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Since American barbecue culture has experienced a boom in the last decade, a relatively new phenomenon has occurred within the bbq restaurant industry-winning bbq teams transforming their success into business. There are now more than ever, an ever-growing number of bbq joints across the nation that have their roots in bbq competition teams. Conversely, some existing bbq restaurants have started up their own teams as well. Of the many such places I’ve experienced, all display trophies and tout victories, but not all deliver. It’s understood, that competition barbecue will usually be superior to what’s cranked out in the mass-production of restaurant barbecue. But for some, the gap of quality between competition ‘que and restaurant ‘que is greater. For bbq restaurants such as Memphis Barbecue Co., the quality of barbecue is, I dare say, nearly as good as some of their contest entries. It’s one of my favorite bbq joints because it’s one of the best places to get competition-quality ‘que in the Memphis tri-state area. But who are they anyway? Which bbq team are they associated with? Well here’s the kicker, Memphis Barbecue Co. was born, not of one, but two really serious, top tier bbq competition teams-namely, Pete and Melissa Cookston’s Yazoo’s Delta Q and John Wheeler’s Natural Born Grillers. I’ve had the pleasure of having judged both teams and having eaten at restaurants owned by them both as well. Before we talk about that wonderful competition-quality barbecue at Memphis Barbecue Co., here’s a little background of my experience with each team.
Yazoo’s Delta Q
When I first became a bbq judge for the Memphis BBQ Network (2009, MIM 2008), Pete and Melissa Cookston were already working their way up through the ranks in barbecue competitions with their husband-and-wife team, Yazoo’s Delta Q of Mississippi. In fact, as a part of my judge’s training, simulated judging
sessions were conducted with two teams who had smoked pork shoulders. One of them was Yazoo’s Delta Q. Afterwards, we had a Q&A session with the teams. The session gave the two teams another opportunity to hone their skills, and bbq judge recruits the chance to judge real pit bbq. It also opened up the lines of communication between the prospective judges and competitors to learn more about each others’ expectations. The memories allude me, but I remember how smoky and tender the shoulder was from both teams and just how serious these people took their craft. For them, it was not just a hobby-it was a profession. Many teams travel the barbecue circuit (yes, there is such a thing) from contest to contest all year, racking up trophies and living off the winnings (hopefully). For some, it’s all about using their bragging rights to market a sauce, seasoning or restaurant. For others it’s simply passion for their smoky art. For many, it’s about both.
Both Pete and Melissa are serious pit-masters. But in the world of the male-dominated art of barbecue, Melissa is actually Yazoo’s head pit-master, reminding us that men aren’t the only ones in this world who get to play with fire. And man, has she made a name for herself. Since I met them at the Hatchie Hollow Hog Fest in Bolivar, TN, they’ve racked up countless trophies, grand championships, including the Memphis In May World Barbecue Championship twice, where she has dominated the whole hog category. Then there are the restaurants and a book, Smokin’ In The Boys’ Room. She’s also competed on the popular show, BBQ Pitmasters, winning 2 season shows. Her bbq resume is the stuff of legends and when she shows up to a contest, other teams get worried.
I’ve judged Yazoo’s Delta Q (whole hog, MIM, 2015) and have been to Memphis Barbecue Co. a few times. I’ve spoken with Melissa at the MBN judge’s training seminar, bbq contests and at her restaurant, and if there’s one thing that comes to mind when I think of her regarding barbecue, it’s simply this-perfection. She’s very passionate about perfecting her craft of authentic artisan barbecue. She insists on putting out only the best every time. I’ve savored the passion in her succulent, smoked meats in every bite that I’ve put in my mouth. I can’t say that about the majority of barbecue around Memphis. There’s a lot to be said for consistency in barbecue-something she’s nailed. In the world of competition barbecue, I’ve been disappointed by some big names in the industry, who weren’t able to live up to the hype. The same goes for restaurants associated with teams. Melissa’s bbq, however, has never disappointed. Before you experience it for yourself, check out my Quick-Fire Guide below to learn more about her savory, sweet, slightly spicy, succulent and superbly smoky barbecue.
Natural Born Grillers
Before I had the pleasure of judging Natural Born Grillers at MIM in 2014, I’d already made it out the Natural Born Grillers restaurant at Snowden Grove in Southaven, Ms. before is closed its doors. John Wheeler is a world champion bbq pit-master, who has the bbq resume to prove it. Most Notably, NBG is a Memphis In May world grand champion. When I learned that he’d opened a restaurant at Snowden Grove, I knew I had to get out there. I’d heard from other judges about his ribs, so ribs it was. The first impression was that I got a good shot of smoke. There was no question the ribs had been wood-smoked. The meat was tender, but slightly dry, as can happen with meat that’s been held for some time. The restaurant overall had a cool retro design and the patio area was charming, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t meant to be. Pete and Melissa had a similar problem in Bartlett, TN, where they first opened Yazoo’s Delta Q. It too didn’t last and Melissa told me at a competition one year that they’d decided to focus on catering. Knowing one’s way around the pit is one thing, but running a full service restaurant is a whole other animal.
Memphis Barbecue Co.
Who knows what brought these pit-masters together, but somehow, their collaboration has proven to be the
formula for their success. Memphis BBQ Co. is booming with business in three locations-Horn Lake, MS (their flagship), Fayettville, NC and Dunwoody, GA. They’ve gained national recognition and have enjoyed near rock star status by television shows, publications and associations from every corner of this land. Any attempt to discover Memphis-style barbecue would be incomplete without a trip to Memphis Barbecue Co. If I haven’t given you enough reasons to go, the sides are scratch-made and you get complimentary fried pork skins dusted with bbq seasoning while you wait.
- The ribs If you want perfectly tender, sweet-n-sticky ribs with a full, but balanced wood smoke flavor, look no further.
- The shoulder was juicy, tender and smoky.
- The ribs were smoked with finesse-full, but balanced wood smoke flavor.
- The pork shoulder/Boston butt had nice wood smoke permeating throughout the meat.
Bark- The crusty bits of smoky bark made the sandwich.
Sauce was a wonderful balance of sweet, tangy, savory, smoky and a little spicy.