BBQ Research—Memphis Edition
A nice group of adventurers joined me for this trip. Thanks to Gary Guesnier, Jennifer Biggs, Ashley-Dior Thomas, Wayne Lohman, Chef Raymond Jackson, Angie King Keesee, Dave Mekeel and Joe York!
I really appreciated y’all’s help in ordering a lot of food so that I could sample a lot of the menu, your barbecue insight, and your company!
We started our barbecue trek at Payne’s, a longtime favorite for Memphis locals. We ordered the following: bologna sandwich, chopped pork shoulder, pork spareribs, sliced pork sandwich, smoked sausage (in a bun), baked beans (topped with chopped pork), mustard-based slaw (topped everything), and sliced white bread. Payne’s was thin and peppery. Our favorites were the bologna, sliced pork and the slaw. The latter seems particular to Memphis.
Helen’s Bar-B-Q (Brownsville, TN)
Next we made the hour drive to Brownsville where we visited Helen’s. This place is a disappearing breed because they cook entirely with wood, in a non-mechanized pit. We ordered: bbq nachos (jalapenos were added tableside), hand-sliced bologna, whole chicken, pulled pork shoulder (came out in chunks), smoked sausage, pork spareribs, and a chopped pork sandwich, a finely-chopped slaw, and bbq spaghetti. Helen’s sauce is thicker and a chocolate color. We loved the whole chicken (moist, good smoke flavor in the skin). Please note that the chicken is made by request, so you have to call ahead. We also loved the slaw which you could tell was made in-house.
Cozy Corner Restaurant
Cozy Corner is another local favorite. We ordered: beef brisket (thinly sliced), BBQ bologna, smoked sausage (cut in two halves), BBQ spaghetti (meatless, sweet sauce), BBQ nachos, Cornish hen, pork baby back ribs (tender, a nice char, nice fine slice). Our faves here were the bologna, BBQ nachos and the ribs. I’ve loved the Cornish hen in the past, but it was just OK this time around.
It was a long day of eating, so we ordered here. We ordered pork spareribs and bbq spaghetti, and both were fantastic! It was served baked beans, slaw and toasted, buttered, white bread. The competition barbecue judges tagging along with me said that these ribs were the “closest to competition quality.” The Bar-B-Q Shop inherited the original recipe for BBQ spaghetti, so it’s no surprise that it’s wonderful. Their version includes chopped barbecue meat along with a slightly sweet sauce that had great seasoning.
I began the day by worshipping at a church near my hotel. I selected Bartlett United Methodist Church. I enjoyed the service, and I loved the fact that visitors get a loaf of homemade bread baked by one of the congregants . . . and a hand-knitted pot holder.
Next stop was a place that’s been around a couple of decades, but I’m embarrassed to write that I had never of A&R until very recently. We lucked out in many ways because we beat the afternoon rush by a few minutes. We ordered: ½ chicken (dusted with a spice rub), beef brisket (chopped), bologna sandwich, pork spareribs (uncut, dusted with rub, the last half slab, too), rib tips, chopped turkey, smoked turkey sausage, bbq spaghetti (meatless), baked beans, green beans, slaw and fried pickles with a buttermilk ranch dressing dip. We liked the bologna, and the rib tips.
Jim Neely’s Interstate Barbecue
Next up was Interstate Barbecue, another legendary place nearing four decades in business. We were lucky that, thanks to local food writer Jennifer Biggs, Mr. Jim Neely himself, sat down with us, and shared his story.
We ordered: the family platter (beef brisket, pulled pork, hot link, and pork spareribs), bologna (beef and pork), beef ribs, rib tips, BBQ spaghetti (with a little meat), baked beans, potato salad, slaw, white bread, and I got a red drink. The beef ribs were an unexpected item, and Neely says that he was the first one “to have beef anything on the menu in a Memphis barbecue restaurant.” They were surprisingly delightful. Don’t laugh if you live in Texas, these ribs would make you smile. This was the first truly, spicy hot link that I’ve had since I began my research. We also liked the ribs.
Also thanks to Jennifer Biggs, we made a side trek to Gibson’s Donuts, and got a mixed dozen. The plain glazed was pretty glorious.
Then, I saw a beacon of light across the street, and it was the neon sign of my favorite fast food chicken: Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken! I was in a quandary because I was already stuffed, I really wanted that chicken, but I worried it wouldn’t hold up after being in the fridge and then in my carry-on for the flight to Denver. My inventive friends came up with a solution: vacuum-sealing!! So, I got a half bird, gobbled up a wing, so that I could have an immediate experience. We then went to my new friend’s house, and used their Food Saver. Voila! I now had something that would hold the flavor for months without fear of freezer burn!
Jones Bar-B-Q Diner (Marianna, AR)
Jones Bar-B-Q Diner is reportedly the oldest, continuously-operating, black-owned barbecue restaurant in the U.S. It may be the oldest black-owned business in the U.S., period. The menu at Jones is pretty simple: a chopped pork sandwich with or without slaw or purchase by barbecue by the pound. Some days, you might be able to get a hot link, but not today. The sandwich is sliced white bread, a nice layer of chopped pork, topped with slaw and another slice of white bread. You can add a thin peppery sauce if you’d like. I couldn’t help but think of North Carolina as I ate this sandwich. As we were leaving, I overheard a potential customer asking “Do you have any skin today?” Mr. Jones said “No,” and the young woman began to leave. I stopped her and asked what “skin” was. She said it was a special request item that was pork skin that the diner sold in sections, and she loved to break it off and eat it. I’ve definitely got to find out more about that!
Abe’s BBQ (Clarksdale, MS)
The last stop on this research trip was Abe’s in historic, blues-soaked, Clarksdale, Mississippi. This isn’t a black-run restaurant, but it’s a place that I’ve wanted to try for some time. We ordered: chopped barbecue beef, chopped pork, baby back ribs and Delta-style tamales. All were served with a very coarsely-sliced slaw with spices and light vinegar and saltine crackers. We liked the baby back ribs (great flavor) and the tamales (nice and hearty).
At the end of my journey, I offer this BBQ research pro tip: if leaving Memphis with carry-on luggage full of barbecue and Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, put all of your food in a separate bin. You lessen the chance of additional screening, and you might even get a “That’s what’s up!” from the TSA agent.