“In Memphis barbecue, you see a lot more variety. If you were to offer someone a tomato- or vinegar-based barbecue sauce, no one would bat an eye,” says Craig David Meek, author of Memphis Barbecue and founder of the Memphis Que blog. Unlike the strict set of codes that govern Texas and Carolina traditions, Memphis stands out for exactly the opposite reason. “There’s no one specific way of doings things here.”
For the past three years, while driving around the tri-state area for service calls affiliated with his wholesale automotive parts business, Meek has documented his smoked-pork addiction on Memphis Que. “I was on the road so much, and I thought, ‘why not hit up every independent mom-and-pop barbecue place?’”
Memphis’ multidimensional barbecue tradition stems largely from geographical circumstances. The city may be considered a part of Tennessee, but in terms of culture and politics, it aligns more closely with the Mississippi Delta, which is said to begin in Memphis and end where the Mississippi River and the Yazoo River meet, just below Vicksburg. Many flavors and cultures came to Memphis by way of the river, bringing in more complex spices that weren’t as readily available in places like North Carolina.
In the Bluff City, hog reigns supreme. Memphis’ signature dish is the pork sandwich—a white bun piled high with pulled or chopped picnic shoulder or Boston butt, and topped with cole slaw. Leonard’s, a place Elvis used to rent out for late-night private parties, is credited with that last addition, employing a tangy vinegar and mustard slaw (you’ll also see a creamy and sweet mayo version sold around the city).
“The barbecue sandwich shops in Memphis are what taco shops are like in Austin—they’re everywhere,” says Meek.
Ribs fall into two camps as well: dry rub or wet. The formula for the first was created by a Greek restaurant owner named Charles Vergos (of Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous fame), who combined garlic, oregano, paprika, and chili powder. Despite the fact that his dry-rub ribs were cooked directly over an open flame (and therefore don’t follow the low-and-slow precept), they would go on to change the face of Memphis ‘cue.
To add to its diversity, Meek notes that Memphis also boasts of meaty oddities like barbecue pizza and spaghetti, which have been around since the ‘50s, and regionalized barbecue nachos that gained traction in the early ‘80s. To help us navigate the ins and outs of a wide and varied tradition, we asked Meek to suggest his favorite under-the-radar spots to score the best ‘cue (and, of course, pizza).
Pork sandwich from Showboat
Address and phone: 3200 Hickory Hill Rd (901-366-0242)
Meek says: “The 80-year-old owner Porter Moss has been working in barbecue since the ’50s. This place is the quintessential sandwich shop. The shoulder meat is still prepared the traditional way, using charcoal. It’s historic Memphis flavor.” (Photo: This Italian Family)
Dry-rub ribs from Leonard’s Pit Barbecue
Address and phone: 5465 Fox Plaza Dr (901-360-1963)
Meek says: “Leonard’s is known for their pork sandwich, but they have great ribs. Their rub is a classic formula using paprika, chili powder, pepper, and a few other ingredients. A lot of places are starting to add brown sugar, but I still like the original version. I go there so often that if I were to walk in right now, they would know my order.” (Photo: Yelp)
Wet ribs from Alex’s Tavern
Address and phone: 1445 Jackson Ave (901-278-9086)
Meek says: “For wet ribs, I’d take you off the beaten path to a place called Alex’s Tavern—with the caveat that it’s actually a dive bar known for their hot wings. The owner prepares them on a Tucker cooker using charcoal and applewood. He first marinates the ribs with apple juice and vinegar; before they’re served, he adds Greek seasoning and dips them in Rendezvous’ famous sauce.” (Photo: Memphis Que)
Cornish game hen from Cozy Corner
Address and phone: 745 N Pkwy (901-527-9158)
Meek says: “There’s no delicate way to eat this—it’s a whole little bird that you dig into with your hands like some sort of caveman. I love how you get white and dark meat; all parts of the bird react to smoke differently. Cozy Corner has one of the spiciest barbecue sauces. Eating the game hen is like a smoked hot-wing experience.” (Photo: Yelp)
Spaghetti from Bar-B-Q Shop
Address and phone: 1782 Madison Ave (901-272-1277)
Meek says: “The idea to serve spaghetti was based on the premise of stretching meat supply with a starch, and it originated at Brady and Lil’s. Brady’s moved to Midtown and eventually changed its name to the Bar-B-Q shop, which still uses the original recipe. While Brady’s has always been a black-owned business, a lot of people don’t realize that there was a huge Italian presence in the Delta region. Many of the early barbecue places were run by Italians. The dish is what is sounds like: spaghetti (typically overcooked at most places) with barbecue pork and a very smokey sauce.” (Photo: Yelp)
Barbecue pizza from Coletta’s
Address and phone: 1063 S Pkwy E (901-947-7652)
Meek says: “It’s actually not as recent of an invention as you’d think. After WWII, service members who had been stationed in Italy came back to Memphis asking for pizza. So owner Horest Coletta went to Chicago to learn how to make it. Well, it bombed in the ’50s South, but Coletta knew people would eat anything with barbecue. Pizzas cook quickly at high temperatures, so it’s almost the opposite approach of barbecue. To avoid drying out the meat, they take warm shoulder straight from the pit and pile it on a big cheese pizza after the pie has baked—and then cover it in sauce. For a place to do it right, it needs both a pizza oven and a barbecue pit.” (Photo: Memphis Que)
Barbecue nachos from Germantown Commissary
Address and phone: 2290 S Germantown Rd (901-754-5540)
Meek says: “[Barbecue nachos] been around since early ’80s and are just as popular as the barbecue sandwich. Germantown Commissary is where they originated. They became even more popular once the Redbirds minor league baseball team moved to Memphis and barbecue nachos became available at concession stands. A big bed of chips with barbecue, cheese, and sauce is nearly fool-proof. If you don’t want to drive out to the suburbs, Central BBQ offers a good version too.” (Photo: Nathan Seibel/Foodspotting)