We had been contemplating taking a BBQ themed road trip for some time now. As much as we love our KC BBQ we have always been intrigued by other BBQ destinations across the country. We generally operate with the notion that there are four areas that claim the best BBQ in the country (in no particular order; Carolinas, Memphis, Texas and Kansas City). We’re sure you can get great BBQ elsewhere, however those are the four places that BBQ seems to be defended as vehemently as one’s religion. Plus, those regions seem to have distinct styles by which all other BBQ is categorized.
Earlier this year we started seriously thinking about planning a trip. As we looked at a calendar we found both of our schedules open over the long Memorial Day weekend. We then started plugging destinations into Google and decided Memphis worked well for a 3-day BBQ inspired jaunt. We started researching BBQ restaurants and BBQ history in Memphis. Finding many “Best of Memphis BBQ” lists on various tourist sites we found a lot of the same places being mentioned, much like they are on “Best of KC BBQ” lists. To cut through some of the tourist hype we solicited suggestions from a Memphis BBQ blogger, whose site is similar to ours, but without the grading scale. (If you like our site, we strongly suggest checking out “Memphis Que“) From his suggestions of not-to-miss places, and other research, (much of which centered on what would actually be open over the Holiday weekend) we came up with our plan of attack to cram as much Memphis BBQ in our gullets in a 38 hour period as we could.
We set off from KC after we finished work on Saturday, picked up our wives and drove straight through to Memphis. Originally we planned on getting ribs the first night from Marlowe’s Restaurant and Ribs which we found out is open until 3 a.m. However, as good as that idea sounded in Independence, MO at 5:30 p.m. before dinner, it had lost all luster by the time we rolled into West Memphis, AR at 1:45 a.m. We punted that idea and crashed instead, recharging ourselves for gratuitous smoked meat consumption over the next day and a half.
Sunday morning we started off by visiting Sun Studio in Memphis, TN. Being almost as big fans of music as we are of BBQ we found this to be a fantastic spot to check out. There was something very surreal about standing in the same exact spot Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and others recorded some of their most famous music and listening to their original recordings in that very room. After an hour or so in one of the most hallowed of places the music industry has to offer our stomachs told us it was time to get on to why we really came to Memphis.
The line is out the door
We started our Memphis BBQ journey at Central BBQ‘s Midtown location on Central Ave. As we parked we saw the line out the door starting to wrap around the building and were immediately reminded of Oklahoma Joe’s in KC. We counted license plates from 14 states in the lot, so it appeared other people had the same idea as we did. The line moved pretty quickly and there was adequate seating in the indoor dining room or the
large outdoor patio. As we do in KC we tried to order a wide variety of offerings from the menu to get a good perspective of the whole experience. We ended up with a combo plate with pulled pork, brisket and ribs, and two sandwiches. We also ordered a side of BBQ nachos which is a uniquely Memphis dish (more on uniquely Memphis dishes later). We also ended up with 4 side dishes as well; fries, chips, beans, mac and cheese, and coleslaw was on the sandwiches. One of the things we discovered at Central and was later repeated at The BBQShop was the option for the ribs to be served “dry” or “wet”. Dry was served with
Hot, Original, Spicy Mustard, and Vinegar
anothersprinkle of rub after cooking and we were served with a light sauce applied after cooking. We opted for dry at both locations in order to apply sauce to our liking. Central has 4 sauces available in the dining room. They offered an original, hot, vinegar and mustard sauce. What was different about the sauces vs. many Kansas City places is that the sauce is presented warm. It makes sense I suppose, hot sauce and hot BBQ. It was one of those things we never really thought about, but after experiencing it, we liked the idea. Overall the food at Central was really enjoyable. The ribs were very tender and had a good smoke presence. They were really good without sauce and when we added sauce it brought another dimension to the flavor. Pulled pork was moist and tender, again with a very smoke forward flavor. Brisket was tasty, but not spectacular. Turkey in Memphis was just like it is in KC, uneventful. The sides as a whole were acceptable but nothing really noteworthy. They were a nice compliment to the meal, but
BBQ nacho chip
nothing I’d buy in a quart and take to a family reunion to try and pass off as my own. The BBQ nachos were great, however. They consisted of a thick, crispy tortilla chip covered with their pulled pork, drizzled with BBQ sauce, then smothered in with shredded cheddar cheese, and sprinkled with their rub. And yes, they were every bit as glorious as that sounds.
From Central BBQ, we spend some more time being tourists in Memphis. We went to the Lorraine Hotel / National Civil Rights Museum. We familiarized ourselves with the downtown area for later in the evening and drove past Graceland before heading to our dinner location. Sunday night we had to choose between the ultimate tourist destination in Memphis BBQ world known as Corky’s and a smaller joint called Three Little Pigs (which was a Memphis Que recommendation). After some discussion, we decided to head over to Three Little Pigs.
Three Little Pigs building
We pulled into this dive and realized we made a good choice. There were a few booths
and tables, with little piggies all over the walls and counter top. It was quaint and exactly what you would expect a small BBQ diner to be. This restaurant is known for its pork. In fact, the BBQ menu is quite simple. Large or small sandwich and large or small plate. Their signature and only meat is pork. Some days they offer ribs but all days they offer pork (pulled or chopped). We arrived after they had run out of ribs and cheese for their BBQ nachos. So like Henry Ford once said, “You can have any thing on our menu as long
Pulled pork up close
as its pork,” or something like that. Also, Benjamin Franklin once said “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.” Since we couldn’t try the ribs or nachos, we ordered the pulled pork sandwich and the plate. We also had fries, beans, slaw, and onion rings as sides. The fries seemed to have a thick crisp crust almost like the batter of the onion rings that they undoubtedly fried together. The beans were decent but nothing special. The slaw was chopped, not shredded and was on the sweet side. It was also served atop the pork sandwich. Their sauce seemed to be a ketchup based sauce cut with mustard, vinegar, and spices. There was very little added sweetness beyond the sugars in the ketchup,
Bag of onion rings
leaving this brown hued sauce tangy and unique. Since they were somewhat limited on sides, we decided to order the family size onion rings to split. Little did we know, the family they were referring to was the Duggers. They literally served them in an AMC movie theater “Director’s Combo Size” popcorn bag. Seriously, it was an actual AMC movie theater bag! We had stuffed ourselves pretty well at lunch so dinner being on the lighter side (if you can really call it that) was a good choice.
Beale Street, Memphis
That evening we decided to check out Beale Street and the Downtown area. Yes, it is touristy, yes it is cliche, but it was one of those things we wanted to do just so we could say we did it. As it happens, The FedEx Forum is at the East end of Beale street. We knew the Memphis Grizzlies were in town playing the Spurs in the NBA playoffs that weekend. However, we were unaware that Sir Paul McCartney was playing FedEx Forum the off night between games. It was the first time in 20 years he played Memphis and from our estimation, EVERYONE showed up. Beale Street on its own seems to be like the KC Power and Light District times about 50. Now imagine that if the Royals were in the playoffs (c’mon, you can at least imagine that), and literally a Beatle was playing Sprint Center. Because of the absurd number of people on Beale we settled one street North on Peabody at the Flying Saucer’s Memphis location. We wound our day down trying some local beers that we can’t get in KC and then headed back to the hotel to rest up for one last Memphis BBQ hurrah.
The front entrance
Before we headed back KC way, we had one more meal in Memphis. We chose The Bar-B-Que Shop on Madison, Ave. We wanted to visit The Bar-B-Que shop for a couple of reasons. 1) It appeared on quite a few of the “best of” lists and 2) it was originally known as Brady and Lil’s, the originator of Memphis’ signature dish, BBQ Spaghetti. Again in order to maximize the damage we ordered a platter with chopped pork, chopped beef and dry ribs. We also ordered their version of BBQ nachos and we couldn’t leave without ordering the original BBQ Spaghetti. When it came time to order drinks Elwood
Beef, Ribs, and Pork
asked our server if they had sweet tea. The look she shot back was priceless. It was somewhere between “Yes” and “Hey moron, you do realize that you are actually in the South, right?!” As a side note, the sweet tea was great! Our platter was served with beans, slaw, and Texas toast (which apparently is a rarity in Memphis). The sides we found to be, as most on our trip were, merely okay. Both the pork and beef were served chopped and sauced. Both were tender and packed with flavor. We enjoyed both thoroughly. The BBQ nachos were good, but truth be told, we preferred Central’s version. These had more of a generic feel to them. They used a more typical round chip which were actually a little stale and the expected neon yellow faux cheese like you’d find on ball park nachos. We’ll get to the
BBQ spaghetti in just a bit. The sauces at The Bar-B-Que Shop came in three varieties, Dancing Pigs (the house sauce), Hot, and the one the server had to shake up because the pepper oil that settles on the top can apparently strip the paint off a Cadillac. Seriously, she warned us 3 times about how hot it was. The Dancing Pigs sauce (which we both bought to-go bottles of, by the way) was a bit sweeter than many of the sauces we found thus far. The Hot was an amped up, peppery version of the original. and the Cadillac stripper was very hot, but not to the point of being so just for the sake of being hot. It was still very flavorful and really tasty. The ribs at The Bar-B-Que Shop were a perfect culmination of our trip to Memphis. They were just flat out fantastic. Again we ordered them dry, and that choice was spot on. They were tender, smokey, and perfectly seasoned. The crunchy crust the last application of rub just before service provided was like meat candy. Those ribs were our “Ah-ha!” moment for Memphis BBQ. Everything we had up to that point, at all three restaurants, was very good to great. But those ribs were like a light switch. One bite and we both “got it”. We understood how Memphis earned it’s spot at the “Grown Up’s table” in the World of BBQ.
Memphis style dry rib
When in Rome…
While Kansas City is known for smoking a wide variety of meat and that signature thick, sweet sauce Memphis is all about pork. Be it pulled, chopped or in rib form Memphis does it, and does it very well. Every pork dish we had in Memphis was extremely well prepared.
Central’s BBQ nachos
As hyper-regional as BBQ can be there are some dishes that are just synonymous with a particular area or city. Even beyond a regional style there are dishes that appear everywhere in a concentrated area and are virtually absent outside of that area. To us, the Kansas City version of a dish like that is Burnt Ends. In Memphis, that dish is BBQ Spaghetti, and to a slightly lesser extent, BBQ nachos. Interestingly enough, both of these dishes focus on pulled or chopped pork as the meat component. BBQ Spaghetti was originally served at Brady and Lil’s (now The Bar-B-Que Shop) in the 1950′s they wanted to make a dish that distinguished themselves from the competition in Memphis. They got the idea to soak spaghetti noodles in BBQ sauce and pork trimmings and serve it topped with pork and more sauce. The result is a very sweet and smokey version of a familiar dish. When we started planning this trip we
discovered BBQ Spaghetti on almost every menu, of every restaurant we looked at visiting. We figured where better to try this local institution than at the place that first introduced it? Perhaps it stems from us not growing up in Memphis and this dish not being in our native BBQ lexicon, but neither one of us could really understand the mass appeal of this dish. Not that it was bad, it just didn’t move our meter in the least.
Our thoughts on Memphis BBQ…
We have had a hard time coming up with a way to accurately describe the difference between Memphis and KC BBQ overall. In the big picture sense we think Memphis as a whole does pork better than just about anything we have eaten in terms of BBQ. While their sides seem to play more of a back up role than in KC and they may not offer the variety of meat that KC does, the quality of all forms of smoked pig is extremely good and that alone cements them as one of the “Meccas” of BBQ in this country.
The sauce, which is a big deal in KC, seems to usually be a tomato base with vinegar tang, spices, and mustard in some cases vs. KC’s take which is more of a tomato base with a molasses/brown sugar sweetness and spice. The sauce in Memphis is still important overall and the vinegar tang in many of the sauces balances the fattier texture of the pork that is so prevalent.
As always, these are merely our opinions. Overall, we both really enjoyed our little excursion to the geographically closest BBQ destination to KC and would love to go back and try even more places. (Rendezvous was closed, as were some of the places on our list suggested from the Memphis Que blog). Like we said above, we get why Memphis has earned the stature it has in regards to BBQ and we look forward to exploring even more of this uniquely American cuisine both in Kansas City and across the nation.
-Jake & Elwood
If you have visited any of these places in Memphis or have suggestions for our next visit, we’d love your input!