Blake Stoker fell for Texas barbecue hard and fast. The native of Dresden, Tennessee—two hours and change northeast of Memphis—wasn’t familiar with smoked brisket but learned plenty about beef while growing up on a cattle farm. Stoker’s father, Bobby, gave him Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto for his twentieth birthday, in October 2015. Within a few months, they’d planned a barbecue pilgrimage together to the Austin area, and by summer 2016 Stoker was serving his own smoked brisket back in his hometown from a trailer. At the time in Tennessee, he said, “there was no such thing as brisket, and it took a lot of sample giving.” The pork-loving locals came around, just not quite as quickly as Stoker had.

Reflecting on that maiden voyage to Texas, Stoker recalled the first visit to Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor. “We had a completely religious barbecue experience,” he said, though they didn’t grasp how to order by the pound and ended up with three times what they needed. The next morning, they were in line at Franklin Barbecue before 7 a.m. Seeing the cult following barbecue could produce, Stoker had mentally reorganized his future once he’d finished the last bite of brisket. “I decided, you know what? I’m gonna do it. Let’s give it a shot.” He was in his junior year at Mississippi State University, working toward an agriculture business degree, but already knew he’d be cooking barbecue after graduation. His parents didn’t argue. In fact, his father got the welder on the farm to build two five-hundred-gallon smokers.

This is more work than I could ever imagine, Stoker thought just a few weeks into serving from the truck, but he enjoyed the challenge and seeing the satisfaction he could provide his customers. After graduation, he looked for permanent setups in Memphis; Nashville; and Starkville, Mississippi, where he had gone to school. “My vision was really just an old service station with roll-up garage doors and an awning,” he said.

Then he found an old mill in Martin, a town triple the size and just a few miles north of Dresden. Stoker signed the papers for the property in 2019, and it took nearly three years to complete the renovations, which were designed mostly by his mother, Stacey. The grain mill had sat dormant for decades. “It was completely raw,” he said, with several feet of old grain still in the basement. But it had been a huge presence in the small town since its completion in 1918. Now it’s something of a barbecue palace.

The new place, called Blake’s at Southern Milling, opened last May. Stoker went from operating a food truck by himself to running a restaurant with 65 people on the payroll, and he knew he needed help. General manager Whitney Hayes keeps things humming. In preparation for the opening, Stoker hired Libby Meadows. “She came from zero barbecue experience,” he said, and is now the pit manager. Taylor Hathaway is the main pit hand, and like most people in the area, she had no knowledge of how to smoke a brisket when she started.

“It’s all very learnable, as long as you’re willing and have the right heart,” Stoker said, while acknowledging he could have been a better teacher in the beginning. Now he finds himself to be a jack of all trades, helping wherever needed and not tending the smokers every day. “I definitely struggle with it,” he says of being away from the pit room, but he understands that it’s the natural progression of owning such a large restaurant.

I visited on a recent Wednesday morning. Sun poured through the windows lining two walls of the main dining room. We placed our order at the counter, and that day Stoker was plating the barbecue onto trays in the kitchen. You can order a simple sandwich or get your barbecue in courses like we did. The first course was a half-dozen perfectly constructed deviled eggs with maple bacon bourbon jam, along with pimento cheese and smoked cream cheese with seasoned Saltines.

Sandwiches from Blake’s at Southern Milling.
The Bubba Cole sandwich, with brisket, turkey, and pimento cheese. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

I know smoked cream cheese was a social media trend for a time, but I’ve never tried it. Blake’s heavily rubbed block gathers the smoke well, and it was so soft and warm that nothing but the crackers were needed to cut into it. I loved it. The pimento cheese was on the sweet side, but it’s more popular on a sandwich than on its own. Stoker’s aunt Angie makes seventy quarts of it for the restaurant weekly but doesn’t care for it herself. “She makes every bit of it and has never tried it in her life,” Stoker said.

Most of the pimento cheese comes to diners via the Bubba Cole, a sandwich with a cult following that was first developed at the trailer. It’s a combination of fatty sliced brisket and lean smoked turkey with a generous scoop of pimento cheese on a buttered brioche bun. Stoker named it for Bubba, the contractor on the building renovation, who was already a fan of his barbecue from the trailer days; and for Cole Parkman of LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue in Austin, whom he often trades barbecue notes with.

A platter of barbecue was dominated by beautiful slices of smoked brisket. It’s seasoned with salt, several grinds of black pepper, and a dusting of coffee grounds. It was juicy and tender, with just the right hint of smoke in both the lean and fatty slices. The smoked turkey was just right, and even better with a dip in the “kum back” sauce. Sweet-rubbed baby back pork ribs are served instead of spares as a nod to Tennessee tradition.

His brisket may be making inroads in northwest Tennessee, but Stoker said “the highest-volume basic order is still probably a pulled pork sandwich with mild sauce and slaw on it.” The well-smoked pork is pulled into thick strands rather than shredded, and there was plenty of bark mixed in with my serving. And while the smoked meat is the focus, the sides are exciting as well. The fried brussels sprouts were sweet and crunchy, but I was more taken with a cheesy and buttery tomato pie made from Stoker’s mother’s recipe. It’s not really a traditional Tennessee dish, but I liked the departure from the trio of slaw, beans, and potato salad.

The food was incredible, and I was surprised at just how well Stoker pulled off what feels like a Texas barbecue destination in rural Tennessee. He aims to impress and has quickly learned the difference between wowing newbies through a food truck window and having them arrive with high expectations. “Even if it’s not true,” Stoker said, “it’s my mindset that everybody that walks in this door is expecting the best experience and the best food they’ve ever had.” 

Stoker is more than a worthy ambassador for Texas barbecue in a foreign land. Just inside the front door is a wall covered in framed photos of Texas pitmasters (all taken by Robert Jacob Lerma) that have inspired or assisted Stoker in the position he’s in now. “That wall isn’t all-encompassing, but it’s a good mix of folks who really mean something to me,” he said. And I don’t know of a pitmaster outside the state who has spent more time immersing themselves in Texas barbecue culture.

This fall, Blake is planning his eighteenth trip to Texas, and I’m sure he’ll return home with some knowledge and a few more photos. And maybe a visitor to Blake’s will see that wall and think about planning their own barbecue trek to Texas—but they’ll get a pretty good preview if they just take a seat.