The best barbecue in Mississippi is in a bait and tackle shop

Clay’s House of Pig serves the best barbecue in Mississippi — Photo courtesy of Tupelo CVB

Turn left at the rods and reels, and go past the flies. These may not be customary directions to the some of the best barbecue around, but they point diners to the order window at Clay’s House of Pig.

The eatery, also known as C.H.O.P., doesn’t stand on pretension. It’s a hole-in-the-wall joint that serves authentic, slow-smoked barbecue that topped the 2019 readers’ poll in Mississippi Magazine as the best in the state.

Clay Coleman, owner and pit master of the eponymous restaurant in Tupelo, owned the bait and tackle shop for a decade amid declining sales. Big-box stores and online retailers had been the one-two punch for his small shop, and he was desperate to find a way to keep the doors open.

He turned to a skill he’d honed his entire life: barbecue.

Coleman had grown up handing wrenches to his dad to build a 55-gallon barrel grill – Coleman still uses the smoker today – and watching over smokers during all-night competitions.

“I’ve been barbecuing since I was old enough to lift a pork butt into the smoker,” Coleman says.

He took the last of his failing bait shop’s revenues and went all-in on barbecue. At first, he envisioned making sandwiches he could keep in a convenience store–style warmer on the counter – next to where the bait worms go – to feed his customers. However, his vision grew.

“If we were going to fail, I was going to fail so big and epic they were going to write books about the way that guy failed in Tupelo,” he says.

Clay's House of Pig is located in a bait shopClay’s House of Pig is located in a bait shop — Photo courtesy of Tupelo CVB

Coleman began serving barbecue in spring 2017, and by July 2017, his BBQ nachos and BBQ taters were making waves. He filmed himself building the dishes, piling barbecued pork butt onto chips or a smashed baked potato, with queso, green chiles, jalapeños, bacon and topping it all with a Memphis-style sauce. The video post of the barbecue baked potato earned 40,000 views within the first week.

“There something magic about the queso with that smoky meat and sauce,” Coleman says. Clay’s House of Pig smokes more than 100 pork butts a week, plus 12 to 15 brisket cuts and countless ribs.

All the recipes begin with dry rubbing the meat with a blend of spices. The family took more than 30 years to finesse that concoction. About 15 years ago, they put the final touch on it – adding a closely guarded secret ingredient that makes the recipe what it is today.

Coleman only uses pecan wood for smoking. In fact, he prefers wood from 50- to 100-year-old trees. He’ll find one blown over in a storm or struck by lightning, have it cut, then let it cure for a year before using it for smoking.

“I want ‘em dry as a bone,” Coleman says. “Pecan is in the hickory family, but pecan has a lighter, sweeter smoke. I can kick the heck out of the meat with the pecan, and it doesn’t get overdone.”

Clay's House of Pig serves Memphis- and northern Mississippi River Delta-style barbecueClay’s House of Pig serves Memphis- and northern Mississippi River Delta-style barbecue — Photo courtesy of Tupelo CVB

Coleman smokes low and slow, but he opts for a two-step system rather than one long stretch. He smokes the meat for hours, then lets it rest and infuses it with “love juices” (another secret recipe), before finishing off the smoking process.

When he pulls the shoulder blade out, the meat falls off the bone. Then he chops, rather than pulls, the pork. The prep style is typical of Memphis/western Tennessee and the northern Mississippi River Delta.

“Smoked meat has four colors: white, dark, pink, and black. The black is the crust, the bark. We’re chopping it into every inch of the meat. We’re keeping the meat dripping moist without being greasy,” he says.

He keeps his sauce true to the Memphis style, too. With a base of tomato and vinegar, the sauce has “a little sweet and a little heat. It’s a complement to the thing. It’s not the thing. The meat should be the star of the show,” Coleman says. “People put sauce on their fingers and lick it to taste. They think that’s how to taste a good sauce. This is not a lickin’ sauce. This is made to go with the meat.” But just in case diners miss that sweet, Kansas City–style sauce, Coleman has one of those available also.

Clay’s House of Pig’s barbecue is one-of-a-kind – as is the atmosphere. Despite the lines across the parking lot during lunchtime and only a handful of seats on one side of the bait shop, Coleman has no plans to sweep aside the bait and tackle.

“I just love the tackle business. If I took it out, I think it would take something away from this,” he says. “I thought I’d be bankrupt, I never thought I’d have people coming to a bait shop to eat barbecue. Now I’m out there high fivin’ people. Watching their reactions is mind blowing.”

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