The Arachnerd’s Memphis Barbecue Diaries
The wife and I love barbecue, especially slow smoked, dry rubbed, Tennessee’s finest pork ribs. We actually consider ourselves BBQ Snobs to some degree. We are by no means “experts” but we’re working on it.
We make an annual trip during her Spring Break to the home of the best barbecue in the world, Memphis Tennessee. It’s been said that there’s no such thing as a bad barbecue joint in Memphis, just varying levels of greatness. And I would tend to agree. I haven’t been anywhere yet that I would classify as “bad”, just some that I like more than others.
We have made it our mission to try every joint in and around Memphis, and so far we’re doing pretty well. On each trip, which only lasts three or four days each, we have been able to enjoy one or more of our favorite places plus one or two new ones. Unfortunately now that we’ve been at it for several years, we are starting to lose track and forget some of the places that we’ve only been to once. I guess we will have to try some of them again… what an awful problem to have, right?
This page is not so much to review, rate or critique these restaurants, but more to serve as a way for us to keep track of where we’ve been, where we want to return, and where we might consider avoiding on future trips. If it serves as a guide for other self-proclaimed barbeque snobs or potential Memphis visitors, so be it.
I have read a handful of negative reviews about the Rendezvous claiming that what they serve is “fake” barbeque. It’s most definitely not fake. Yes, it’s different than most places. Charlie Vergos converted an old coal chute into a charcoal smoker capable of cranking out the incredible number of slabs they serve each and every night, and created what is commonly considered the standard for Memphis style dry ribs. It’s not the same pork you will get all over town, but that’s what makes them special. They’re unique. Even though they’re less meaty than most; they have a snap to them, chewy edges, & wonderful bark.
The place has incredible ambiance; from having to enter down the back-alley – to the extensive collection of anything & everything that adorns their walls, ceilings, & cabinets – to the friendly, funny and well-seasoned staff. Most times of the day they even give you a delicious bowl of red beans & rice when you first sit down to hold you over, but they serve you so quickly I can’t imagine who would really need held-over.
But all of that would be for naught if it wasn’t for those ribs… those wonderful ribs. Charcoal smoked to perfection, mopped with a thin vinegar sauce and covered with the best, most flavorful, most complex dry rub you have ever eaten. It’s a combination sent straight from heaven. And no matter what anyone tries to say, Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous is still my number one pick for barbeque ribs not just in Memphis, but anywhere.
This is where Neely-Cue originated. The Neely’s on the Food Network show are from the other Neely’s restaurant. Jim is their uncle and actually opened his restaurant first. He did however design the pits for both.
Interstate is the epitome of a BBQ joint. It’s a quaint little dining room just off of the interstate that feels more like a down-home diner. His ribs have a good slow smoky flavor and you get plenty of it. The first time we ordered rib tips, the plate was piled so high we thought we were going to die. They do sauce their ribs, but they do it at the optimal time during the cooking process so that the sauce gets perfectly caramelized.
The Bar-BQ Shop serves what could quite possibly be my second favorite ribs in the world. They are a thing of beauty. They’re different from the Rendezvous because:
1) They’re a different cut of rib – more of a standard spare rib which has the rib-tips attached. They are bigger and meatier, but you also have to contend with the extra gristle pieces, which I’m not crazy about.
2) The rub and sauce isn’t quite as flavorful, but they make up for it in pure, honest smoky goodness. Nothing else needed!
If you’re looking for a place to get some excellent, quality barbeque ribs and an excellent side of barbeque spaghetti, you can’t go wrong with the Dancin’ Pigs!
Maybe not the best ribs in town, but definitely the best on Beale. They’re lightly sauced, but spicier than most of the barbecue around. Plus you get the added bonus of being on Beale Street, so there’s live music and plenty to see and do. Sit on the patio for more optimal people-watching.
Excellent, very meaty ribs that are very similar to Jim Neely’s Interstate. If there were any complaints it would be that they’re a little too saucy for our taste and they could use a better rub, but they’re still great. I have heard that media success has lowered the quality and service, but that has not been confirmed yet since we haven’t actually been there since their show started.
Update: We went back, and the service hasn’t suffered at all from our perspective. The waitress was very friendly and accommodating, and the food was great. The ribs were pretty much how we remembered them even though we ordered them dry this time. They are still not my favorite – just a smidge behind Interstate’s – but still excellent Memphis style barbecue. Save room for dessert though, if that’s even possible. Or you can do like we did and order a couple to-go, and then take them back to the room to eat later. It’s totally worth it.
Cozy Corner sits in a neighborhood than can best be described as “depressed”. You can see remnants of what used to be, but more than anything it just kind of makes you sad. But then there is the restaurant itself. It looks a little intimidating from the outside, but once you go in, it feels like home. The people are friendly and funny – and above all, the food is amazing.
Obviously, I prefer dry-rub, which is something CC doesn’t offer, but that’s okay. Their ribs are amazing with their delicious spicy sauce – and the Cornish hen (something you just don’t find everywhere) is killer… messy, but killer!
Not horrible barbecue, but not the best either. Actually there’s nothing wrong with the food, the atmosphere is just too “chain-restaurant” feeling for my taste. You can order your ribs wet or dry and they really are pretty good. But there are just too many other great places in town to bother stopping here.
If I had one piece of advice to offer someone going to Central BBQ for the first time, it would be to stick with the ribs. We have ordered other smoked meats there and all were mediocre at best – with the exception of the ribs.
So let’s talk about the ribs: They rock! They’re meaty, tender, smoky, and tasty. I have no real complaint about the quality, portion size, or service. Their sides are lackluster, but it’s nice to have a few options that you don’t find at other joints around town, like macaroni & cheese or greens – but really, Central is all about the ribs. Order them dry & sample their different sauces, but you don’t actually need them.
Based on the quality of the one meat alone – Central remains high on our list of BBQ joints worth going back to. And that’s saying a lot!
We went a few years ago for the buffet, which was good but forgettable. The second time we went, we made sure to order off of the menu. The dry ribs were good, but not great. The rub seemed to have too much seasoned-salt and the meat lacked the strong smoky flavor that I look for. The pork shoulder was excellent though, even with their super-dark (sorghum molasses-based, maybe?) sauce on top, and the slaw complimented it nicely too.
Pig is first and foremost a bar, so eating barbeque here feels like you’re eating bar food. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. I’m just saying it’s not the kind of place you want to bring your kids. The food wasn’t great, but it was good enough, and I always enjoy hanging out on Beale.
Located in an old General Store building about a 30 minute drive from downtown Memphis, the Commissary was one of the few places we tried on the recommendation of a random stranger. The food was good, including the sides, which is saying a lot for a barbecue joint. Order the ribs dry and they really are “Memphis style” though I wish the dry rub had been more substantial. Unfortunately the service wasn’t great. Add that to its distance from downtown and we probably won’t be going back any time soon.
Payne’s is an adventure. It’s a bit out of the way & located in a barely converted service station. The staff is minimal, the menu is short, drinks are only available in cans, there are only a handful of mismatched tables & all of them wobble. It is definitely one of the most memorable places in Memphis, but not necessarily because of the food.
I can’t say I was all that impressed with their ribs. But for what it’s worth, that’s not what their known for anyway. Every review that you can find on the internet for Payne’s raves about their big, messy, slaw-topped sandwiches. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to try one. We will have to save that experience for another time.
Set on the edge of an Industrial park, Tom’s is the perfect lunch location for tons of hungry workers daily. And for good reason! The staff is super friendly and the food is outstanding. I reviewed Tom’s in a blog post a while back, which you can read here, just be prepared to be hungry afterwards.
Bottom line, if you have time, go to Tom’s. And don’t forget their Pièce de résistance, the rib tips! They are so unique it’s hard to even compare them to the others you can find around town – or anywhere for that matter.
I made a mistake when we went to A & R. I forgot to order my ribs dry – I guess I took it for granted that in Memphis, all the barbecue joints would serve their ribs “Memphis-style” by default. I was wrong. Our food was excellent, but entirely too saucy. Don’t get me wrong, the sauce was good; spicy, tangy, & not too sweet, there was just too much of it for my taste. I felt like I needed a shower after we left. My wife on the other hand contends that their BBQ Spaghetti was the best she had ever tried. And as an added bonus – don’t leave without getting a fried pie for dessert.
The atmosphere at Marlowe’s is awesome, as long as you’re an Elvis fan. Its location is partially to blame I guess since it’s just down the road from Graceland, but the amount of Elvis memorabilia on the walls, tables, and ceiling could rival that of many King of Rock & Roll museums. But that’s obviously not why we were there.
The amount of food on our plates was staggering. My slab of ribs literally hung over both sides of the plate & my wife’s combo platter was piled high. We had to take a good portion of it with us when we left. But unfortunately the flavor was lacking. Usually in a place like this you get one of two things; a good smoky barbeque flavor, or an over compensation with a flavorful sauce or rub. This had neither. It wasn’t awful by any standard, but we were pretty unimpressed.
Technically, B.B. Kings is not a barbecue joint. But we were there at dinner time, ribs were on the menu, and we ordered them. And I have to tell you… they ain’t half bad! In fact, they’re pretty good. We ordered them dry, and just the flavor of the smoke and the rub was impressive. Add their spicy sauce as a condiment and they were downright tasty. They were super tender though, which leads me to believe they’re doing something else during the cooking process besides just slow-smoking, but I could be wrong. Either way, I am not complaining.
You have to have a certain level of audacity to open a barbecue joint in 2007 just outside of Memphis and call yourselves “One & Only”. You also better have the goods to back it up. Fortunately for these guys – they know what they’re doing! We have been ‘cue snobs for a long time and tried a lot of different restaurants – most of which were long on atmosphere & hype, but short on the actual product. One & Only is not one of those places.
Everything we ate there was way above average. The ribs were fantastic, the smoked chicken was excellent and the brisket – oh my… Memphis in not known for beef brisket, but theirs was awesome; sliced thin, spicy, not too fatty, and super-flavorful. Everything we ate had both a good smoky flavor that can’t be faked and a really good spice rub that pushed it over the top.
This rarely happens for us, but I am pretty sure that One & Only just knocked someone out of our top 5 favorites list.
I prefer restaurants that do one or two things really well as opposed to many things moderately well. So I worried about the Double J for two reasons; their menu was not extensive but the range of entrees seemed a little too broad at first glance, and it’s kind of a theme restaurant. Luckily they didn’t play up the “Saloon” theme too much but it did separate it somewhat from the usual Memphis-centric motifs of most of the BBQ joints in town.
But all of that stuff aside, we were there for ‘que – and ‘que is what we got! The ribs are wonderful; dry-rubbed, slightly spicy, tender & juicy. And the pork steak was equally delicious. Also, as much as I like beans & slaw, which is usually what I order even when there are other options available, it was nice to see some unique choices – and the grilled asparagus was great.
Honorable Mention (aka: Notable Non-Memphis Barbecue):
I never thought I would have ribs in downtown St. Louis, MO that might actually meet my Memphis barbecue snob standards. I changed my tune when I ate at Pappy’s. We had to stand in line for maybe 30 minutes or so before we made it to the counter. About three-fourths of the way up, a waiter asked if we were doing okay & I replied with “what do you suggest?” He said, “wait right here” and disappeared behind the door to the kitchen. When he returned, he darted his eyes back & forth a few times and palmed me a rib wrapped in butcher paper. Holy crap! It was meaty, juicy, dry-rubbed and delicious. You can actually taste the apple and cherry wood smoke infused in the meat. They are not sauced, but the dry rub melts on the ribs to make a sweet, sticky glaze that is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Trust me, you won’t even think about using sauce. And unlike most barbecue joints, the sides were awesome too – especially the sweet potato fries.
How do you build a barbecue empire? Well if you’re Mike Mills you start by being crowned the Grand World Champion at the annual Memphis In May Barbecue Cooking Contest a record three times. The good news for me is that he lives (and opened his first 2 restaurants) right in my back yard. 17th Street has been named on a number of prominent national lists including Bon Appetit & Playboy magazines for having barbecue at or near the top of the curve. And I agree that it’s good – probably the best in the region. Their signature baby-back ribs are smoked in a combination of charcoal and apple wood, and the flavors are a well balanced combination of smoke, meat & spice. My two main issues with their ribs are that I prefer a meatier cut than baby backs, and that they sauce them late in the cooking process – and I’m personally not a big fan of their sauce. Don’t get me wrong, I still like them a lot, but those two things keep them from being “great” in my book. But if you happen to be passing through Southern Illinois on I-57, stop in and have a rack – and see if you disagree.
Dude! If you EVER find yourself in the St. Louis neighborhood of Soulard, do yourself a favor and eat at Bogart’s! The restaurant may still be an infant in the landscape of barbecue joints, but the pitmaster, Skip Steele , has a smoky pedigree a mile long. He was a partner with Mike Emerson at Pappy’s Smokehouse, worked with Mike Mills of 17th Street, co-founded the legendary SuperSmoker’s, and the list goes on and on. This cat knows what he’s doing. Get this – after his ribs are smoked to perfection, they are finished with an apricot glaze and then hit with (wait for it) a propane torch! It is a thing of beauty. Add to that a comfortable and friendly atmosphere in an awesome little neighborhood and you have a winner!