Food & Drink

The 15 Best BBQ Joints in Memphis

Published On 03/16/2015 Published On 03/16/2015

​From pizza to nachos to spaghetti, in Memphis we'll add barbecue to anything. As someone who's devoted to sampling every barbecue restaurant there is in Memphis, and still eats barbecue on a near-daily basis, I'm asked regularly (not just by tourists), "Where is the best place here to eat barbecue?" While that question's almost impossible to answer with so many varied options in town, I can provide a list of places you should visit for a better understanding of what makes Memphis 'que special. Here are 15 picks for the top BBQ joints around to start you on your quest for smoked pork.

Elle Perry/Thrillist

Leonard's Pit Barbecue

Fox Meadows

Dating back to 1922, when Leonard Heuberger opened a restaurant called Leonard's Lunch, Leonard's is the oldest surviving name in Memphis barbecue. Serving coleslaw on pulled-pork sandwiches is a universal Memphis tradition that began at this restaurant, and it has some of the best ribs in the city, which you can get wet or dry. The delicious dry-rub is a classic paprika- and chili powder-heavy rendition without all the sugar that overpowers a lot of modern rubs.

Flickr/Jason Brackins

Central BBQ

South Main

For good barbecue it's best to avoid the tourist-centered places Downtown. But if you go a little south of Beale St to the South Main district, to the Downtown location of Central BBQ, you'll be rewarded with a menu that frequently tops local polls for best barbecue. And since the sauces are self-serve, it's a great place to sample a variety to see what you prefer among the four options: mild, hot, vinegar, and mustard.

Craig David Meek/Thrillist

A&R Bar-B-Que

South Memphis

For a traditional rural-barbecue experience in the middle of the city, the A&R on Elvis Presley Blvd is the kind of setup you normally have to drive out into the West Tennessee countryside to experience. The meat's cooked in a detached smokehouse behind the restaurant, and you should try the pork shoulder, either as a sandwich or a dinner plate, and the homemade hot link sausages.

Elle Perry/Thrillist

Alex's Tavern

Midtown

Some of the best ribs in Memphis are served at a dimly lit bar where the owner puts a Greek spin on the Memphis staple, and we're not talking about the Rendezvous. Around since 1953, Alex's Tavern is a dive bar that's pretty much always open and full of cigarette smoke. And the Greek-seasoned ribs, cooked for eight hours with apple and hickory wood in a Tucker cooker, are consistently perfect. Call ahead to see if they're available -- Alex's can only cook one case at a time on the Tucker, and when the ribs are out, they're out (but if they're out, don't hesitate to grab a Greek Burger or the chicken wings).

Craig David Meek/Thrillist

Showboat Barbecue

Hickory Hill

The most common form of barbecue in Memphis is the pork sandwich on a plain white bun, topped with sauce and coleslaw. There are so many great sandwich shops around the city that it's hard to choose just one, but Showboat Barbecue's 80-year-old owner, Porter Moss, knows what to do -- he's been in the barbecue business since he started working for the still-popular Tops chain back in the late '50s. Moss is at Showboat every day and still cooks the old-fashioned way: over pure lump charcoal in his old brick-and-steel pit. Nothing salvages a cold day like a bowl of his barbecue stew.

Flickr/Elliott Plack

Payne's Bar-B-Q

Midtown

For the most intense barbecue sandwich in Memphis, try a Spicy Jumbo from Payne's. The huge portion of chopped pork also has a sizable sampling of charred outer meat from the shoulder, referred to as "bark" in barbecue circles. With generous servings of bright red sauce and neon-yellow slaw, the sandwich wallops the taste buds with a mix of smoky meat, mustard, vinegar, sugar, and spicy heat. But be ready to eat fast, as the bun disintegrates and leaves you on fork duty.

Elle Perry/Thrillist

Coletta's Restaurant

South Memphis

Pizza first came to Memphis in the '50s, when Horest Coletta traveled to Chicago to learn to make it for service members formerly stationed in Italy. Initially it was a flop; as hard as it is to believe today, pizza seemed too foreign for most Southerners of that era. But Coletta knew Memphians would try anything that had barbecue on it, so he put a pit in his restaurant's basement and began covering his pies with shoulder meat. Elvis loved them, his legion of fans soon followed, and the back room he always requested at the original S Parkway location is still designated the Elvis Room and decorated with his memorabilia.

Flickr/Megg

The Bar-B-Q Shop

Midtown

In Memphis there are joints that offer traditional spaghetti as a side, and then there's full-on barbecue spaghetti combining pork, smoke-infused sauce, and soft, overcooked noodles. It first appeared in Memphis decades ago at the original Brady and Lil's, but when the restaurant moved to Madison Ave in 1987 its name changed to the Bar-B-Q Shop. All the while it served barbecue spaghetti based on the original secret recipe, centered around a base that smokes in the restaurant's pit for at least 12 hours. The Bar-B-Q Shop Pork Sandwich on Texas Toast and the dry-rub ribs are reliable favorites as well.

Elle Perry/Thrillist

Germantown Commissary

Germantown

The barbecue sandwich may be the most popular form of Memphis barbecue, but it's facing serious competition for that title from a more recent upstart. Barbecue nachos first appeared on a Memphis-area menu at the Germantown Commissary in 1982. Today it's hard to find a barbecue joint that doesn't offer the simple yet delicious combination of pork, cheese, and barbecue sauce on a bed of tortilla chips.

Craig David Meek/Thrillist

Memphis Barbecue Co.

Horn Lake, MS (& Other Locations)

The Memphis Barbecue Co. is located -- where else? -- two exits south of Memphis off of I-55 in the suburb of Horn Lake, MS. But you won't mind the commute once you walk inside the spacious restaurant and see three Grand Champion trophies from the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. The owners are serious competitors, and the restaurant's food is as close as most people will ever get to tasting world-class barbecue from a contest of that prestige.

Courtesy of Rob Bellinger/Manicamerican.com

Cozy Corner Restaurant

Downtown, Uptown

One of the best non-pork options in town is the Cornish hen from the Cozy Corner -- just be careful about requesting the spicy sauce unless you genuinely like it molten-lava hot. The hen is the signature item (ribs are also great), even though there's no delicate way to eat it. You've just got to accept the fact that you're going to have to tear that delicious charcoal-cooked little bird apart with your bare hands (maybe not ideal for a first date). You'll end up licking your fingers while trying to get every last morsel of meat off the final pile of bones.

Flickr/Thomas Hawk

Tops Bar-B-Q

Where is it?

Tops is one of the quintessential sandwich shops, with 15 locations around the Memphis area. It's a local chain, but that doesn't mean any of the locations use cheap shortcuts like gas-fired pits -- they all cook their shoulders over charcoal in open pits. You'll hear plenty of locals tell you that the hand-pattied double cheeseburgers are even better than the shoulder sandwiches, but rather than debate it, the best approach is to try both on the same bun. You can order shoulder meat by the ounce, so ask for a couple ounces of chopped pork and barbecue sauce added to your double cheeseburger for the ultimate Tops experience.

Craig David Meek/Thrillist

Elwood's Shack

Berclair

While brisket is generally more of a Texas thing, you can still find tasty beef locally at Elwood's Shack, tucked away in the corner of a parking lot next to a Lowe's hardware store. You'll probably wonder why one brisket taco costs $8 until you see the thing. It's enough smoky meat for a jumbo sandwich, covered with avocado, pico de gallo, fresh greens, and sour cream, piled on a layer of melted cheese, inside a crisped flour tortilla. If you're there with other people, also try the trout tacos, or the pulled-pork sandwich, or the smoked chicken wings, or one of the pizzas, or really anything else on the menu.

Craig David Meek/Thrillist

KC's Southern Style Rice

South Memphis

The Rib Tip Fried Rice served at KC's is one of the most interesting and delicious takes on Memphis barbecue. The place isn't a restaurant as much as a bright red trailer in a flea market at 4444 S Third St, and with its Chinese-restaurant roots, its large fried rice fills a styrofoam clamshell massive enough to feed two people for several meals. The rib tips are still a finger food since they have bones in them, so attack an order with one hand using a fork for the deliciously smoky rice and vegetables, the other hand dipping rib-tip pieces in barbecue sauce and eating them. Don't worry about manners; after one bite you'll lose any sense of shame.

Craig David Meek/Thrillist

Pollard's Bar-B-Q

Whitehaven

Pollard's owner Alonzo Pollard III is the son of Alonzo Pollard Jr., who makes the homemade hot links sold at A&R. At Pollard's you can get those same hot links Ultimate-style: cut up with peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and onions and covered with a special mustard sauce. They're homemade offsite, so call ahead to be sure they're available.

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Craig David Meek is a Memphis-based writer and author of the book Memphis Barbecue: A Succulent History of Smoke, Sauce and Soul. Follow him @memphisque.

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1. Leonard's Pit Barbecue 5465 Fox Plaza Dr, Memphis, TN 38115

Dating back to 1922, when Leonard Heuberger opened a restaurant called Leonard's Lunch, Leonard's is the oldest surviving name in Memphis barbecue. Serving coleslaw on pulled pork sandwiches is a universal Memphis tradition that began there. And the restaurant has some of the best ribs in the city, including the delicious Leonard's dry rub, a classic paprika and chili powder-heavy rendition without all the sugar that overpowers a lot of modern rubs.

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2. Central BBQ 147 E Butler Ave, Memphis, TN 38103 (South Main)

For good barbecue it's best to avoid the tourist-centered places Downtown. But if you go a little south of Beale St to the South Main district, to the Downtown location of Central BBQ, you'll be rewarded with a menu that frequently tops local polls for best barbecue. And since the sauces are self-serve, it's a great place to sample a variety to see what you prefer among the four options: mild, hot, vinegar, and mustard.

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3. A&R Bar-B-Que 1802 Elvis Presley Blvd, Memphis, TN 38106 (South Memphis)

For a traditional rural barbecue experience in the middle of the city, the A&R Bar-B-Que on Elvis Presley Blvd cooks its meat in a detached smokehouse behind the restaurant. It's the kind of setup you normally have to drive out into the West Tennessee countryside to experience. Try the pork shoulder, either as a sandwich or a dinner plate, or get the homemade hot link sausages.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
4. Showboat Barbecue 3200 Hickory Hill Rd, Memphis, TN 38115

There are so many great pork sandwich shops around the city that it's hard to choose just one, but Showboat Barbecue's 80-year-old owner, Porter Moss, has been in the business since he started working for the still-popular Tops chain back in the late '50s. He also worked for the once-thriving Loeb's and Coleman chains before opening Showboat in the early '80s -- and he's still in the restaurant every day cooking the old-fashioned way over pure lump charcoal in his old brick-and-steel pit.

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5. Payne's Bar-B-Q 1762 Lamar Ave, Memphis, TN 38114

Despite what its exterior may suggest, Payne's has some of the best BBQ in Memphis with its famous pork that's chopped, not pulled, then piled high with mustard slaw and spicy sauce. The sandwich has a perfect balance of moist meat and its crisp outside brown, creating a deliciously messy meal that the unassuming hamburger bun can barely contain.

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6. Alex's Tavern 1445 Jackson Ave, Memphis, TN 38107 (Vollintine Evergreen)

This unassuming tavern makes up for the humble (but charming) atmosphere with one of the best burgers (and ribs and wings) in town. Is it the secret mix of Greek seasonings? The cast iron skillet it's cooked in that has seen the sear of a thousand late-night burgers? The patty's slightly crisp outside and hot, juicy inside? Whatever it is, it's perfect.

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7. Coletta's Restaurant 1063 S Parkway East, Memphis, TN 38106 (South Memphis)

As hard as it is to believe today, pizza seemed too foreign for most Southerners in the '50s. But Horest Coletta knew Memphians would try anything that had barbecue on it, so he put a pit in his restaurant's basement and began covering his pies with shoulder meat. Elvis loved them, and the back room he always requested at the original South Parkway location is still designated the Elvis Room and decorated with his memorabilia.

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8. The Bar-B-Q Shop 1782 Madison Ave, Memphis, TN 38104 (Midtown)

Yes, locals will argue about which joints are the best for all eternity, but the Bar-B-Q Shop on Madison Avenue holds it's own for it's fall-off-the-bone, tender ribs—made with the Vernon family's 50-year-old sauce recipe.

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9. Germantown Commissary 2290 S Germantown Rd, Germantown, TN 38138

Today it is hard to find a barbecue joint that doesn't offer the simple, yet delicious combination of pork, cheese and barbecue sauce on a bed of tortilla chips, but barbecue nachos first appeared on a Memphis-area menu at the Germantown Commissary in 1982, and they've kept the spot a standout since.

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10. Memphis Barbecue Co. 709 Desoto Cv, Horn Lake, MS 38637

Having won 10 world championships, this is the place to go for slow-cooked, smoked barbecue.

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11. Cozy Corner Restaurant 745 N. Parkway, Memphis, TN 38112 (Downtown)

The Cozy Corner is Downtown, but still a neighborhood restaurant away from the main entertainment district. The ribs are great, but the whole Cornish hens are a signature item there -- and there is no way to eat them except to get your hands dirty. Just be careful about requesting the spicy sauce unless you genuinely like it hot.

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12. Top's Bar-B-Q 6130 Macon Rd, Memphis, TN 38134

This Bluff City chain has been dishing out traditional, slow-cooked, Memphis-style barbecue (and sandwich and "picnic" packs) since 1952. Today, there are locations all over the city, but all serve their extensive list of burgers, rib sandwiches, and lauded pork and brisket plates in a fast-casual diner atmosphere.

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13. Elwood's Shack 4523 Summer Ave, Memphis, TN 38122

Memphis is primarily a pork town, while brisket is generally more of a Texas thing. But you can find some good brisket in Memphis at Elwood's Shack. To take it to the next level get it served on a taco. You'll probably wonder why one taco costs $8 until you see the thing -- containing enough smoky meat for a jumbo sandwich covered with avocado, pico de gallo, fresh greens and sour cream all piled on top of a layer of melted cheese inside a crisped flour tortilla.

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14. KC's Southern Style Rice 4444 S 3rd St, Memphis, TN 38109 (South Memphis)

KC's isn't a restaurant. It's a bright red trailer in a flea market. Owner Kirby Carter began cooking in Chinese restaurant kitchens as a teenager and in 1996 started offering his Southern take on fried rice from his trailer-based kitchen.

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15. Pollard's Bar-B-Q 4560 Elvis Presley Blvd, Memphis, TN 38116

Pollard's owner Alonzo Pollard III is the son of Alonzo Pollard Jr., who makes the homemade hot links sold at A&R. At Pollard's you can get those same hot links Ultimate-style: cut up with peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and onions and covered with a special mustard sauce. They are homemade offsite, so call ahead if you want to be sure they're available.

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