Gastronomy: TJ’s BBQ offers Southern soul food classics

I" itemprop="articleBody">

If there’s one thing gas stations are known for … it’s gas. But if there’s a second thing, it’s got to be food. 

For some gas stations, food comes first. Across Northeast Mississippi, service stations are serving up the kinds of plate lunches, sweet treats and deep-fried deliciousness that give people a reason to drop in to fill up, even if their gas tanks aren’t empty. 

This month, we dropped by three local gas stations that are quickly becoming, or have always been, foodie destinations.

Those who aren’t looking for TJ’s BBQ could very easily pass it by; those who know about the place seldom do.

Located on South Eason Boulevard in Tupelo, across from what was the VF Factory Outlet, TJ’s is relatively nondescript. An A-frame sign out front, near the row of gas pumps, features an image of a grinning pig and the words “DAILY PLATE LUNCHES” in bold, all-capped letters. “Best plate lunch in town,” the sign boasts.

Inside, the store is equally sparse. There are a few tables and chairs, and coolers packed with bottled drinks line the back wall.

It’s the front of the store that offers the main attraction: a couple of large commercial warmers along the front counter where the day’s rotating selection of Southern classics awaits the day’s customers.

They trickle in as the lunch hour approaches, and owner Terry Bumphis greets each like an old friend. Some of them are.

“Laverne, how you doing?”

“What can I get for you, big dog?”

“You want a rib tips? I got you.”

“What kind of dog is that you got in your truck? Bet you give him a bone, and he’ll do whatever you want.”

It’ll be like that, he said, until around 1 or 1:30 p.m. when the crowd finally dies down. TJ’s is the kind of place where the hours are somewhat flexible. They’ll open around 7 a.m. on weekdays and roundabout 10 on Sunday mornings, and then close up shop at roughly 2 p.m. or whenever the day’s food runs out.

“Our busiest day is going to be Sunday,” Bumphis said. “They come and go throughout the day.”

They’ll dish up between 50 and 100 plates a day, he said. And the business is still growing. He and his wife, Jewel, opened this location in early 2021 following the success of their original joint, TJ’s Quick Stop on South Green Street.

Most of the food served at TJ’s is the kind you might find gracing the tables of homes across the South on a Sunday morning. Bumphis walked down the line, pointing a finger at each item on offer that day:

“Squash. That’s black-eyed peas. Baked beans. Fried okra. Turkey legs. Course, you know bread. Tater tot casserole. Fried pork chops. Goulash …”

A customer standing on the other side of the counter interrupted.

“Terry, you make that?” he said, finger-tapping the glass above the pasta dish.

Bumphis laughed.

“No, my wife.”

The customer nodded, seemingly satisfied with that answer, and Bumphis continued.

“Ham hock. And, of course, rib tips.”

The last item, he said, is easily the eatery’s most popular. Smoked by Bumphis himself and drenched in a deep red barbecue sauce, the meat on each rib tip practically melts from the bone.

They’re Bumphis’ personal favorite menu item, too.

“I’m not supposed to have them, though,” he said. “But sometimes I cheat. It’s tough. It is tough.”

Dressing is another big seller, he said. Candied yams are the bestselling item among the vegetables they offer, all of which are scratch-made by his wife based on his own recipes.

“It’s all from my head,” Bumphis said. “I read a lot of cookbooks, but I don’t ever use them. It all comes from my head.”

It’s a menu that’s constantly changing. A customer can drop by multiple times a week and never eat the same dish twice.

“Every day, it’s different,” Bumphis said. “Every day. We don’t do the same thing.”

As he was talking, another customer stepped through the door. Bumphis grinned and greeted him like an old friend, the same as every other customer he’d seen that day.

“What would you like?” Bumphis said.

The customer, staring at the line of food at the front of the store, scratched his chin as if contemplating a great riddle.

“Man,” he said. “I’d get a bit of everything, if I could.”

Somehow, Bumphis’ grin grew even wider.

“We can do that,” he said, and he grabbed a Styrofoam container.

Photos by Thomas Wells