This blog is currently under construction. Come back in a week or two for the beginning of photos and reviews of over 140 Memphis bbq joints, concessions and roadside pits from a Memphis bbq judge, enthusiast and dad! Tim Shirley Photo: Judging a bbq contest in Covington, TN
- 4 Sho BBQ and Hot Wings
- 10 Bones BBQ (Southaven, MS) closed
- A & R Bar-be-que (3rd St-Downtown)
- A & R Bar-be-que (Elvis Presley Blvd)
- A&R (Hickory Hill location)
- A & R Bar-be-que (Ramill Rd in Raleigh)
- A & R Bar-be-que (Stage Rd)
- A taste of Tennessee BBQ (concession)
- Alfred’s (Beale St)
- Alton’s BBQ (Memphis Zoo)
- Arlington Bar-B-Que Company (Arlington, TN)
- Arnold’s BBQ
- Baby Jack’s BBQ (Bartlett, TN)
- Backyard BBQ (Covington, TN)
- Barbarosa BBQ (Millington, TN)
- Bar-B-Cutie closed in Memphis
- Becky Sue’s Bar-B-Que (concession)
- Beignet Café
- Big Bill Bar-B-Que
- Blues City Café (Beale St)
- Boss Hog BBQ (Southaven, MS)
- Boss Man Pit Stop
- Bozo’s Pit BBQ (Mason, TN)
- Brad’s BAR-B-Q (Bartlett, TN)
- Brad’s BBQ (Moscow, TN)
- Brad’s Pit BBQ (Oakland, TN)
- C & J Bar-B-Que
- Canale’s Grocery-(pit charcoal-smoked ham)
- Captain John’s Bar-B-Q (Collierville, TN)
- Cate’s Meat Market (concession)
- Central BBQ (Central Ave)
- Central BBQ (Summer Ave)
- Chef’s Downtown Wings and More (bbq on Fri.)
- Coleman’s Pit BBQ (Hernando, MS)
- Coleman’s Pit BBQ (Millbranch Rd.)
- Coletta’s Italian Restaurant (bbq pizza)
- Corky’s Ribs and BBQ (Germantown Pkwy)
- Corky’s Ribs and BBQ (Poplar Ave)
- Corned Beef House (bbq on Sat)
- Country Café (Whiteville, TN)
- Cozy Corner BBQ
- D’Bo’s Hot Wings/Big Un’s BBQ (Germantown Parkway, Cordova)
- Double J Smokehouse and Saloon (Civil Rights Museum District)
- Elmwood Grill
- Family BAR•B•Q and Snack Bar
- Fat Larry’s BBQ (Bartlett, TN)
- Germantown Commissary (Germantown, TN)
- Gilt Edge Café (Gilt Edge, TN)
- Granny’s Market
- Gregory Graham’s BBQ (roadside pit)
- Gridley’s BBQ (Stage Rd, Bartlett, TN)
- Gridley’s BBQ (Winchester Rd)
- Helen’s bbq (Brownsville, TN)
- High Point Pizza (bbq pizza)
- Hog Wild BBQ (concession/catering)
- Interstate Bar-B-Que (3rd St)
- Interstate Bar-B-Que (Southaven, MS)
- Isaac Hayes closed
- J & C Fine Dining (soul food & Chicago-style bbq)
- Jack’s Bar-B-Q Rib Shack
- Jim N Nick’s BBQ
- Kelvin’s Bar-B-Q On Wheels (food truck)
- Kelvin’s Hot Wings (Now Hibbler’s )
- King’s Palace Café (Beale St.)
- Ken Neely’s Hickory BBQ
- L & L Bar-B-Q and Sports Bar closed
- L & M BBQ closed
- Latham’s BBQ (Jackson, TN)
- Leonard’s Pit BBQ (Foxridge)
- Leonard’s Pit BBQ (Main St.-Downtown) closed
- Little Porky’s BBQ (Covington, TN)
- Loven Fresh Baking Company, Barbecue & Deli (Oakland, TN)
- Luchessi’s Pasta Co. (bbq pizza)
- Marlowe’s Steak and Ribs
- McBride’s Grocery Real Pit Bar-B-Que/Lil’ Store located inside Gas Express (Somerville, TN)
- Mean Gene’s BBQ (Drummonds, TN)
- Memphis BBQ Co. (Horn Lake, MS)
- Millington Pig (Pig On Beale-Millington) closed
- Moma’s B-B-Q (Bartlett, TN)
- Morris Grocery, BBQ and Deli
- Mr. Bar-B-Que (concession)
- Natural Born Grillers (Southaven, MS) closed
- Neely’s Barbecue (Jefferson Ave)
- Neely’s Barbecue (Mt. Moriah)
- Old School BBQ (concession)
- Old Timers (Millington, TN)
- Old-Style BBQ (Southaven, MS)
- One and Only BBQ (Kirby and Whitten)
- One and Only BBQ (Polar and S. Perkins?)
- Orange Mound Grill
- PC BBQ
- Papa Chuck’s BBQ (concession)
- Pappy John’s (Selmer, TN)
- Payne’s BAR•B•Q (Lamar Ave)
- Pete and Sam’s (bbq pizza)
- Pig (Beale St)
- Pig Out Barbeque & Smokehouse (Horn Lake, MS)
- Pig-N-Whistle BBQ (Bartlett, TN)
- Pollard’s BBQ
- Post Office BBQ (Tipton, TN)
- Quincy’s BBQ (food truck-Shelby Farms)
- Rafferty’s (Germantown Pkwy)
- Ray’s World Famous BBQ (West Memphis, AR)
- Reese’s Barbecue
- Reggie’s BBQ
- Rendezvous Charcoal Ribs and BBQ
- Risner’s Steakhouse (Selmer, TN)
- River City BBQ
- Roadside Bar-B-Q (Proctor, AR)
- Sam’s Down South BBQ and Hot-wings
- Scooter’s BBQ (concession/roadside)
- Scott Parker BBQ (Lexington, TN)
- Showboat Barbeque
- Silky O’ Sullivan’s (Beale St.)
- Skipper’s Catfish and BBQ (Southaven, MS)
- Slap Yo’ Mama BBQ (Selmer, TN) closed
- Smoked Out Championship BAR•B•QUE and Deli
- Smoky Bones BBQ closed in Memphis
- Sparky’s BBQ (Atoka, TN)
- Tango and Murph’s BBQ closed
- Tastee Bar-B-Q
- The Bald Butcher (Covington, TN)
- The Bar-B-Q Shop
- The Bar-B-Q Store (Whiteville, TN)
- The Bar-B-Que Pit (Southaven, MS)
- The BBQ Shack (Whole Foods)
- The Smokehouse BBQ (Rossville, TN)
- Three Little Pigs BBQ
- Todd’s Showcase Bar-B-Q
- Tom’s Bar-B-Q and Deli
- Tommy Leonard’s BBQ (Southaven, MS)
- Too-Sweet Famous Bar-B-Q Pig Out (roadside pit)
- Tops BAR-B-Q (3353 Summer Ave)
- Tops BAR-B-Q (4183 Summer Ave)
- Tops BAR-B-Q (Airways Blvd)
- Tops BAR-B-Q (Frayser Blvd)
- Tops BAR-B-Q (Millington, TN)
- Tops BAR-B-Q (Rhodes Ave)
- Tops BAR-B-Q (Sycamore View/Macon)
- Tops BAR-B-Q (Thomas Ave)
- Tops BAR-B-Q (Union, Ave)
- Tops BAR-B-Q (Watkins)
- Ty’s Smokehouse (Bartlett, TN)
- Vaneli’s Deli (brisket on Sat) (Germantown, TN)
- Westy’s (Downtown)
- Whole Hog BBQ (Germantown Pkwy)
- Whole Hog BBQ (Quince Rd) closed
- William’s BBQ (West Memphis, AR)
- Willie Mae’s Rib Haus (West Memphis, AR)
- Willingham’s Bar-B-Q
- Wolf River BBQ (Moscow, TN)
- Yancey’s (concession)
A & R Bar-B-Que
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 to me that A & R’s ribs were “fire.” I began asking around and discovered that A & R 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 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 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? Hey, hey, hey! 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 great ribs; just a little fattier than I prefer, but 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 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 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!”
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
Alfred’s on Beale Street
Alfred’s is a Beale St. club that hosts some of the best live bands around. Combine that with the terrace dining, southern food and plenty of cold drinks and you get spirited fun and spirited people. So here’s the formula: live music + terrace dining + southern food + cold drinks = a great time on Beale. You’ll hear more than the blues at Alfred’s too. I can still remember that afternoon our family dined under the terrace at Alfred’s. The impending Y2K was fast approaching, sparking conversation, laughter and a touch of uncertainty. A local rock band was covering Bon Jovi’s ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’ On yet another visit Kevin Paige and The Amazing Flea Circus performed an eclectic set of numbers, including a hit by Prince.
Since Beale St. is known for both blues and bbq, it was no surprise to find ribs on the menu our first visit several years ago. I call this my ‘rags to riches’ bbq story because Alfred’s went from low on my bbq totem pole to high on my list of Memphis bbq greats. I was the unlucky guy to end up with the worst ribs on the planet that first time. In fact, they were so bad I’d be willing to bet that if those ribs had been served to Alfred himself, he wouldn’t have eaten them either. I sent the ribs back for the following reasons: the ribs were about 50% fat, which was cold, the texture was rubbery and smokiness was non-existent. Imagine eating cold fat when you were expecting smoky, tender barbecued ribs. In Memphis, we take pride in our ‘que. The thought of some unsuspecting out-of-towners expecting world class Memphis bbq and getting cold fat, was a little unsettling. Then again, after a few beers and some spirited tunes the ribs might not have tasted so bad after all.
But, the fairytale didn’t end there for my experience at Alfred’s. In 2010 I spotted a banner on Alfred’s advertising that their bbq competition team had placed well in a bbq contest. Needless to say, I was surprised. But I figured they probably had a new pit-master. That was my cue to make a return visit after so many years. And how different they were! This time the ribs were sensationally slightly sweet and sticky, succulently tender, had a well-seasoned bark and were smolderingly smoky! Was the first visit a fluke, or was this the new Alfred’s? No matter. This time at Alfred’s I got top shelf ribs that would have tantalized any barbecue connoisseur’s palate-sober or not. Not only did Alfred’s redeem itself in my eyes, but it also moved way up my list of best ribs in town. Alfred’s is also still a favorite club on Beale for many locals, showcasing some of the most talented, lively and relevant artists in Memphis. It’s a jam-packed hotspot on Beale, where the music’s hot, the drinks are cold and the ribs are smokin’.
Terrace at Alfred’s on Beale St. with additional seating underneath.
Big Bill Bar-B-Que
On Elvis Presley Blvd, just half a mile from Graceland, I came across a small bbq joint with big flavors-Big Bill flavors that is, at BIG BILL BAR-B-Q. The atmosphere was simple, but unique. Pictures of black history leaders served as wall décor and the I particularly recall that the place was impeccably clean. And if barbecue has its leaders, Big Bill is certainly one of them. Not because he has won bbq competitions or touts trophies and medals, or because he has a TV show or cooking school. But simply because in a world of new school, he’s still old school. Big Bill Bar-B-Q just cranks out addictive, old-school barbecue, day in and day out. He needed no claim to fame because the ‘que spoke for itself. My taste buds were glad I listened, because my palette was rewarded with smoky, tender pork ribs. I couldn’t find anything at all wrong with these ribs. They were perfectly tender, brilliantly smoky ribs with a nice well-seasoned crust and a sweet-n-tangy sauce that complimented the meat. In one visit Big Bill Bar-B-Q went from a place new to me, to one of my favorite bbq discoveries in town for old-school barbecued ribs. Also on the menu was all of the typical Memphis bbq fare: barbecue (smoked pork shoulder),bbq bologna, bbq nachos, fried catfish, southern style tamales and the like. On my visit I also happened to see a colleague from work, who was actually out on maternity leave. When those cravings came, mom knew right where to go. No chance of me gettin’ pregnant (thankfully), but that old time backyard bbq flavor is one that I crave, and I think Big Bill Bar-B-Q is one of the best places in Memphis to get it.
Blues City Café on Beale Street
My family knows that a good time for me means checking out a new bbq joint. And when given a choice of where to celebrate Father’s Day one year, I chose Blues City Café on Beale Street. I’d read about it on the net and heard local radio DJs give it high praises. So, walking with our “feet ten feet off of Beale,” as singer-songwriter Marc Cohn so eloquently wrote, we made our bbq journey to Blues City Café. It’s a Beale Street blues joint with a down home southern vibe. But don’t let the name fool you. Blues is not the only type of music you’ll hear performed on their stage. Various genres of live music are showcased at Blues City Café on different nights of the week, from rock & roll to R & B and soul. It’s a hip hangout, but I was there to check out the ‘que.
While we waited for the food I gave the table bbq sauce and seasoning a taste. So far- good and good. I thought both captured that Memphis flavor. The sauce was both a little sweet and a little tangy. The dry rub seasoning was savory and robust. In just a few minutes a platter of meaty bones was placed in front of me. The ribs had a nice bark on the outside and were very tender inside. Everything about this bbq joint screamed great Memphis barbecue except for one very important ingredient-smoke. The meat had no visible smoke ring or even the slightest bit of pink that is present when meat is pit-smoked. More importantly, the meat had no smoke flavor at all. Smokiness is really the barometer of good barbecue. It’s the true essence of barbecue and the ribs at Blues City Café fell short that evening. All of the other important elements were there, which still made them enjoyable barbecue-flavored ribs, just not barbecued ribs.
A few years later I later watched a television episode featuring Blues City Café on the Food Network. Bobby Flay paid a visit and I learned how they “barbecued” their ribs. They were using a little contraption that basically bakes the meat, with a tray in which to place wood chips. Heated by some sort of heating elements, the wood produces smoke to flavor the meat as it bakes. Essentially, it appeared to be an electric or gas smoker. After the ribs were “baked” for tenderness, they were placed on a display grill (visible to patrons) for a few minutes. Perhaps they intended to add a little charred flavor just before serving. Or more likely, it’s all part of the show. After all, the ribs really did look great coming off that grill. But a few minutes on a grill at the end of the cooking process will not add any significant smoke flavor. These types of electric and gas smokers actually can produce smoky ribs if they are operated properly. But if for example, an employee gets busy, cuts corners and neglects to place wood chips in the tray, one will essentially end up with oven-baked ribs. In effect, that’s what I got, because my ribs simply had zero smoky flavor. There is just no substitute for a real bbq pit. And with so many bbq eateries in town serving real pit bbq, I see no reason to chance the expense of smokeless ribs again.
Overall, I still liked so many other elements of Blues City Café and would like to make my way back. The southern sides were great and I understand they have some of the best fried catfish around. They also have an interesting way of cooking and serving steaks. They’re ordered by the pound and pre-sliced, then served family style on the table for one or more guests. If you’re a steak-lover as I am, you probably prefer getting your steak whole for maximum juiciness, and cutting away each bite as you eat. However, it could be fun to explore this unique steak dining experience with family or a few friends. Despite the less-than-perfect bbq, I recommend Blues City Café for a great southern meal, great times and great tunes. And if no one neglects to place the wood chips in the tray, you just might get some tasty smoked ribs as well.
Boss Man Pit Stop
Anyone who’s lived in Memphis for any period of time has seen a burger, nachos or a piece of chicken hand-painted right on the front of a small restaurant or diner of some kind-not unlike what you’d see some of the older food trucks. The Memphis urban landscape is dotted with them. Take Boss Man Pit Stop for example. It’s a small, unassuming strip-mall bbq shop with the menu painted right on the front: burgers, catfish, smoked turkey leg, nachos, sausages, hotdogs, bbq sandwiches, rib tips and hot wings. Interestingly enough, I had none of these. Instead, I had a rib sandwich.
Usually in Memphis, a rib sandwich means a four-bone section of ribs served on a bun or a couple of slices of bread, with sauce and slaw on the side. The best way to enjoy it is to eat a bone or two, then debone the rest of the meat and make a sandwich with it. Don’t forget to add the sauce and slaw. A little hot sauce or hot bbq sauce, if available, is in order too. Eating your rib sandwich this way enables you to enjoy both ribs and a bbq sandwich for much less than the cost of a slab of ribs. It’s also a good way to watch that supermodel figure that you’ve worked so diligently to achieve and still enjoy some ‘que. As much as I enjoy barbecue and as often as I eat it, it’s become necessary to learn the meaning of moderation. But don’t think for a minute that I didn’t savor every bite. The sauce was tangy-sweet and the meat, everything I like in ribs-smoky, tender and savory. At this pit stop I got my much needed barbecue fuel for the soul.
Bozo’s Hot Pit Bar-B-Q (Mason, TN)
The influence of Memphis barbecue extends well beyond its city limits to include its surrounding metropolitan area towns and the entire tri-state area. It’s a nice change of pace to escape the noise pollution and concrete jungles of the city by venturing into one of the little country towns on the outskirts. Tucked back in the country, a thirty minute, breezy, country drive outside of Memphis to Mason Tennessee, Bozo’s is a place out of town and out of time. To get there from Memphis, you’ll enter Tipton County, the birthplace of soul music legend Isaac Hayes, and you’ll pass one of the original Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken restaurants. Bozo’s Hot Pit Bar-B-Q is one of the oldest, if not the oldest operating bbq restaurants around Memphis. It was established in 1923 and rumor has it that this bbq joint is even older than Bozo the clown, who allegedly sued them for a copyrights violation. As the story goes, the clown lost a counter-suit because the bbq restaurant was able to prove that smoke was billowing from their smokestack as Bozo’s Hot Pit Bar-B-Q long before the clown began painting his face for the public as Bozo the Clown. One thing’s for sure-Bozo’s Hot Pit BBQ has been around for a long time. I’ve heard a few old-timers speak of growing up on Bozo’s barbecue.
In a world of internet, i-phones and robot vacuum cleaners, Bozo’s hasn’t lost their old-time homey charm. The woody, smoky aroma and piggy memorabilia throughout the restaurant transported me back to another era; a place in time where folks are friendly and Best of all, old-fashioned downhome cookin’ was on the menu. And when it comes to the barbecue, they’re not clowin’ around at Bozo’s. I enjoyed the pork shoulder sandwich most of all. It came just the way I like it-‘dirty!’ That’s right, ‘dirty’- smoky, tender and loaded with bits of the bark or outer crust mixed throughout the meat. That contrast in texture, combined with the smoky flavor of the meat, the slightly sweet but mostly tangy sauces and mayonnaise-based slaw made one serious bbq sandwich. For those who want even more vinegar punch, Bozo’s Hot Pit Bar-B-Q offers a tangy vinegar slaw as well. The ribs, only available on weekends, were tender and had a nice barbecued crust with slight, yet noticeable smokiness. But it was the bar-b-q sandwich that impressed me the most and one that I’ll be back for. In fact, I can already taste my next trip there; all clowin’ aside.
Cozy Corner Restaurant
At the corner of North Parkway and Manassas in downtown Memphis, meat drips overs coals daily, drawing in crowds of barbecue lovers from all over this ‘que-lovin’ country.
It’s a cozy corner; a small and humble place with no bells and whistles, no tourist traps and no large wooden statues for kids to get a picture with-just one of the best places in Memphis to get real deal Memphis-style charcoal pit bar-b-q. Just driving by, the barbecue aroma is intoxicating enough to make even our vegetarian friends crave one of their meaty bones. Its unique glass-walled smoker sits smoke-filled, right behind the counter to the left, displaying racks of smoky meats cooking low and slow over charcoal.
The near lost art of cooking over the coals sounds like barbecue blasphemy to many pit-masters in the world of competition barbecue, where using the indirect wood smoked method reigns supreme. I too was on the bbq trail looking for ribs with the best wood smoked flavor when I first paid a visit to Cozy Corner years ago. I recall that after my first bite of a Cozy Corner rib I asked myself audibly, “Man, what is in that?” Was it in the seasoning? How did these ribs taste so great without the wood smoke? It was when I saw an online interview with Raymond Robinson (Cozy Corner founder and original pit-master) from the documentary ‘Smokestack Lightning,’ that I learned his secret to mouthwatering bbq. He said, “I want my juices to fall out of the meat, hit the coals, burn, make a smoke and come and go back through the meat. And that’s the flavor I’m looking for.” That one tip completely revolutionized the way I barbecue. There is a particular type of smoke flavor the meat takes on when the drippings hit the coals. Since I like both wood smoked flavor and this old charcoal pit smoky flavor, I most often now find myself utilizing both methods simultaneously.
Cozy Corner is especially famous for their bbq Cornish hens and their ribs. They both get a good shot of charcoal pit smoke and their tasty barbecue dry-rub seasoning. The seasoning is yet another Cozy Corner secret. The few times I purchased some to take, I actually got in a Styrofoam cup. The coffee lid provides a little flip top from which to sprinkle that magic bbq dust. It’s simple and old-fashioned. They sold it by the pound and half pound. The first time I ever had it was actually not at the Cozy Corner Restaurant. It was at a cookout that a fellow work colleague, Daniel Thorpe was shaking the dry-rub all over some bbq chicken. It was some of the best bbq chicken I’d ever had. It reminded me of my dad’s bbq chicken. I’ve modeled my bbq chicken after that flavor ever since. When I asked Thorpe (we went by last names at work) where he got the seasoning he just said with a smile, “I buy this stuff from a little store in the hood. This man (referring to Raymond Robinson) mixes it up and sells it in Styrofoam cups like this (showing me the cup). You don’t know nothin’ about that Shirley.” Since then we always enjoyed talking ‘que. I toyed around with different flavors, trying to find out what is in it. But even if one knew the basic ingredients, who knows the ratios? I like this rub because I think Mr. Robinson captured just the perfect flavor for barbecue. Some rubs are very aromatic and taste good on cheese and what not, but not all rubs taste good when cooked on bbq. Some spices take on a whole new flavor once they are exposed to heat and smoke. Cozy Corner’s rub is probably fairly simple, it’s just an ideal blend for bbq. I can’t say if I’ve cracked the top secret G-4 classified formula, but here’s the best I could come up with: paprika, salt and/or seasoning salt, pepper (red and black), garlic and/or onion powder, a little cayenne pepper, perhaps msg and a touch of magic. These are actually typical ingredients for a bbq dry rub, but good luck finding the exact flavor.
If you’re looking for sticky-sweet type ribs, you won’t find them here. Those can be good too, but that’s not what Cozy Corner’s barbecue is about. It’s just a different kind of bbq. Sauce is poured on like bbq gravy instead of basted, whch then marries with their dry rub seasoning and gives birth to a whole new tasty bbq creation. Still, I usually order the dry ribs with sauce on the side so that I can control how much sauce is on the meat. That way, I ensure nothing is covering up that great smoke flavor. The ribs I’ve had from Cozy Corner haven’t typically been, “fall off the bone tender” either, which I think is by design. They are usually tender enough to eat easily, just not sloppy tender like say, boiled chicken. Their type of ribs remind me of the consistency of say, perfectly grilled pork chops-something you can sink your teeth into and that has some chew, but tender enough to eat without struggle. Smoky, tender and touched with a magic seasoned barbecue bark, the ribs at Cozy Corner BBQ are high on my list of Memphis’ best for barbecued ribs and second to none of the charcoal pit-smoked variety.
A final word about two great barbecue pit-masters
Raymond Robinson and Daniel Thorpe passed on to heaven a few years ago, but they leave behind their passions for great barbecue to those who they touched with good food and good times. I dedicate this review to them and to the loved ones whose lives they touched.
Leonard’s Pit Barbecue
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-in0 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 litlle 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 mohogany crisp bark exterior. Thanks Guy.
Rib buffet night was pricey, but worth the experience. The ribs had nicely browned exterioer and the meat was tender and lightly smokey. 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, screeming 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, smokey 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 smokey 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 smokey. 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 pit-masters are constantly 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, but more and more people are coming to expect a good shot of smoke in their ‘que. If you’re looking for a good, sloppy sauce and slaw Memphis barbecue sandwich or tender juicy 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.
Loven Fresh Baking Company, Barbecue and Deli
One site that will always catch the eye of any barbecue enthusiast out on the road is a jumbo barbecue pit in a parking lot, smoke billowing out. And that is exactly why I was forced to make the twenty five minute trip out to Loven Fresh Baking Company, Barbecue and Deli in Oakland, TN. I had passed by the little bbq shop with the big bbq pit on my way to see family in Selmer, TN. Unable to stop at the time, I would eventually make the trip with my wife and kids. It’s actually a bakery, deli and bbq shop all combined into one. The store itself was tiny, with a few wooden picnic tables outside for seating. But I liked it. It reminded me of picnics, family reunions and church pot-lucks, which are all the heart and soul of American barbecue anyway. Sitting next to a hickory log pile and the large smokin’ pit provided a front row seat right in the heart of the barbecue action.
Stepping into Loven Fresh bakery was like taking a trip back in time to a charming, wholesome, country store. Shelves were lined with goodies ranging from molasses to fruit preserves to an assortment of gourmet flavored oils, no doubt intended for dipping some of that fresh-baked bread into. Other shelves featured Loven Fresh’s freshly baked breads, cakes and the little gem that started it all for owners Chris and Angela McKnight-banana nut bread. Their bio on the back of the store’s flyer tells the story of Chris making banana nut bread loaves for Angela to sell at work. Orders reached a few thousand within only a few months. Since then, he opened Loven Fresh and hasn’t stopped multiplying loaves since! I was there for the ‘que, but it’s hard to resist homemade banana nut bread, so I took a loaf home to the family. That poor loaf never had a chance! Once the boys got hold of it, the bread lasted for about five minutes. I enjoyed a couple of slices with cream cheese spread between-yum! It was moist and zingy with spices. The pungent cinnamon and other spices make this loaf stand out from the rest. A slice of this banana nut bread and a cup of freshly ground locally roasted coffee would be a delightful way to start the day.
It’s true that there’s a lot of loven’ in this oven, but I was more interested in what was in the pit. Chris had hooked up with a competition bbq team, eventually honing his own craft. As a result, the unique bakery-deli-bbq shop was born. We’ve talked bread. Now let’s talk shoulder. The meat had a deep and obvious smoke ring, which was evidence that it had been smoked for many hours. It was also very tender and had really good bark or crust developed from spices and smoke on the outside of the Boston butt. These crusty bits were mixed throughout the pulled pork-just the way I like it. That way, I get a nice contrast of textures-crispy, chewy, tender, juicy. The sauce had some good tang, the right amount of sweet and worked well with the crunchy slaw to compliment the smoky sandwich.
Barbecue shops are notoriously inconsistent. But the smoky pork sandwiches I’ve grabbed on return visits to Loven Fresh have still been-crispy, chewy, tender, juicy and oh so smoky. Each time I return, the little bakery-bbq shop seems to have grown up a little. Soon the pit was moved into a covered patio adjacent to the building, where smoke still billows out, drawing in bbq lovers. In July of 2014 I decided to take the boys to a massive inflatable water slide called the Midsouth Family Fun Park in Eads, TN. Since Oakland was just a few miles down 64, where to eat lunch was never a question in my mind. The trip was a win-win situation. The boys got to slide and I got some ‘que at Loven Fresh! All three of us had the barbecue pork sandwich with sauce and slaw. The meat was still on “que.” They’d also built a charming patio with a fountain and some plants.
I am already planning yet another visit. See, I asked Chris if the buns for the bbq sandwiches were baked in-house. But trying to bake fresh buns for the thousands of bbq sandwiches he cranks out on a regular basis is not plausible, given that Chris is the owner-operator of this bakery-bbq shop. He’s keeping it small in size, but great in quality. One could, however, special order fresh buns and pick up smoked pork shoulder by the pound with sauce and slaw to take home. In fact, Chris can bake an assortment of breads. Now I can imagine what some of my fellow bbq connoisseurs might be thinking; that a traditional bbq sandwich is made with a very simple burger bun-nothing fancy. This way, the smoked pork can be the star of the show. But imagine if you could get that simple burger bun freshly baked and piled with freshly smoked pork shoulder, homemade bbq sauce and slaw! Could anything be better? In fact, that’s exactly what I plan to do on my next trip to Loven Fresh. I want to experience the ultimate oven fresh, Loven Fresh bbq sandwich!
Overall, Loven Fresh is just one of those rare bbq gems, where the owner-operator serves up passion on bun. Still small, still passionate about great food. The meat, the smoke, the aroma, the charm-Loven Fresh Baking Company, Barbecue and Deli is the little bakery-bbq shop with big flavor; and a must stop for ‘que-lovin’ folks like me.
The Pig on Beale
Music, wood smoke and the smell of lively concoctions fill the air on Beale Street, where neon lights guide the way to good times for tourists and locals alike. But in the midst of that neon jungle, a sign stands out from the rest. Who can possibly miss the pig in sunglasses, flexing his bicep with microphone held firmly in the same hoof? The sign reads, ‘Pork With An Attitude!’ Enter the world of The PIG on Beale.
But first, allow me to take a step back. My first experience with The PIG on Beale was not actually at The PIG on Beale, but at their former Millington location, Millington PIG. Millington is a small military town, a mere ten minute drive from the Memphis city limits. It hosts the annual Memphis Airshow and is home to the award-winning championship Mirimichi Golf Course, brain-child of hometown music sensation, Justin Timberlake. the Millington PIG was a star in its own rights in the world of barbecue. A step into this bbq diner with retro décor of classic movie posters, booths with glitter-covered seats and a jumpin’ jukebox, felt like going on a time machine ride that made a pit stop in the 50’s. And old-time wood-smoked barbecued ribs completed my trip to the past. The wood smoke flavor, tenderness, caramelized bark and a sweet-n-tangy bbq sauce on those meaty bones solidified Millington PIG as a bone-a-fide rib joint. Millington PIG has since closed its doors, but the original store on Beale Street is still rockin’ out ribs and shoulder.
About a year later I made my way down Beale to The PIG to get the ‘que from the source. It had the same cool retro décor of the Millington PIG and still smoked up some of the best meat in town. There, I had one of the very best smoky bbq sandwiches I’ve ever put in my mouth-period. It had all of the elements of a smoky, tender, well-seasoned barbecue sandwich with slaw and same great sweet-n-tangy bbq sauce. The crust throughout the meat had the kind of pink color that is present when meat has been wood-smoked low and slow. Those bits of extra smoky meat I always look for in an authentic Memphis-style barbecue sandwich-a bbq sandwich with an attitude. So go and enjoy yourself. Go ahead, be a PIG!
How many Memphis area barbecue joints have you been to? Which ones? Which was your favorite?