Heritage BBQ founder Brady Lowe wanted to test the eating endurance, culinary aptitude and passion for various forms of smoked pig during a 10-restaurant bus tour that challenged 12 chefs, farmers and journalists to eat and drink our way through some of Memphis’ most iconic barbecue restaurants — with twists along the way.
Todd Mussman (Atlanta’s Local 3 Kitchen), Ed Lee (Louisville’s 610 Magnolia) and Chris and David Newman (Missouri heritage pork purveyors Newman Farms) all attended the five-hour crawl through Memphis, with stops at Cozy Corner, The Bar-B-Q Shop and Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous, to name a few. Here’s how it went down. And if you’re ever in Memphis (plan your trip today), these are the barbecue spots to try.
Rounds of barbecued Rappahannock oysters, topped with Allan Benton bacon, kicked things off at Sweetgrass in the Cooper-Young district. Some…well, many, say that Payne’s chopped pork sandwich is the best in the land. This includes the state North Carolina, where barbecued pork is a religion. The clinching element here is a mustard-based slaw the color of Ecto-Cooler. I found it teeth-achingly sweet. The pork, though, was smoked perfection. Central BBQ owner Greg Blondis has won a lot of fans with his dry-rubbed chicken wings — the supreme crunch and Doritos-like red powder residue makes for an interesting combo. But his “competition-ready” dry-rubbed ribs and giant baskets of pork rings made the challengers, well, extremely full. We were only 30% down. The Bar-B-Cue Shop has been serving barbecue spaghetti for over 50 years. I was shocked at how good a bowl of mushy boxed pasta can be transformed with a scoop of dry-rubbed pork and a spicy tomato sauce. Tops Bar-B-Cue, ironically located near a cluster of hospitals, is both a barbecue and meat and three take-out spot. We stopped by for the burger — a classic Memphian combination of thin patty, cheese, mayonnaise between a non-descript bun. Barbecue capitol, sure. Burger capitol, no so sure. We stopped by the Trolley Stop Market, a vegetarian restaurant with a bit of a NoCal vibe, to sample pickled okra, cucumbers and peppers — which owner Keith Forrester cultivates from his nearby farm. Many people stop by Cozy Corner for their shamelessly messy, exquisitely juicy barbecued Cornish game hen. It’s cooked in an aquarium smoker low and slow. Gus’s Fried Chicken, a Tennessee legend that originally opened in Mason, Tennessee, has maintained branches in Memphis since 2000. The chicken is a culinary feat, less about the meat (which is always moist) and more about the golden, paper-thin crust. It doesn’t get much better.
To close out the crawl we were blessed with a rack of ribs from one of the country’s barbecue pork masters. John Wheeler of Memphis Barbecue Company has won the ribs division at Memphis In May two of the past three years. The ribs were the perfect balance of smoke and sugar — and pull-apart tender in just the right may.
Sweet Grass, 937 South Cooper St., Memphis, TN, 901-278-0278
Payne’s BBQ, 1762 Lamar Ave., Memphis, TN, 901-272-1523
Central BBQ, 2249 Central Ave., Memphis, TN, 901-272-9377 and 4375 Summer Ave., Memphis, TN, 901-767-4672
Bar-B-Q Shop, 1782 Madison Ave., Memphis, TN, 901-272-1277
Tops Bar-B-Q, 3970 Rhodes Ave., Memphis, TN, 901-323-9865 and 6130 Macon Rd., Memphis, TN, 901-371-0580
Trolley Stop Market, 704 Madison Ave., Memphis, TN, 901-526-1361
Cozy Corner BBQ, 745 North Parkway, Memphis, TN, 901-527-9158
Gus’s Fried Chicken, 310 South Front St., Memphis, TN, 901-527-4877