Ever since I heard Marc Cohn’s Walking in Memphis and read those early John Grisham novels, I’ve wanted to explore the city of Memphis. So with a little insider advice (a friend who lived there) and a few days off, my family went down to experience the rich history and culture of the city for a few days. We had two goals in mind – explore some of the musical history of the city (the birth of rock music at Sun Studios and the Stax soul music museum) and then to immerse ourselves in BBQ given that Memphis is one of the cities you want to visit for good BBQ.
We wanted to try as much BBQ as we could while we were there. Keep in mind that many of the BBQ places are closed on Sunday since it’s the south (and some again on Monday). That didn’t deter us so with a little information from articles written about Memphis BBQ, Yelp, and my friend’s advice we set out with our palates ready to take in some good BBQ. We stuck to those that were consistently mentioned by others. Every place that we visited we liked but there were a few that really stood out.
Keep in mind that everyone’s “BBQ taste” is different. Me personally, I like “wet” ribs rather than dry rub (but not drowning in sauce) and I’m partial to Kansas City (which focuses on sauce) and Texas style (which includes more beef). The sauce has to have a caramelized look and taste on the ribs but, like dry rubbed ribs, it has to be smoked and not boiled beforehand. Pulled pork has to have a smokiness to it but not cooked so long that it dries out. Our choice for the best BBQ might not be yours, but that’s part of what makes all of this fun!
We tried four places – Central BBQ, Payne’s BBQ, One & Only BBQ, and the Bar-B-Q Shop. We skipped Rendezvous because it was closed while we were there. So here we go… Out of those four we probably thought the Bar-B-Q Shop in Midtown was our least favorite. Not that it’s bad… it’s just the other places, we thought, were better. I had the sampler plate. The ribs and chopped brisket were very good but the chopped pork on Texas toast was outstanding! The sauce was one of the few places we ate at that incorporated mustard. Ok, the side of BBQ spaghetti really lost me. I just don’t get it.
We all agreed that Payne’s BBQ was seriously good BBQ. In my opinion, it’s southern BBQ at it’s best. The sauce was vinegary yet sweet and complimented the smokiness of the ribs very well. I also think the chopped pork shoulder sandwich was killer, even though it was on white bread. The ribs tended to have a bit more gristle than other places and a bit more of the crispy “bark” on the outside but they were still delicious. If you go to Payne’s don’t expect to find a nice sit down restaurant. They have been in business for over 40 years and what you see is what you get. It’s a family run business that operates in the neighborhood and it explains their almost “cult” like status.
Then there was One & Only BBQ in East Memphis, which is a relative newcomer to the crowded BBQ field. While every place we went to did a wonderful job smoking the pork, it eventually ended up coming down to sauce. We really like the BBQ sauce here at One & Only which is more in line with a sweeter Kansas City style with a little kick. I tried both the ribs and the brisket. I loved the ribs but the brisket left me kind of “meh”. They slice it real thin but it seemed like too much of the “fat cap” was left on before smoking. You want some of the fat cap left on to give it the “fatty” taste but in my opinion, this was too much. One side dish that is to die for is the double baked potato salad!
Finally, there was our favorite – Central BBQ in the midtown area. Here’s what I loved about the place. It has this funky, cool college vibe to it since the University of Memphis is right down the street. We knew it was going to be good when we saw the line of people outside the door waiting to order and find a table. The ribs are a meatier cut and they are rubbed with brown sugar giving the bark a nice caramelized taste. I would say the ribs, the chopped pork sandwich and the BBQ were top notch, making this our favorite place. Talking to people in line, it was clear that Central has quite a reputation among locals.
The best part of about Memphis is that there’s enough we missed (the Civil Rights Museum, hanging out on Beale in the downtown area, and more BBQ) that it warrants another trip down there.