As I sit to write this, I have just returned from a visit to the Hi-Ho. Research can take a delicious toll on a body...
The Hi-Ho blows to bits most of the hard and fast standards I have for barbecue joints.
First of all, a self-respecting "joint" must have a legend. Most 'q' joints got their sauce from a traveler who couldn't pay his tab and left an old sauce recipe. Dreamland has Big Daddy John Bishop and his dream of cooking ribs so as to avoid laying bricks in the heat of a scorching Alabama summer. Hi-Ho has no legend that I can discern. There was a family squabble years ago that led to its exodus from its original location, but as legends go, that's small stuff.
My Uncle Shorty was the subject of a rather personal legend regarding Hi-Ho. You see, Uncle Shorty was a route man, and later a sales manager for Sunbeam bakery. You must understand my uncle was a LOYAL employee. If he came to visit at your house and you had another brand of bread on the table, he gathered his family and he LEFT!
My cousin Dale was in his teens before he realized that 'the other brand' really didn't put worms in your belly.
Uncle Shorty—according to legend—sauntered into Hi-Ho one day and ordered a beef heavy. Here it came, but not on a Sunbeam bun. My dear uncle went back to his truck, retrieved a proper bun, and scraped every morsel of delicious meat onto his Sunbeam. That's loyalty! That's how it went in the mid 1960s, and so it goes today.
(Uncle Shorty later took a Holsum deliveryman to task for supposedly punching pencil holes in the Sunbeam wrappers. Mr. Holsum figured that a couple loaves of stale Sunbeam equals a couple of new customers for Holsum. Uncle Shorty caught his competitor in the parking lot and sent him sprawling with a left jab and a quick uppercut. It was dog-eat-dog in the bread delivery world-But I digress...)
Secondly, a joint needs wood piled around back. I circled the place pretty thoroughly. No wood, no sawdust, no nothing.
You must, MUST have smoke coming from the chimney. At the Hi-Ho, nada.
So why, WHY is the barbecue here so danged good?!? Because they do the crucial things right!
There's not a huge menu. You get barbecued beef or pork. They do offer a ham and cheese sandwich on the menu. I guess you have to provide some variety. You can have it dressed, and you can get (!?!) cheese put on the BBQ. End of menu.
The meat deserves some attention here. Most places take great pains to show you where the meat is cooked. They have big custom fireplaces and grills, and make a big show of turning the meat. At Hi-Ho, I haven't the foggiest idea how they cook their meat. There is a definite smoke flavor there, just a bit of it, kind of eased in from the side.
Once in a great while, I'll taste a little crunch in there. That's what Carolina cooks call "outside meat," the portion of the pig that gets crunchy because that's the side closest to the flames. They ought to mix a bit more on this in, but who am I to argue with greatness?
The buns are toasted on the grill. The meat is warmed, placed on the crispy bun, and the sauce is mixed in right there on the hot grill. (Very few places still do this!) In fact, your sandwich will usually have a darkened ring on its top—collateral damage from the grill surface. Don't sweat it, it just adds to the experience!
And the sauce… Most places swear by the sauce. It's either real ketchupy or real vinegary, and generally serves to hide the true flavor of the meat. Whoever came up with Hi-Ho's sauce deserves a medal. The sauce flavor is hard to place—coming mainly down in the "chili powder" camp of the sauce world. But the big thing here is that the sauce is oh-so-light that it really brings out the flavor of the meat--and that's becoming a lost art in the barbecue business.
One of the best moments for me is when you get your order. It comes wrapped in paper, and the spillover sauce actually serves to hold the paper together. If the package is put together properly—and they've been doing this for decades—peeling off the paper will just take the top layer of skin off your sandwich. For me this is heaven!! Perfection in paper with toothpicks!
Of course there are chips from Tom's, and there's Barq's Root Beer. (The Barq's here still have bottle caps, and the folks gladly remove them the old fashioned way before serving. Memories of my youth!!)
If your kids aren't up to sandwiches yet, they can get a sauced bun for training purposes.
I'm partial to the pork at Hi-Ho. Ask for it "heavy." In fact, here's what to do so that you don't get marked as an invading infidel:
Walk in like you've been here a million times, order a beef, 2 pork heavies, a bag of barbecue chips and a Barq's. And yes, you want your Barq's opened.