published Friday, May 11th, 2012

Mountaintop mainstay delivers home-cooked goodness

MONTEAGLE, Tenn. -- When you walk into Jim Oliver's Smoke House in Monteagle, Tenn., you immediately realize this is what those interstate-exit, country-cooking chains are shooting for.

The mountaintop mainstay, which opened in 1975, seems to be part smokehouse, part antique store, part museum, and the aroma of hickory-smoked goodness promises good-tasting food.

I hit the Smoke House for lunch a little early since my appetite and the Central time zone were off by an hour. As I wound my way to the restaurant area, the dining crowd was changing over from breakfast to lunch.

I decided on the way in I'd sample a couple of barbecue items since the smell of hickory prompted visions of steamy smoked barbecue.

THE MENU

Along with an extensive breakfast menu featuring in-house specialty meats and a breakfast bar, the Smoke House has lots to choose from for lunch and dinner. Offerings range from $5.95 for a grilled cheese sandwich with side and slaw to $16.95 for a two-vegetable platter with corn fritters and a full slab of smoked pork ribs on the Specialties menu, where meals come with the soup and salad bar.

The sandwich platter lineup has four sandwiches at $9.95, including the Smoke House club. Then $8.95 gets you a grilled chicken sandwich, catfish fillet sandwich, pulled pork or beef barbecue, beef brisket sandwich or bacon burger with slaw and side. There also are open-faced smoked roast beef and turkey sandwich platters at this price. A cheeseburger, hamburger, turkey, lettuce and tomato, fried green tomato sandwich and BLT round out most of the items snugged between two slices of bread at prices declining, respectively, from $7.95 to $6.95.

IF YOU GO

Where: Jim Oliver's Smoke House, 850 W. Main St., Monteagle, Tenn.

Phone: 931-924-2091

Website: thesmokehouse.com.

Hours: September to May: 6:30 a.m.-9 p.m. CDT Monday-Thursday, 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Open one hour later June to August (10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday).

Price range: $2.95 (pie)-$16.95 (full slab of pork rib meal).

There's a children's menu that offers some of the same sandwiches at $4.95 for the smaller portions that come with a choice of two vegetables.

The Starters menu is an assortment of appetizers -- Vidalia onion rings, two flavors of chicken tenders, chicken livers, fried green tomatoes and fried pickles (all $5.95) -- that could be combined as a meal themselves. You also can kick off the meal with frog legs ($6.95).

The menu has seven items on its Favorites list, ranging from a big bowl of turnip greens or pinto beans at $4.95 to fried chicken livers or Southern fried chicken for $8.95.

Some of the Specialties on the dinner plate menu include Tennessee Country ham ($12.95), sugar-cured ham ($11.95), Black Angus ribeye ($14.95) and catfish fillets ($13.95).

If you're still not sure, there is a homemade buffet, salad and soup bar at $9.95 Monday through Thursday or $13.95 Friday through Sunday. It's $8.95 for just the salad and soup bar.

The order (for one): I ordered the beef brisket plate ($11.95) from the Specialties menu, along with smoked pulled pork ($5.95 as an add-on), so I'd get a sampling of two barbecued meats. The meal came with soup and salad, corn fritters, pinto beans and French fries, and I got some sweet iced tea to top off the Southern theme.

The soup of the day was vegetable beef in large, savory chunks with potatoes, carrots and other goodness simmering in a huge cast-iron pot on an old kitchen cookstove. The salad was crunchy and fresh, and the soup had a hearty, homemade taste.

I was still deep into the soup when my meal arrived.

The beef brisket was sliced and very smoky but a little overcooked and dry. Some of the house barbecue sauces on the table -- an original zesty, a Hot, Hot, Hot and a Trail of Tears vary in increasing hotness -- put plenty of flavor with the thick, sliced brisket.

The side order of pulled pork, on the other hand, was steaming hot, freshly pulled and hadn't been touched with a knife. The meat was beautifully smoked, with a nice red smoke ring and lots of char. The sauces were nice additions, but the pulled pork could stand alone without it. Moist and juicy.

The giant order of pinto beans was good, homey fare, while the corn fritters were a little heavy for me. The crinkle-cut fries were plentiful and a perfect light golden brown with just the right amount of salt.

THE SPACE

The old Smoke House building is huge with more rooms and stuff in it than I had time over a lunch hour to explore. Scads of antiques, curiosities and historic displays hang from the walls, rest on shelves and are stacked all over the old furniture and appliances, adding character to the lunchtime spread.

The place had a lived-in look you'd expect in a restaurant of its age but was very clean and well-maintained.

THE SERVICE

My server was quick, to the point and knowledgeable about the menu and area when asked for advice about food or what to see. She appeared quickly with refills and asked each time she passed if I needed anything.

Even as the restaurant became increasingly busy, my server took on four more tables and never missed a beat.

THE VERDICT

Customers during the weekday lunch seemed to be a mix of travelers and local folks looking for a soulful meal and a relaxing diversion from the road or workday.

I left stuffed like one of their baked potatoes but was still wishing I could try more menu items.

Next time, I'll try the fried green tomatoes that almost everyone else among the lunch crowd got as a side or appetizer, and I'd like to see if the pork ribs are brimming with as much smoky flavor as the pulled pork.

Jim Oliver's Smoke House is a good, planned stop-off for tasty home-cooked goodness for anyone headed for parts in Middle and West Tennessee from the Chattanooga region or for folks out that way headed here.

The Smoke House also could be a good weekend destination since it offers a motel and rental cabins for those who are taking in the area's sights with good food waiting at home base.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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