For expertly made pulled pork, ribs, and everything in between, we’ve found seven Memphis joints that smoke the competition.
In the rich canon of American regional food, nothing quite compares to barbecue in Memphis. Though ribs are serious business in this town, it’s the pork sandwich that cements a pit master’s reputation. While the flavor and texture of the meat vary—depending on how each joint works its “fire”—the basic composition remains the same: slow-roasted pork shoulder pulled (shredded by hand) or chopped (with a heavy cleaver) and piled onto a burger-like bun, then spread with a layer of tangy slaw (there may or may not be a squirt of sauce). In a city with plenty of places to choose from, we’re giving you a head start.
A local chain that’s been around since 1952, Tops makes for a nice introduction to Memphis eats. No matter where you are in the city, you’re near one. The hickory-flavored chopped sandwich combo with mustardy slaw and beans will fortify you while you plan the rest of your ’cue odyssey.
Open since 2002, and full of students from nearby colleges, Central has a breezy, spring-break feel and outdoor deck seating to match. Order a pork plate with extra “bark” (the dark, heavily smoked crust). As you leave, be sure to pick up a brown bag of thick-cut potato chips, sprinkled with Central’s special seasoning blend. You’ll be licking your fingers for hours.
Prepare yourself for the best traditional Memphis-style ribs ever—flat-out sensational. The velvety, succulent meat at A&R simply glides away from the bone. Go for the dry (not basted in sauce) version so you can appreciate the complexity of seasoning, primarily a result of the residual smoke lingering in the pits out back. As a palate cleanser, get a square of Technicolor sheet cake, available in chocolate, lemon, or strawberry with matching or contrasting frosting. You won’t be sorry.
The dark wood paneling and oversize booths make it seem like a roadhouse tavern, until the aroma sets you straight: Neely’s means business. Don’t miss the succulent pulled-pork platter, served with amazingly rich beans—dark, sweet, and thick with threads of caramelized meat. If you have the stamina, add a helping of beef ribs, a heap of bones worthy of Fred Flintstone that’s loaded with tantalizingly tender meat.
Mention to locals that you’re heading to Cozy Corner for barbecued Cornish hen—rich and moist all the way through—and you’ll get plenty of head-nodding approval. Although the grilled rib-tips get their share of attention, it’s the burnished little bird that rules this roost. Jonesing to try barbecue spaghetti?Cozy’s is the place to do it: sweet, tangy barbecue sauce–coated noodles actually make sense after you’ve spent a few days eating in Memphis.
If you only have time to try one pork sandwich, step up to the counter at Payne’s Original and order it chopped (the only other option is sliced). Skillful cleaver-wielding results in a mixture of lighter-colored meat and chewy darker crust. Call up at lunchtime and you’ll hear the rhythmic thwacking sound in the background. One bite delivers everything you need to know about authentic barbecue texture and taste.
They’re not wet; they’re not dry. They’re “’Vous-style” ribs and they’re famous. Basted just before serving with a vinegar solution and followed by a dusting of spices (including bay leaf and oregano), the savory ribs’ bright flavor is a nod to the founding family’s Greek heritage. Rendezvous, in an alleyway basement in the business district, is a cavernous maze of dining rooms (tablecloths! lots of napkins!) packed with fascinating bric-a-brac and Memphis memorabilia.
Wet or dry?Ribs can be ordered basted with sauce or seasoned with dry rub. Your best bet is the platter with half of each.
Meat should be tender, not mushy.To achieve this, Memphis barbecue pork is smoked on grates suspended over hardwood charcoal in the traditional fashion; some newer places may simply use wood.
Look for the smoke ring.If you examine the inside edge of the meat closely, you should be able to see the trace of a pinkish line, which indicates a job well done.
Carry a detailed map.Most locals have been going to the same barbecue joint for so long that they tend to be loosey-goosey about exact directions.
Don’t expect fancy.Barbecue houses rarely have a restaurant-like ambience. Most started out as roadside take-out shacks and retain their original on-the-fly feel.
White bread is the right bread.Don’t let the Wonder Bread truck parked outside put you off; barbecue requires the soft squares for sopping up what’s left on your plate.