One of the culinary capitals of the USA, Memphis specialises in BBQ joints – the Memphis barbecue being one particular style that tends to use pork ribs and shoulders as the fundamental ingredients, slow cooking and flavoring them with dry-rub seasoning and rich barbecue sauce. Here are 10 of the best barbecue restaurants – big and small, celebrated and little-known – to try out in the area.
Bar-B-Q Shop Restaurant
The Bar-B-Q Shop Restaurant is home to the Vernon family, famous in Memphis for their award-winning Dancing Pigs Bar-B-Q sauces and rubs. The sauces draw on five decades of experience serving up first-rate barbecue cuisine and can be used as a marinade or for basting all types of meat from pork and beef to chicken and turkey. The Vernon family sauces are now stocked in over 100 grocery stores across five states in the South and have won prizes at the Fiery Food Challenge National Contests, beating off 800 competitors from across the country. The restaurant at the Bar-B-Q shop offers plates of smoked sausage, pork shoulder or beef with the trademark sauce.
There are now three locations carrying the Central BBQ in Memphis – in the East Memphis, Downtown, and Midtown areas. Frequently ranked as the leading barbecue restaurant in Memphis in the Memphis Flyer and the Memphis magazine, the first Central BBQ was established in 2002. Since then, the restaurant has featured on TV shows including Pitmasters and The Best Thing I Ever Ate and in regional and national publications such as USA Today, Southern Living, and Men’s Health. The food is all rubbed with dry spices before being marinated, and then slow-smoked over hickory and pecan woods. You can choose from slabs of pork ribs, beef brisket, turkey and sausage with plenty of onion rings, fries, potato salad and home-cooked pork rind.
Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous
Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous has become a Memphis institution and the ribs were a favourite of President Bill Clinton and his Vice-President Al Gore. Located just across from the famous Peabody Hotel, the barbecue side of things began when Charlie Vergos headed down to the basement of his diner and dug out a coal chute. The idea then came to him to use the chute over a barbecue grill – the days of the diner serving up sandwiches were gone. Thousands now come to the Rendezvous to sample the Memphis-style ribs, made with dry rub seasoning rather than sauce. You can get pork ribs and shoulder, or ribs with brisket to suit your fancy. Plaudits have come for the Rendezvous from the Washington Post, Esquire magazine, and The New York Times.
Corky’s was established in 1984 by Don Pelts after he’d spent over a decade working in other Memphis barbecue restaurants. All of the food at Corky’s is slow-cooked over hickory wood and charcoal. The original location of Corky’s was in East Memphis, but there are now a further three restaurants across the state of Tennessee. The décor is classic 1950s Americana – lots of neon, polished brass, ’50s music piped in over the stereo and the waiters serve the food dressed in bow ties. The house specialty is ribs – either the dry version, basted with special sauce and sprinkled with a secret blend of spices, or wet, that have been slowly basted with Corky’s trademark sauce. You can combine ribs with pulled pork, fried Delta catfish or beef brisket.
Cozy Corner started life two and a half decades ago when Raymond Robinson set up the restaurant on the corner of North Parkway and N Manassas Street. Now run by his widow Desiree, Cozy Corner remains a firm favourite of barbecue fans in Memphis and has featured in publications such as Saveur magazine. The menu features intriguing specialties as well as classic Memphis pork ribs – you can sample a whole Cornish Hen or a turkey if you order a few days in advance. Alternately you can opt for a whole slab of ribs, or mix up two, four or six ribs with chicken wings. Desserts on offer include the indulgent Memphis Mudd cake.
The menu at Elwood’s Shack is not strictly barbecue but also features sandwiches, breakfasts, hot dogs and pizzas. However, the barbecue items on the menu are so highly regarded by locals that Elwood’s Shack just cannot be missed off a run-down of the best spots for a barbecue in Memphis. You can find a BBQ burrito with pork or beef with jalapeno, onion, tomato and plenty of sauce, BBQ pork with nachos and jalapeno peppers, or a BBQ bologna served up on crisp white toast. Located just off Summer Avenue in East Memphis, other barbecue options on the menu include BBQ sliders of pork, spicy pork and brisket with onion and pickle, or BBQ quesadilla with pulled pork and sweet bell peppers.
A commissary was a small country store in the 19th and early 20th centuries that sold all manner of general items. The Germantown Commissary is sited in what was once the country store in the town of Germantown, Tennessee. For the last 25 years it has been serving up Memphis-style barbecue cuisine – Playboy magazine even named the restaurant as one of the top 10 barbecue restaurants in the whole of the US. Celebrities such as Faith Hill, Jack Nicklaus and Tim McGraw as well as great bands including Aerosmith and The Eagles have dropped in over the years. On the menu are great dishes such as smoked sausage and BBQ shrimp, BBQ hickory smoked pork ribs, and BBQ shoulder of pork either pulled or chopped served up with beans and coleslaw.
Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Q
Set up in 1979 in a converted store, Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Q now holds a national reputation as one of the top places in Memphis for excellent food. Jim Neely’s nephews Pat and Tony have gone on to open barbecue restaurants too, with Pat also featuring on the Food Network demonstrating his first-rate food. There are still a dozen members of the Neely family working at the Interstate Bar-B-Q. The restaurant has long held its superb reputation – it was named back in 1989 as the second best restaurant for barbecue food in the whole USA by People magazine, and the best barbecue restaurant in Memphis by Vogue soon after. Specialty cuisine on offer is the pork and beef ribs with beans and slaw, hickory smoked with special spices, and smoked or sliced pork and beef pieces.
Payne’s is a family-run barbecue restaurant that has been going since 1972 on Lamar Avenue in Memphis close to Glenview Park. Payne’s is a no-frills set-up – there is no website, few tables are set out, and the décor is unpretentious – but the food is renowned for being top-notch. The Payne’s specialty is the barbecue sandwich of slow-smoked pork shoulder, pulled, chopped, or sliced according to your wishes and served up with plenty of sauce that is just a little spicier than the usual Memphis style. You can also get excellent smoked sausage, ribs and bologna. Payne’s came second in the Memphis Flyer’s run-down of the very best barbecue sandwiches available in Memphis.
Tops BBQ, set up in 1952, celebrated its 60th birthday in 2012 and now includes 15 locations across Memphis. The restaurants still cook their pork shoulder the same way they did way back when the very first Tops was set up – pit-barbecued for 10 hours over hardwood, green hickory and charcoal for the very best flavor possible. The restaurants have been lauded in the local press countless times, especially in The Commercial Appeal for the quality of the burgers and the barbecue sandwiches. On the menu are slabs of pork and beef ribs, pork shoulder and beef brisket sandwiches, and whole 3lb briskets and shoulders of pork.
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