A Trip to Hattiesburg Requires a Stop at Leatha's
Say the word “barbecue” anywhere in Mississippi’s Pine Belt and one word comes to mind: Leatha’s. And it happens for a good reason. Actually, there are several of them. First, there are the tender, fall-off-the bone tender ribs, seasoned and smoked to perfection. And the slow-cooked, hand-chopped pork drowning in a tangy, vinegary sauce. There’s more to discuss about this world-famous, authentic barbecue “joint” hidden behind a Dairy Queen and insurance office off U.S. Hwy. 98 in Hattiesburg. But the ribs and pulled pork – and yes, the special sauce – deserve the first mention.
If you’re in Hattiesburg or just passing through, it’s worth the detour to weave your way behind the businesses fronting the busy highway and drive along the gravel road in front of the small, wood-frame restaurant. On first glance, it doesn’t appear to offer anything special. Once you step out of your car, your opinion changes, courtesy of large smokehouse out back. It's nearly as large as the restaurant and based on the smoky, fragrant aroma permeating the air, it’s the restaurant’s best form of advertising. Once you cross the wooden porch laden with stone and ceramic pigs and step into Leatha’s Bar-B-Que Inn, you'll feel the welcoming vibe of this family-run establishment.
After breathing in the tantalizing smell of smoked meat coming from the kitchen at the far end of the room, the first thing you'll notice is the décor. Tables covered in colorful, checkered cloths surrounded by folding chairs let you know the emphasis is on food, not fancy seating arrangements. Interspersed between framed copies of newspaper and magazine articles and family memorabilia are autographed photos of famous guests, ranging from Hattiesburg’s own NFL Hall of Famer Brett Favre (like me, he loves Leatha’s beef ribs) to famous journalists and celebrities.
After taking your pick of a red, green, or blue checkered-covered table, one glimpse of fellow diners illustrates Leatha’s broad appeal. A mixture of families with young children, businessmen in dark suits, law enforcement officials, casually-dressed workers, and all types in between have gathered for one common purpose: to get their Leatha’s fix. And if Leatha’s smoked meats and delicious homemade sides can’t fix your barbecue craving, it can’t be done.
Leatha’s has been rated as one of the nation’s top barbecue restaurants, an honor that has attracted guests from around the nation and several countries, including China, Puerto Rico, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. A listing as one of the can't miss stops on the Mississippi Culinary Trail on VisitMississippi.org, combined with national exposure courtesy of features on cooking and travel shows - “Man Fire Food” on The Cooking Channel was a recent one - have attracted customers in search of the tantalizing meat prepared by pit master Brian Jackson. He is a co-owner and grandson of founder Leatha Jackson, who passed away in 2013.
It's true that national publicity and word-of-mouth praise from Favre, Drew Brees, B.B. King, and even P.F. Chang, owner of his namesake restaurant chain, has helped put Leatha’s on the barbecue map. But it’s the smoked-on-site meats, homemade side dishes, and friendly service that catapulted Leatha’s from Jackson’s home-turned-restaurant in Marion County to its standing today as THE barbecue restaurant at which to experience true Southern barbecue and hospitality.
Photo courtesy of Only In Your State
Co-owned by Carolyn Stepny, another of Leatha’s grandchildren, Leatha’s hasn’t changed much since the first barbecue plates were sold over 40 years ago. I’ll get right to the smoked meats; after all, they're the real reason barbecue lovers from around the world keep coming back.
Leatha’s smoked offerings include beef ribs, pork ribs, pulled pork, and chicken. If you can’t decide, Leatha’s does the choosing for you. Selecting Leath’s (no “A”) Special brings all four to your table. There’s also a sausage plate and wood-grilled steaks. The latter is the only thing I haven’t sampled at Leatha’s. By the looks of the steaming, smoky steak plate delivered next to me on my last visit, it’s a situation I need to remedy.
Just a word on how Leatha’s meats obtain their consistently tender, smoky, and utterly sensational status from the time the doors open until closing time. Jackson uses a massive smoker and accompanying fire box filled with locally-grown pecan wood. A steady stream of smoke permeates hundreds of slabs of ribs, pork shoulders, chickens, and steaks ordered daily by hungry customers lured by the tantalizing aroma of the fragrant smoke. It’s hard to describe just how wonderful it smells. It’s just something you need to experience. Then, step inside and enjoy the results of Jackson’s labor.
If you choose Leath’s special, you won’t be sorry. I could have stopped eating after sampling the large chunks of boneless, seasoned, and tender beef ribs. But, of course, I didn’t. Juicy, falling-off-the-bone glazed pork ribs run a close second in deliciousness. I still found room for a bite or two of chopped pork doused with a generous helping of Leatha’s sauce, followed by a helping of seasoned, smoky chicken.
Leath’s Special is $23.99, and while this may seem a bit pricey, it contains more than enough food for two diners with moderate appetites. For an extra $5, the dish can be split, an option that’s more than fair considering the amount of food offered.
Once you’ve made your meat selection – and again, I have to promote the beef ribs – it’s time to choose your meal accompaniments.
All plates come with two sides; fried potatoes, “secret recipe” slaw, sweet potato fries, potato salad, baked beans, and green salad. I think I’m a reputable side dish judge due to my numerous visits to Leatha’s. You can’t go wrong with the rich, thick baked beans. Filled with barbecue sauce and molasses, they taste like they’ve spent some time in the smoker. I also love the thick, hand-cut fried potatoes.
I hate to say anything negative about Leatha’s, but in my opinion, the “secret recipe” slaw is a bit overrated. I was expecting something extraordinary based on the name and, well, It’s good, but not great. However, Leatha’s barbecue sauce more than makes up for that minor disappointment. Unlike some barbecue restaurants whose sauce has a strong, bitter taste, the tanginess of Leatha’s sauce is balanced nicely with notes of sweet tomato and what appears to be apple cider vinegar. While replicating Jackson’s smoking technique may be impossible, being able to purchase a bottle of sauce to take home helps liven up backyard barbecues in between visits to Leatha’s.
Leath’s Special is only offered for dinner, but the lunchtime crowd has plenty of smoked options from which to choose. Rib, chicken, sausage, and pulled pork plates are offered, along with a pulled pork sandwich. The same delicious sides are offered, insuring an authentic Leatha’s experience all day long.
Considering the intense labor and attention to detail in creating the smoked meats and homemade dishes, Leatha’s prices are relatively inexpensive. Portions of both meat and sides are hearty. Lunch prices range from $9.99 for a smoked chicken quarter, pulled pork sandwich, or sausage plate, to $17.99 for a large rib plate or choice of two meats.
For dinner, rib selections are more plentiful, with prices ranging from $13.99 for a small serving of pork ribs to $21.99 for the Hungry Man, a descriptive name for a whole slab of ribs. A 16-ounce wood-grilled ribeye is $21. An extra $5 brings a side serving of ribs.
Since so many families frequent Leatha’s, $5 plates of child-size pulled pork, ribs, and chicken are available for small diners.
Leatha’s is closed on Sunday and Monday, but is open from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday. Closing hours extend to 9 p.m. on weekends. Leatha’s is located at 6375 U.S. 98 in Hattiesburg. I’m not kidding when I caution you to "look for Dairy Queen.” The sight of the burger restaurant – and the aroma of sweet-smelling smoke – tells you Leatha’s is close by. Call 601-271-6003 for directions if you get lost.