Worth the drive: Top Hat
Hickory-cooked barbecue alive and well at the Top Hat
Story and photos by David Haynes
Drivers on U.S. Highway 31 through Blount Springs always know when Dale Pettit is cooking pork at the Top Hat BBQ. The blue-grey smoke that billows from his high chimneys hangs like a hickory-infused fog in this deep valley at the southernmost terminus of the Appalachian Mountains.
Depending on wind and weather conditions, the tempting aroma of slow-cooked pork can permeate the air for a mile or more in either direction, fairly begging travelers to stop at the renowned barbecue restaurant.
An iconic dining stop in North Alabama since first opening in 1952, the Top Hat has been in Pettit’s family since his father, Wilber, purchased it nearly a half century ago in 1967. And over those many years Pettit has learned a thing or two about cooking barbecue pork.
“If you ever find any fat on our barbecue, somebody’s going to be in trouble!”
On a recent morning, Pettit shared some of his methods as he tended a massive fire pit loaded with 40 pork shoulders of fresh pork.
As we talk, Pettit is busy monitoring his fire by alternating between squirting spritzes of water from a plastic bottle and shoveling ashes from a 5-gallon bucket as required to regulate the fire’s temperature and to put down flare-ups.
Pettit is very particular about cooking in his traditional way – using a wood fire of select green hickory and insisting on fresh pork from his suppliers. “These piggies were squealing just a few days ago,” he adds.
When I asked if he could share some of his techniques without giving away any proprietary secrets, he says he’s not worried because the way he cooks “would be too much work” for most people today.
Cooking with wood is key to flavor
He explains that each of his two fire pits can hold up to about 800 pounds of meat at a time. On the days he cooks he’s usually there by 4 a.m., waiting for the truck to deliver his meat at 5.
He’s purchased his hickory wood from the same supplier for years, noting the importance of the wood being consistently green from one batch to the next. It’s key to obtaining the trademark smoked flavor of Top Hat barbecue. Pettit says he goes through about a cord of wood every three weeks on average. The hickory arrives in whole two-foot-long cuts, so Pettit spends his early morning hours splitting it into uniform 8-inch-diameter pieces with a large maul.
To cook a batch of 40 pork shoulders takes about nine hours, after the fire is going properly. Add to this the time to build and start the fire, and the time to extinguish the fire and clean up afterwards, and the total for a cooking session goes to around 12 hours.
Each of his two fire pits is the same size and is used to cook on alternating days. Pettit designed and built the pits himself. He points out that the way these draw keeps the meat constantly surrounded by the swirls of smoke from the green hickory wood. Unlike many other barbecue chefs who use a rub to add seasoning and flavor to their meat before cooking, Pettit does not. “The hickory smoke is my rub,” he adds. He’s given permission to use his fire pit design to just two other BBQ places – one in Kentucky and another in California – but says those will be the last ones.
He says most barbecue chefs have gotten away from the wood-fired pits that must be constantly watched to regulate temperature. Today it would be easy to use an electrically-rotating rotisserie for the meat and an easily-regulated gas flame heat source, but Pettit believes those methods can’t match the flavor he gets with the traditional wood fire method.
Pettit is proud that the Top Hat was one of only two restaurants in Alabama to be recognized recently as the still serving traditional wood-cooked barbecue.
The Top Hat was also recently featured on The Cooking Channel’s Man Fire Food series, in an episode entitled “Pigging out on Pork.” Pettit says he was surprised to receive a call from a producer for the show from New York, who told him that the Top Hat’s name kept popping up from their viewers and they wanted to feature his restaurant. “They filmed for eight or nine hours and used about 20 minutes.” Archived episodes of that show were still airing in early 2016.
These days Pettit only cooks about three days per week. “I’ve been trying to retire for years, but haven’t had any luck yet.”
Fresh catfish another favorite
After more than six decades in the same location, the Top Hat isn’t just renowned for its barbecue pork. Longtime diners will also point out that their catfish platters are famous throughout the region for both flavor and portion size. Pettit says that the freshness of the catfish is key, adding that they never buy frozen fish. A large catfish platter contains two, full, 13-to-15-ounce fish.
Other unique offerings are the Thousand Island salad dressing, the recipe for which his father had to purchase separately from the previous owner. It originated in New York, Pettit says, at the Waldorf Astoria, but several years ago they changed the recipe to improve it. The Top Hat makes its own style of Ranch dressing using cooking buttermilk that yields a more buttery flavor. And, of course, they make their own distinctive barbecue sauce.
Even though the main dining area has undergone several remodels over the years, the cozy, dark-wood paneling and tree-trunk columns familiar to generations of diners there have been retained.
The Top Hat is located at Mile Marker 307 on U.S. 31. From Interstate 65 North, take the Blount Springs/Garden City Exit (287) and turn right at the ramp on U.S. 31. The Top Hat is approximately 4 miles on the left. From Interstate 65 South, take the Empire/Blount Springs Exit (289) and turn left on County Road 5 until it terminates at U.S. 31 and turn left. The Top Hat is about one-half mile on the left on U.S. 31.