A & R BAR-B-QUE family owners Andrew and Rose Pollard (related to the owners of Pollard’s BBQ, I’m told) run a handful of old school Memphis neighborhood bbq restaurants that have been smokin’ great barbecue since the early 80’s. I first learned of A & R when work colleagues of mine discovered my passion for barbecue and proclaimed that A & R’s ribs were “fire.” I began asking around and discovered that A & R BAR-B-QUE has a loyal following. But if you ask locals which of the A & R locations serves the best ‘que, chances are you’ll get different answers. I wanted to decide for myself, so I paid them all a visit.
My first visit to A & R BAR-B-QUE was at the Stage Rd (aka hwy 64) location in Bartlett, TN (a suburban town of the Memphis metropolitan area). The atmosphere was simple but the lure of the sweet smoked pork enticed me in. I had the awesomely sloppy, tasty, pork shoulder sandwich. The meat was lightly smoky and tender, and included some of the bits of the crust from the outer “bark” throughout the meat. The tangy-spicy sauce was not the kind that one might dip chicken tenders into. It simply accomplished its task of complementing the pork, along with slaw and bun. A sweet treat afterwards was tempting, though. One of the plastic-wrapped cake squares by the register just kept staring at me. But after that huge mound of meat, it was time to move on.
I usually try to make it to the original or at least oldest running location of any bbq joint, so my second experience with A & R BAR-B-QUE was at the Elvis Presley Blvd. (aka Bellevue) location. The atmosphere of the restaurant itself was quite typical of an urban Memphis bbq joint-simple, homey and bustling with business. And why wouldn’t they be with smoke billowing out of large brick smokestacks from a separate building out back. A bbq joint with a smokehouse? Barbecue jackpot! I couldn’t wait for my order to come out. In no time at all, I had my ribs in a Styrofoam box and hopped into my car to head home-but not without a bite first. After the smoke cleared, I had good, not great ribs; just a little fattier than I prefer, but mild smokiness and tenderness were there. Still, my favorite A & R ribs were yet to come.
Some of my co-workers kept insisting that the ribs at A & R were “fire,” so my third trip took me back to the Stage Road store in Bartlett. Lightly crisp bark on the outside, tender on the inside and well-seasoned dry ribs, these bones had a great smoky flavor that reminded me of the way that many local Memphians like to barbecue over charcoal right in their own back yards. Drippings land on the coals, producing smoke that flavors the meat with carnivorous savor. I was glad to find one of a few places in Memphis still using the nearly lost art of barbecuing over the coals. As much as I enjoyed the Stage Rd bbq shop, there was yet more ‘que to be experienced from other A & R BAR-B-QUE restaurants.
In March of 2010 I made it out to the newest restaurant, located on Third Street on the first floor of a high-rise building in downtown Memphis. Business was busy and fragrantly smoked pork was smoky. I had the rib tips this time; the cartilaginous yet meaty ends of the bones on spare ribs. Some bbq shops serve their spares with tips intact. Others trim them off, giving their spare ribs a more uniform shape called the St. Louis cut. The ribs tips are then smoked separately, just like the tasty tips I had at his downtown A & R. The meat was tender in parts and a little chewy in other parts, but I don’t mind a little “bbq jerky” on some of the end pieces. They were served with A & R’s mostly sweet, yet slightly tangy and spicy sauce, which actually seemed a bit different from the mostly tangy-spicy bbq sauces I recalled from the A & R restaurants on Elvis Presley Blvd and Stage Rd. Had the recipe changed? Did they use a different sauce for ribs and tips than for the sandwich? Who knows? But ultimately it’s all about the meat, which actually had a light wood-smoked flavor this time. Combining wood and charcoal makes sense for a lot of pit-masters. Usually, charcoal is burned to maintain steady heat and wood smolders to impart flavor. But as I’ve already pointed out, charcoal makes its own contribution to flavor. This prompted a return visit; this time for a rib sandwich. Once again that charcoal pit taste came through. Still, one of my favorite A & R barbecue experiences was just a few miles away.
Still searching for those “fire” ribs, I made my way over to yet another A & R store in Memphis, located on Ramill Rd in the Raleigh area. Driving up, smoke billowed from the smokestack on top of the building into towering blankets of pure bbq heaven for the senses. I wasted no time getting inside to place my order; a four-bone dry ribs (sauce on the side) sandwich from an old brick and steel pit to the left behind the counter. The ribs had that same great crusty, “bark” exterior that I enjoyed so much at the Bartlett restaurant, with a tender and smoky interior as well, served with A & R’s sweet and tangy sauce. Loved it! It was that old-school Memphis charcoal pit barbecue flavor. I got my “fire” ribs.
In the spring of 2011 I added yet one more A & R BAR-B-QUE to my never-ending Memphis bbq quest, this one located in the Hickory Hill area. Since the Memphis In May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest was just around the corner, I wanted to go easy on the pork (if one can imagine that) to get ready for judging. So I grabbed a smoked turkey leg. I nearly gave in to one of the huge homemade fried pies stacked next to the register, but since I was trying to keep it light, I just stuck to the poultry. The smoked turkey leg actually had all of the same great qualities of A & R’s ribs: smoky, tender meat, well-seasoned crusty bark and a nice tangy-sweet sauce to compliment. And when the menu read, “Jumbo,” it meant jumbo! It could’ve easily fed two people (so much for eating light). There’s no need to wait for the county fair to get a meaty smoked turkey leg. A & R’s are plenty smoky and plenty meaty. I finally concluded that the Ramil location was my favorite, but in the end it’s still all tasty family barbecue-and proof that where there’s smoke there’s “fire!”
YOU BE THE BBQ JUDGE! Don’t forget my reader reviews page to let me know of your favorite bbq joint anywhere on the planet!
Update as of 2014: Elvis Presley location-Open Hickory Hill Rd. Location-Open Ramil location (my favorite)-Closed Stage Rd. Location-Closed Third St. Location-Closed