If you ask a barbecue enthusiast to name the best cities for smoked meat in the country, you’re liable to hear a lot of different responses: St. Louis, Kansas City, Lexington, NC and Austin all come to mind. But if they don’t mention Memphis, TN in their top three, you can pretty much chalk them up as a crockpot crackpot who probably buys liquid smoke in the large bottles.
Memphis is a funky town, and that soul is exhibited in the city’s music and crazed devotion to barbecue. Native Memphians vociferously defend their particular favorite smokehouse to the detriment of all others, and don’t waste your breath trying to convince them otherwise unless you just like to argue. Camps are divided by preference for dry ribs or wet, chopped, pulled or sliced pork, and hole-in-the-wall shacks vs. chain restaurants. What they all have in common is some outstanding barbecue where the worst rib in Memphis is very probably head and shoulders above the best meat in your hometown.
When you speak of ribs in Memphis, the crown rests firmly on the head of the Vergos family and their iconic downtown rib joint, Rendezvous. The history of the restaurant pretty much claims to have invented barbecue ribs thanks to the lucky accident of the discovery of a coal chute in the basement of Charley Vergos’ diner in 1948.
The old coal chute provided a place for Vergos to grill ribs and he embarked on experiments to combine the flavors of his native Greek cuisine with the spicy cayenne-based cuisine that was coming up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. His dry seasoning, vinegar baste and charcoal grilling process created the basis of the Memphis flavor profile that still dominates today. If you visit for the ribs, be sure to order the incredibly simple smoked Kielbasa sausage and cheese plate — which highlights the elements of the Rendezvous rub. Squeeze a little lemon on top to give the final bright zesty Greek highlight to the dish, and you won’t be disappointed.
The second first family of Memphis barbecue is the Neely family. Patrick, Gina, Mark, Gaelin and Tony Neely operate the family’s eponymous restaurants in several locations in Memphis and Nashville, while Uncle Jim Neely runs Interstate Barbecue around the corner from Graceland on South Third Street at the head of Highway 55 that runs all the way to the Big Easy. All the Neely restaurants make outstanding huge pork shoulder sandwiches and a gourmet dish that might be unfamiliar to aficionados who haven’t made a pilgrimage to Memphis yet, barbecue spaghetti.
Say what? Yes, barbecue spaghetti. The concept isn’t as wacky as it sounds when you consider that a great Italian pasta gravy is just slow cooked pork and/or beef combined with tomato sauce and spices. So why not barbecue pork and spicy sauce with your spaghetti? This soul fusion is not unique to the Neely’s, but is rarely found outside the borders of the Bluff City. Try the version at the Bar-B-Q Shop in Midtown for another exemplary take at this unique dish.
Don’t limit yourself to just pork shoulder while sandwich shopping in Memphis. Andrew Zimmern declared that Payne’s Bar-B-Q makes the best smoked bologna sandwich in the country, and that man should know. Sliced in thick slabs and served on the whitest of white breads, a smoked tube steak sandwich from Payne’s is the ultimate workingman’s lunch. The restaurant also serves wonderful shoulder sandwiches either pulled, chopped or sliced, but always under a topping of sweet yellow slaw. To do otherwise in Memphis is considered heretical.
Desiree Robinson is a rarity in the barbecue world, particularly in Memphis since she is a woman who runs her own smokehouse. Operating out of a small cinderblock building, Robinson kept the fires burning and the pits smoking at Cozy Corner after the death of her husband Ray in 2001.
Running the front of the house as ribs, pork shoulders, cornish hens and bologna travel in and out of the old Chicago-style aquarium glass smoker, Desiree cuts an stylish figure in an immaculate pants suit and a gold “Try God” pendant around her neck. Ask her for the secrets of her smoking process and Robinson grows coy. “Aww, there’s no secret to it, honey. We put it in raw and take it out cooked.” Press her for more details and she’s liable to give a slightly menacing smile and shift her body to let her jacket flap slightly open to reveal the large handgun holstered on her hip. As a woman in a cash-based business in a rough part of town, the Glock is not completely unexpected. But just the same, it’s probably best to just place your order at that point and retreat to the dining room, because Ms. Desiree doesn’t mess around.
Two relative newcomers to the Memphis barbecue scene are Central BBQ and Memphis Barbecue Co. While their smokers may not have a generation of soot in them yet, both restaurants are earning reputations for putting out some outstanding meat. Central BBQ is recognized for their great sandwiches and ribs, but also for having some of the best smoked dry rub chicken wings in town. Maybe wings aren’t the number one dish on the mind of barbecue purists, but Central’s variety of heat levels will satisfy just about anyone’s cravings.
Memphis Barbecue Co. is actually located south of town, just over the border into Mississippi, but the style is all Memphis. Owners Melissa Cookston and John Ford were competition barbecue cookers who had squared off against each other in contests for years. Eventually, they decided to join forces to bring competition-style and quality barbecue to the masses. Cookston holds the distinction of being the only woman to win the BBQ World Championship at Memphis in May and is the two-time defending champion in the whole hog division. Rich’s Natural Born Grillers team won the ribs category at Memphis in May this year, giving Memphis Barbecue Co. the distinction of two grand champion pitmasters, a feat unrivaled in the world of competitive ‘cue. So if you want to eat the meat that professional judges get to try at the most elite competitions, Cookston and Ford’s restaurant is the place to go.
We haven’t even mentioned the multitude of small shacks and lunch counters in Memphis that serve unbelievable barbecue. There are countless blogs, books and maps dedicated to directing gastronauts to the best of the best in barbecue, but it really is a journey that is best experienced through your own discovery through trial and error. Because in Memphis, even the worst barbecue is pretty damned good!
Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous
52 S 2nd St.
Memphis, TN 38103
Neely’s Bar-B-Que Restaurant
670 Jefferson Ave
Memphis, TN 38105
Jim Neely’s Interstate BBQ
2265 S 3rd St
Memphis, TN 38109
The Bar-B-Q Shop
1782 Madison Ave
Memphis, TN 38104
2249 Central Ave
Memphis, TN 38104
Memphis Barbecue Company
709 Desoto Cv
Horn Lake, MS 38637