory and oak to cook butts overnight, every night. Ribs, turkey breasts and chicken are also smoked on the revolving racks.
Beth Mauch, the assistant manager, says the cooks use a “sop” with a house marinade to keep the meat moist The chicken is brined overnight with seasoning, cooked until tender and served with a mayonnaise-based white sauce, more typical of north Alabama barbecue. Brunswick stew, a staple of southern barbecue shops, contains chicken and pork. Sides include potato salad, mac’n’cheese, speckled butter beans, fried okra and corn casserole. Four rib bones are $13.99 (six for $14.99) and come with two sides. A pulled pork plate is $10.99.
Beth Mauch, the assistant manager, says the cooks use a “sop” with a house marinade to keep the meat moist. The sop is applied with a brush or spray and contains a little sugar or tomato ketchup. Too much sugar leads to caramelisation and blackened meat, so balance is vital.
BBQ 65 makes its own tomato-based barbecue sauce but Mauch pointed out: “We don’t use a lot of sauce. We don’t drown our meat. Meat should have a flavour all its own.”
The kitchen and dining area, comprising 10 tables, is inside the petrol station’s wood-clad, cabin-style building, its walls hung with colourful folk art. For diners with a sweet tooth, there are southern-fried fruit pies and bread pudding ($3.99). The gas station barbecue mantra is: fill up, don’t calorie count. • 2391 Pineapple Highway, Greenville, bbq65.com
My satnav was then set for the Gulf of Mexico and the two-hour drive to Fairhope, on sweeping Mobile Bay. The Pride service station on South Greeno Road is home to the Soul Ful Deli Depot where Elizabeth Brazelton and her son, Trevell, create home-style barbecue with aplomb. Rich beef rib tips are cooked in an oven for four hours and doused in Brazelton’s rich, dark sauce. She would only divulge some of the ingredients – honey, lemon juice and brown sugar but no tomato. The sauce leaves a tingle on the tongue, so I suspected chilli or cayenne pepper played a role.
There is no smoking involved in the cooking: isn’t this barbecue sacrilege? Brazelton put me straight: “All my food is soulful food,” she said. “To me, soulful means country. It means grease, and it means fat, and it means fresh. I am cooking green lima beans now and I will put some okra with it. This is healthy eating. I don’t use salt and very little pepper.”
Home-cooked chicken wings came with 18 different flavours, including honey BBQ, habanero, buffalo Parmesan, ranch and sweet heat. Six pieces are $6.42.
Brazelton serves fish and grits for breakfast, from 5.30am, and said it was a “blessing” when the owner of the gas station called her in 2015 and asked if she wanted to take over the food outlet. “Cooking is my passion. I have gone from being a worker to being an owner. It is a rewarding journey,” she said. • 355 South Greeno Road, Fairhope, on Facebook
The Depot is 20 miles from Fairhope at an eight-pump Chevron station at the junction of Highway 98 and County Road 65 on the outskirts of Foley town. It is impossible to miss: there is a giant plastic pig in front of it proclaiming Baldwin County’s best ribs, butts and pigs’ feet. This is a strictly pig-only zone.
The Depot has been selling barbecue for 18 years, cooking over mesquite wood chips in an electric smoker. The meat is salted but there is no rub, before being smoked for 12 hours. So-called “finger food” includes corn dogs, pork and shrimp egg rolls, fried okra and pepperoni “pizza sticks”.
Carolina-style pulled-pork sandwiches (small $3.55, large $4.55) are always available (“we will heat to order”); they are a saucy affair, a great oozing heft of pork and a tomato-based concoction, cut through with an order of piquant vinegar slaw. I chased it down in true Alabama style with a plastic bottle of Red Diamond sweet tea and enjoyed an immersive gas station dining experience at one of the rickety green plastic tables overlooking the forecourt. • 17960 Highway 98, Foley, no website