While I was in Lucedale recently for a features story, I decided to seek out some good food the locals likely enjoy.
An online search gave me a list of several options. The name Hokie's BBQ & Grill glowed and pulsed at me like a neon sign from on high.
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I grew up in a small town and recognize the preliminary hallmarks of a good barbecue place. Often, the owner's name or nickname in the restaurant's name is an early good sign.
If you put your name on something, you take responsibility for it. Your reputation becomes associated with it.
Hokie's is easy to find. From Mississippi 63 north, take Mississippi 26 toward downtown Lucedale, going east, and Hokie's will be on the right. Look for the huge sawmill blade sign in front of a log cabin-style building.
You'll see construction going on in the back; it turns out Hokie's is so popular, they're adding on to the kitchen and the dining area.
I arrived at 11:30 a.m. (they open at 10:30 a.m.) and was glad I got there before high noon, because the parking lot already was looking busy.
Inside, Hokie's is full-on comfy rustic, with log cabin walls paired with corrugated tin, some stuffed game and old newspaper pages. The page by my table was comics from a May 1941 newspaper.
Some crafty person had made a dustpan from an old George County license plate, and it hung on the wall. Country music videos from the Great American Country station were on the TVs. A few tables had three generations seated together for early weekday lunch.
I went with half a smoked chicken ($4.99) and a house salad ($2.99). I could have gotten the chicken as a plate with two sides (meaty baked beans, slaw, potato salad, green beans or fries) plus Texas toast for $8.99, but I had a plan.
I had seen this thing called Upside Down Sweet Potato Pie ($2.99) on the menu, at the top of the desserts list. Well, clearly this is one of their specialties, so I certainly couldn't ignore it. The pie was going to be my "bad."
Hokies offers more than just chicken. The menu includes ribs, pulled beef brisket, pulled pork and sausage. There are plate specials, stuffed potatoes (with meat), sandwiches and a kids' menu.
The meat comes to your table unsauced; sauce is in squirt bottles on each table, so you can personalize its intensity. The Hokie's sauce, made in house, is a just-right balance of just enough black pepper kick and smoky subtle sweetness, matching its dark, earthy color. Not too soupy, not too thick, it makes a nice puddle for meat dipping, my preferred way to enjoy barbecue sauce.
The smoked chicken was very tender, much more tender than I expected it to be. It came nicely off the bone and its smoky flavor enhanced but didn't overwhelm the meat itself.
So about that Upside Down Sweet Potato Pie. It doesn't have a traditional crust. Instead, the bottom layer features toasted pecans, struesel-style, topped with the familiar baked sweet potato pie filling.
The top layer has the consistency of a lemon icebox pie (and at first I even detected a lemony thing going on). I later learned no lemon plays a part, but this layer is cream cheese-based. If you're a sweet potato pie lover, this takes your relationship to another level. If sweet potato pie isn't your thing, try it anyway, and you'll likely be a convert.
Jim Hokinson is the owner of Hokie's (see? nickname), which has been in operation since 2004. It was hard for him to put a bead on what is the most popular dish.
"We have such a good mix," he said. "Pork, wings, ribs, chicken -- it's a good mixture."
The pie was so good, I returned a little after 3 p.m. to get a takeout piece for my editor back at the office. There were at least 10 vehicles in the parking lot -- at 3 p.m. on a Friday. That's another sign of a good barbecue place.