The glorious Golden Era of the Roaring 20’s continues to live vicariously through architecture, music, film, Leonardo DiCaprio and Leonard’s pig with top hat and twirling cane. Established in 1922, Leonard’s Pit Barbecue is one of Memphis’ oldest barbecue institutions and some say that it is the oldest operating Memphis bbq restaurant. Bozo’s BBQ, established in 1923, is about twenty minutes outside of Memphis proper in Mason, TN. While the decade was marked with grand ballrooms, theaters and overall prosperity, Leonard’s Pit Barbecue came from humble beginnings. Articles and films have well documented Leonard’s history. Just to paraphrase, here’s a brief summary of what I understand. Leonard Heuberger traded his Model T for a sandwich stand and a few stools, from which he began selling his .5 cent sandwich. The business grew and evolved down through the years as he sold his wonderfully crafted barbecue sandwich with sauce and slaw to untold thousands until his passing. Under Leonard, it also eventually became a bar-b-q drive-in, carhops and all. Years later, protégé Dan Brown bought the place. Brown had been working for Leonard from his teen years and basically grew up in the business until he bought the restaurant in 1993. Sad to say, the bar-b-q drive-in is now mere history, but Leonard’s pits still burn in Memphis. It’s now located on Fox Plaza Dr, just off of Mt Moriah and Mendenhall, where it’s a full service restaurant, including take-out and even a barbecue buffet.
Around 2006 or 2007, while the boys were just toddlers, I took my family to Leonard’s for the barbecue buffet. At least one night a week they have a buffet featuring ribs along with shoulder, fried catfish and lots of other southern goodies. There aren’t too many restaurants offering a barbecue rib buffet, so we decided to check it out. It’s located in a semi-industrial part of town, but inside was your typical old diner atmosphere, standard for many Memphis area barbecue joints. While the boys were on tip-toes, peering into the widows of an antique truck parked right in the middle of the restaurant and I was scoping out the barbecue buffet, I noticed an elderly lady sitting at a booth. She wasn’t eating-just smiling at the boys. I introduced myself and asked if she was the owner. After telling me how cute the boys were, she replied that she and her husband owned the place. After introducing my family, I decided to get a little intel about the ‘que. I asked her if wood was used to smoke the meat. Without hesitation (as if to repeat something she’d told a thousand times), she explained that they smoked the pork shoulder with charcoal and hickory, but the ribs with charcoal only. I pictured a marriage of charcoal and hickory together in the pit, but Guy Fieri’s show, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives reveals their method. Shoulders are first smoked with the wood and later placed over the charcoal to create a nice deep mahogany crisp bark exterior. Thanks Guy.
Rib buffet night was pricey, but worth the experience. The ribs had nicely browned exterior and the meat was tender and lightly smoky. I also noticed that the meat was not just tender, but tender and juicy. Those tasty, meaty natural juices were still right where they should have been-in the meat, as opposed to the tender but dry ribs I’ve received so many times in bbq restaurants. This usually happens because ribs were smoked earlier, or even the previous day and have been held warm all day, till ordered. It also happens when ribs have been smoked for so long, that ALL of the fat has been rendered off. In the past, this was a popular misnomer-that rendering off all of the fat was a goal in making great barbecue. That school of thought has long since been abandoned by most serious barbecue enthusiasts. Most pit-masters today know that much of the flavor and juiciness of the pork comes from the fat. I would have liked more smoke flavor from my ribs at Leonard’s, but the endless slightly smoky, tender, succulent meat with all the southern fixin’s was indeed, a carnivore’s feast. And instead of room temp bbq sauce, the sweet and tangy sauce, was kept warm on the buffet, screaming to be ladled over the meat like warm bbq gravy. I’ve noticed that some of the old bar-b-q restaurants in Memphis include tamarind in their sauce. I’m pretty sure I got that in Leonard’s sauce too. I once thought of tamarind as an Indian/Latin ingredient, but old-timers have told me that tamarind trees were everywhere in the American South and that it was very commonly used in southern cooking in times past. I’ve since noticed the ingredient in several old southern recipes as well. Tamarind trees can still be found around town. There are a few, loaded with tamarind pods at Shelby Farms Park, right in the middle of the dog park.
I rarely do buffets any more, but really, one “Big Leonard” bbq shoulder sandwich is a feast between two buns. I picked up one to go from the downtown Main St location before they closed. The shoulder had delightful bits of the crusty, smoky bark mixed in, just as I requested. That meat was then piled onto a bun and loaded with bbq sauce and mustardy slaw. It doesn’t hurt to ask to get some of the crust mixed in. Otherwise, you could end up with a sandwich made with just the interior part of the shoulder. The “all white meat” crowd thinks they’re getting a better sandwich because the interior meat tends to be more tender. Instead, they’re getting a lonely white meat sandwich that lacks its crusty, smokey companion. The combination brings more smoke flavor and contrast in texture, making a complete Memphis style bbq sandwich. Leonard’s BBQ pit-masters smoke their shoulders “butt naked,” so as not to impede the absorption of smoke with any spices, sugars or sauces. I like the savory element of the dry rub, however, Leonard’s BBQ proves a point. The flavor-the essence of real pit bbq is all about the smoke and they work to achieve that smoky crust. Again, thanks to Guy for pointing that out to us in his show. Despite their technique though, the ‘que I’ve had at Leonard’s has been only mildly smoky. For some, that’s not a bad thing. But today, with the rise of ever popular competition teams-turned-bbq joints, the boundaries of intense wood smoke flavor are constantly being pushed closer and closer to bbq perfection. And patrons’ tastes are becoming accustomed to that flavor. Of course, no one wants bitter, over-smoked meat, but today’s serious bbq connoisseurs are perfecting a balanced, but really noticeable wood smoke flavor. Somewhere between ashtray barbecue and meat that you’d swear had been oven-baked, there is a perfect balance of smokiness that people have come to look for. Ultimately, the perfect balance is simply whatever is perfect for the one eating. Still, more and more people are coming to expect a good shot of smoke in their ‘que and old-timers have told me that Leonard’s was known for this back in the day. But if you’re just looking for a good, sloppy sauce and slaw Memphis barbecue sandwich or tender, moist ribs and mild smoke is your thing, Leonard’s will satisfy your craving. And with a barbecue buffet, meatopia is waiting for even the hungriest carnivore. For nearly a century, Leonard’s Pit Barbecue has, like a proud papa, been serving Memphis real pit barbecue. And evidently, we still haven’t had enough.
Thanks for visiting my Memphis bbq blog! Comments, rants, raves, disagreements and downright bbq feuds are welcome below. Tim Shirley