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 Band Box 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.
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!