If you're en route from Orleans Parish, barreling through the stoplights of Jefferson, the flats of Elmwood and the 90-degree curves of Harahan are only grueling prior to the first meal at Hillbilly Bar-B-Q. Every trip afterwards is one long, gut-tugging reminiscence of the low-crouched shop and its bounty. It's like that Christmas-morning high before all the presents are violated: you'll bask in the anticipation of what's waiting up ahead. Once you enter River Ridge, there's a volunteer firehouse on the right, then EZ-Serve and then ... then comes pure happiness, all juicy and charred and bundled up in a fist-size hunk of pork shoulder.
When you underestimate the drive and show up a few minutes after closing time, try begging. Chef-owner Larry Wyatt, the hillbilly behind Hillbilly, is genuinely moved by pilgrims in pursuit of his hickory-smoked meats; if you're lucky the warming oven will still be cranking. When he sets that mass of pork onto a bleach-clean cutting board, it looks like a lopsided brick of charcoal, dull black and craggy. With a casual prod from his kitchen tongs the scorched rock splinters into the hundreds of hot-pink-tipped feathers of a long-smoked meat.
It's jaw-dropping splendor. When mine fell open, the Hillbilly handed over an ounce or so on a flyaway piece of deli paper to keep me occupied while he prepared my order. It had been tugged from a particularly fatty part of the shoulder, though the meat itself wasn't fatty, just perfect -- like the oyster of a chicken or the cheeks from a grouper. Later on, I couldn't remember what happened next. It was all smoke and suckling. I sucked on those slivers of pork until they dissolved, and they bore the closest thing to pig nectar I've ever tasted. In those moments, hoping I will be able to control such things, I knew exactly what my last meal would be.
The Hillbilly's side dishes, crafted by his day cooks while he tends the smoker out back, are side dishes you would surrender your sauce for at any other barbecue joint. There's a corn and red-pepper salad with a touch of creaminess, an almost-mashed potato salad with crumbly egg and green onions, and a delicate purple and green slaw with carrots and cumin vinaigrette. But they don't stand a chance after the pulled pork. After the pulled pork, even eating the pork ribs, which are smoky and soft and worth an ode unto themselves, is like saving your vegetables until after dessert.
Second trips are for exploring what you missed during a pig-induced monomania the first time around. Indeed, while the beef brisket is delicious -- smoked black outside, cinnamon-brown and fruity inside -- it's a more reasonable food than the Hillbilly's pulled pork. It doesn't short-circuit the senses, which allows you to actually taste the Hobo Taters, a quirky, hot potato salad topped with sour cream and real bacon that acts like a stiff chowder when all the parts are stirred together. Sweet baked beans are as smoky as the 24-hour-smoked meats.
And there's more intrigue in one bite of Mantooth Chili than in any voodoo potion pawned in the French Quarter. It's made from a recipe that the Hillbilly's girlfriend's Native American parents won't divulge; they prefer to send an emissary from the family to make it every few days. One of its known powers comes from creamed corn, which you couldn't guess from its dark chocolate hue and wallop of spice. You can eat the chili from a cup or smothering two all-beef wieners, the best part of which is getting the Hillbilly to say it for you in his bloodhound Kentucky drawl: "Hawg Dawg." He toasts the dawg and other sandwiches in a sort of waffle iron without holes. It's just one tool in a kitchen stocked with extra-long knives and cast-iron pots that will be the envy of home cooks who registered for Chicago Cutlery and Teflon.
Most nights the Hillbilly hand-delivers the last order to his friends at the Triangle West Bar next door, securing a symbiotic relationship with the bar that encourages customers to shop at both places. If you can squeeze past the mossy-green Mercury Triumph cruiser nosing the tavern door, you'll enter a world where, given the grand selection of bottled beers, the nuances between domestic brands must be a main topic of conversation. Roy Orbison crooned and a fun crowd held a dart tournament on the night I chose Budweiser. When I returned to the restaurant, the Hillbilly had set a table with cotton-soft dinner rolls and his homemade, vinegar-charged barbecue sauce -- two omens for an unforgettable picnic. I couldn't forget. Heck, I didn't wash my hands until the next morning so that I could snooze on a palm full of smoke.
The Hillbilly seems both flattered and flabbergasted by the underground campaign waged by his fans during the six months since he opened. "There ain't nothing gourmet about it," he says. "Anyone can do it in their own backyard." But what is a gourmet if not a man whose day is the pursuit of righteousness in a single fist of pork?