Memphis Pitmasters Share Their Favorite Places to Eat Barbecue
We can practically smell the smoker.
Craig Blondis believes it’s the wood that makes Memphis barbecue stand out. He’s at the helm of Central BBQ, a locally owned chain that is known for its slow-smoked Memphis style ribs.
“We’re in the hardwood capital of America. Our smoke source is hickory and pecan,” he says, also attrirubing the dry spice style to the city’s unique flavor. But, he admits that half of the restaurants do it dry and the other half do it wet -- and some do both. Being in the biz, Blondis doesn’t go out for barbecue too often, but says, “I can’t think of any of them that I wouldn’t go to.” Cozy Corner holds a special place for him as it was one of the first places he ate when he moved to Memphis in the 1970s.
Along with Cozy Corner, Payne’s is also a favorite spot of Eric Vernon, who owns The Bar-B-Q Shop, which is credited for creating the Texas Toast Bar-B-Q sandwich and Bar-B-Q Spaghetti. Vernon says the thing that sets Memphis barbecue apart from others is the type is the unique types of sauces, slaw, and smoke.
“You can go to 10 different Memphis barbecue restaurants and all of them will deliver you a very smoky barbecue product,” he says. “But all of them will still have a different taste. It really keeps things fresh if you are a lover of barbecue as a whole. As a consumer, you might have your top picks but you don’t occasionally mind trying the other barbecue restaurants.”
So take it from the experts -- you really can’t go wrong on barbecue in Memphis. We curated this list to include the big dogs (hogs?) in town, the long standing off-the-beaten-path spots, the locals’ favorites, and even a newcomer. Work your way through this list and see for yourself that there’s really no such thing as bad barbecue in this town.
Andrew & Rose Pollard founded A&R Bar-B-Q in 1983 as a fast food takeout restaurant. The original menu featured only barbecue and hamburgers. Now with three locations, its pork, turkey, chicken, bologna, polish sausages, hot links, hot dogs, and catfish are all crowd pleasers. The meat is cooked in a detached smokehouse behind the restaurant, and in addition to the pork shoulder and the homemade hot link sausages, the rib tip sandwich is a must-try.
Owner and pitmaster Merritt Bailey opened Ballhoggerz in the heart of Orange Mound two years ago. He has the trophies to back up his barbecue braggadocio. Ballhoggerz makes its own seasoning and sauce in-house and the meats are smoked on-site throughout the day. Try the ribs and the chicken wings.
In Memphis, traditional spaghetti is a common side at soul food and barbecue restaurants. At the Bar-B-Q Shop (originally known as Brady and Lil’s), however, there's full-on barbecue spaghetti combining pork that is smoked for 12 hours, smoke-infused sauce, and soft, overcooked noodles. The pulled pork sandwich on Texas Toast and glazed dry ribs are also standouts.
Now with four local restaurants and a Nashville outpost, Central BBQ frequently tops local polls for best barbecue. Known for the slow smoked Memphis style ribs, it’s the barbecue nachos top the sales charts. Made with tortilla chips or house-made barbecue chips, two kinds of cheese, sauce, and your choice of pulled pork, smoked chicken, or a smoked portabella mushroom, they are hard to beat. Another bonus, when the dining rooms are open, is the self-serve sauces: mild, hot, vinegar, and mustard.
Coletta’s is Memphis’s oldest restaurant. Primarily an Italian restaurant, it wooed the local population to embrace pizza in the 1950s by topping it with barbecued shoulder meat. Elvis loved barbecue pizza, which didn’t hurt business one bit. The back room he always requested at the original South Parkway location is still designated the Elvis Room and decorated with his memorabilia.
Corky’s BBQ certainly has a local following and has expanded its reach into Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas over the last 30-plus years. Its sauce is in every local grocery and food can be shipped anywhere in the country. Because of its commercial success, Corky’s isn’t the “coolest” place to say is your favorite, but it would be a bit snobbish to discount owner Don Pelts’s life’s work. Meats are slow-cooked over hickory and charcoal, each slab of ribs is trimmed to strict specifications, and every pork shoulder is hand-pulled.
A hometown favorite, Cozy Corner is one of the most iconic shops in town run by four generations of Robinsons. Though Cozy Corner is well (and rightly) known for its barbecued Cornish hens, the ribs shouldn’t be overlooked. Either way, plan to get messy. Raymond Robinsons built his legacy with a Chicago-style smoker where meat is placed on the lowest rack then progressively moved upward until it is smoked to perfection. His wife, Desiree, became the part-time pitmaster after his passing and was recently named one of nine semi-finalists for The American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame.
The original Commissary in Germantown was a small country store for more than 90 years, until Walker Taylor bought it in 1981 and turned it into a barbecue restaurant. Their claim to fame is the creation of barbecue nachos in 1982, though this distinctive combination of pork, cheese, and barbecue sauce on a bed of tortilla chips didn’t really gain traction until the late ’90s when Redbirds Stadium opened and baseball fans were introduced to the Rendezvous’ version. Now barbecue nachos are considered a standard offering at restaurants all over the city.
The Neely family is legend in Memphis, and James Neely put them on the map when he opened the original Interstate Barbecue on South Third in 1979. He has a specially built barbecue pit to keep meat fall-off-the-bone moist. His secret sauce is so delicious they can’t keep bottles of it on the table lest they disappear. A large chopped sandwich with extra sauce is about as close to heaven as some of us may come.
Leonard Heuberger opened a restaurant called Leonard's Lunch in 1922, making Leonard's the oldest surviving name in Memphis barbecue. Until recently, its popularity could be traced to the daily barbecue lunch buffet. The coronavirus pandemic has put a halt to the buffet, though takeout is keeping them afloat for now. If you’ve ever wondered how Memphians began putting cole slaw on their sandwiches, look no further as the tradition began at Leonard’s. Elvis was a regular, and is said to have thrown all-night parties at the original location. Today the restaurant is run by Dan Brown, who started working at Leonard’s when he was 15.
Located just over a mile from Graceland, this 45-year-old family owned restaurant offers to pick customers up in a Pink Cadillac and bring them to the restaurant. Once the coronavirus hit, owners enlisted a fleet of Caddies to deliver food to customers’ doors. Besides the retro-cool delivery vehicles, Marlowe’s offers late-night service and popular menu items like ribs, brisket, and shrimp.
Driving down Lamar Avenue during the coronavirus crisis, there was a hand-drawn sign on the front door of Payne’s that read “Please open.” Three generations of Paynes have kept this modest cinder block building with a recessed pit set into the wall full of hickory coals going for four decades -- most recently reopening on June 9. As Ronald Payne told us: “Crispy and smoky bits in the meat and sweet ‘n tangy dressings makes a chopped pork sandwich that stands out from any sandwich you’ve ever had.”
Tarrance and Torria Pollard are the proud parents of local football star, Tony Pollard, who now plays for the Dallas Cowboys. So, if you like to talk football while you eat your q, Pollard’s is the spot. What started as a catering business is now a friendly, welcoming Whitehaven home to smoked pork, beef, chicken, and turkey. You’ll also find links, tamales, and more.
The standard for “Memphis style” barbecue ribs was set in the late 1950s in a downtown basement restaurant when Charlie Vergos threw racks of ribs- - what was then considered scrap meat -- on the grill. He added a vinegar wash to keep them moist and created a dry rub based on his father’s unique Greek chili recipe, cajun spices he discovered in New Orleans, and paprika. Friday lunch remains a prime time to visit and possibly start the weekend off a bit early.
Tops is our fast food answer to barbecue and when dining rooms closed, its drive-thru lines became the place to spend one’s lunch hour. A recent change in ownership didn’t change the quality of the food or experience. All 15 locations cook their shoulders over charcoal in open pits. Also known for their cheeseburgers, it’s quite common to add a little barbecue meat (sold by the ounce) to the burger for the quintessential Tops experience.
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