A half mile from Elvis Presley's birthplace in Tupelo, MS, Clay's House of Pig is doing wondrous things with meat.
Right off the West Side Highway in New York City, tucked inside an operating car wash, you can find a donut shop slinging dense, cakey donuts in flavors like halva and vanilla-lavender. Gas stations around the country are selling unexpected, wonderous things like Spanish tapas and shockingly good fried chicken. It’s 2019, and we don’t just want our food to taste great, we also want to be surprised where we find it.
Walk the aisles of Clay’s Bait and Tackle Shop—a half mile from Elvis Presley's birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi—and find walls lined with rods and fishing gear. Also find, according to locals and visitors who drive hours out of their way for a taste, some of the South’s finest barbecue.
Clay Coleman took over the tiny shop about a decade ago, but between big box retailers opening nearby and a short fishing season, he recently faced a tough choice: find a new revenue stream or shutter.
“Over the winter, the bait shop business is feast or famine,” he says. So Coleman cooked up a new feast. He grew up learning the secrets of his dad’s barbecue recipes—helping craft rubs and sauces from scratch, and entering barbecue competitions for fun—and decided to give it a go professionally. He spent his savings getting Clay’s House of Pig running in time for his typical busy season, operating it inside his existing bait and tackle shop.
“We needed to start this thing rolling when we had fishing customers; I wanted them smelling the barbecue,” he says. The heady smell of smoked meat certainly helped draw customers in those first few weeks, and so did the Facebook videos Coleman was posting. One video he made to showcase a BBQ-smothered baked potato garnered 40,000 views within the first week. “They were sharing it in Massachusetts, they were sharing it in Oregon, they were sharing it all over the nation,” he says. “That’s when it all kicked off.”
Coleman’s recipes and techniques are a closely-guarded secret that he says has taken him hundreds of hours to perfect.
“Surely someone is making barbecue the way I’m making barbecue,” he says. “But I can’t find them.” That includes dry-rubbing the meat with a proprietary blend of spices—an old family recipe that’s been perfected over the years—and a second cook (as opposed to one twelve-hour stretch) where he adds something he calls “love juice” (a blend of sweet and acidic liquids I now know, but cannot reveal).
Thanks to the recipe’s sugar content, a nice crust forms that helps to lock in the moisture. Coleman also uses pecan wood to cook the meat, which adds a “light, sweet” smoke, and lets it rest for before chopping it up to serve. (The chopping is crucial, too, according to Coleman. It keeps the pork more juicy than pulling it would.)
When customers started standing around the aisles, resting their plates of ribs and homemade slaw on top of the bait shop freezer, Coleman realized he had to get seating. Now the shop has booths, with a few picnic tables outside. Clay’s House of Pig, also known as C.H.O.P., went from smoking eight pork butts a week, to, currently, more than 100, and that doesn’t include the brisket or chicken. The meat is added to signature dishes like smoked chicken street tacos, nachos layered with queso and chopped pork, and that “BBQ Tater”—for $5.99, a half portion is doused in queso with diced green chiles, jalapeños, bacon, and a pile of barbecued pork with a tangy Memphis-style sauce.
Coleman, who has no prior restaurant experience, is buying ingredients from his local grocery stores. “I get spices from Sam’s Club, and some seasonings at Kroger. We don’t have sources for those things down here. I just bought a dozen little jars.” Even without that background, though, he’s figured out the magic formula—an amalgamation of ingredients and techniques culled with help from his father and brother and perfected over the years. He's thrilled to see it come together.
“It’s super moist, juicy barbecue,” he says. “It’s unbelievable to watch the reactions from people who have never had real barbecue before.” And it’s that much more surprising to find this world-class barbecue inside a tiny bait and tackle shop in Tupelo, Mississippi.