Central BBQ is one of the hippest bbq joints in town. Their claim that Central is “…where the locals eat” is not just a marketing ploy. It really is a wildly popular place for locals, myself included. Besides their perfectly wood-smoked meats, they also offer house-made bbq chips, bbq nachos and smoked hot wings, among other bbq culinary creations that can be found in Memphis. And hangin’ out under their covered deck is a relaxing way to enjoy it. Additionally, it’s central-ly located in midtown on Central Ave (hence the name). Near all the major universities, it attracts college students, professors and professionals alike. There is also a downtown location and another on Summer Ave (in an old Red Lobster) as well.
I first learned about Central BBQ from one of my workplace administrators, Soheila Kail, who also happened to be a Memphis In May barbecue judge, along with her husband, Memphis attorney Danny Kail. Danny has been involved in competition bbq in one way or the other for well over a quarter of a century. Soheila, aware of my quest to discover the best barbecue I could get my hands (and mouth) on, insisted that I needed to check out Central BBQ. She told me that Central’s ribs were the closest thing to competition ‘que that one could find in a restaurant in Memphis. By that time, I’d been to around 40-50 bbq joints, but had not yet become a certified bbq judge. Thanks to the direction and encouragement of Danny and his “Persian Princess,” as he affectionately calls her, I did become a bbq judge in 2008. For now, this was my opportunity to get a glimpse of competition-quality ‘que in a restaurant.
On that first visit, I ordered a full slab of dry ribs with sauce on the side. I asked a guy behind the counter about the several trophies that decorated the restaurant. He told me about some of the contests they’d won and that they’d been competing for some years under a different team name, which changed when the first Central BBQ was opened. After a very short wait, he smiled and delicately handed me the ribs in a foil pouch sleeve, as if he’d just hand over his own child to a stranger for safe keeping. Unable to wait for home (where I would have to share with the family), I decided to go for a couple of bones before I left the parking lot. My first impression-smoke. In my journey to discover the best barbecue I can find, I am deflated when I anticipate succulent, smoked meat, only to discover a faint resemblance of barbecue that is void of smoke flavor and could very well have been baked in a Kenmore. But I can still remember when I took my first bite of a Central BBQ rib, thinking, “Well, there’s no doubt these ribs were smoked.” In fact, since then, every bite of meat that I’ve had from Central BBQ has been wonderfully infused with wood-smoky savor. Not every bbq joint in Memphis is that consistent. I also savored the ribs’ perfectly seasoned crust, which provided a delectable contrast in texture with the tender meat. I had now taken a glimpse into the world of competition barbecue.
Central BBQ was one of the first notable competition team-turned-barbecue restaurants in Memphis and became an instant hit, not just in midtown, but all over. I finally had the pleasure of judging Central BBQ’s competition team at the Memphis In May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in 2011 at Tiger Lane, the year that the traditional Tom Lee Park suffered a major flood from the Mississippi River. Of the teams that I judged, Central got my highest score for the day. I discovered that the ribs I’d enjoyed at the restaurant weren’t too far from the competition ones. For some other teams who have restaurants, there is a very large gap between what is served in competition and what is served at the restaurant. It’s understood that more attention is given to a competition entry than to meat that has to be mass-produced. But for those restaurants touting trophies, but serving near smokeless meat, it’s misleading and inexcusable. In fact, I can think of several Memphis area bbq restaurants that don’t have a team and are smoking the pants off of some teams’ restaurants. But of all the teams-turned-restaurants, Central BBQ’s gap between competition bbq and restaurant bbq is smaller. Central BBQ has some of Memphis’ best ribs, both in and out of competition.
- The ribs have been very tender and juicy from my experiences and are some of the very best Memphis has to offer.
- The shoulder has been tender and juicy most of my experiences there, which have been many. On one occasion I had slightly dry meat at the Summer Ave location. It was probably either day-old meat, or it had been held in such a way that it lost too much moisture. Otherwise, I’ve most always enjoyed tender, juicy smoked pork from Central. In particular, I like the total combination of the bbq sandwich with the house bbq sauce and slaw. It’s one of my favorite bbq sandwiches in Memphis.
- Beef Brisket-was tender, but a bit dry.
- The ribs I’ve had from Central BBQ have always had a perfectly balanced wood smoke flavor for my taste and are some of the very best Memphis has to offer.
- The pork shoulder/Boston butt I’ve had from Central BBQ has always had a perfectly balanced wood smoke flavor for my taste as well. The bbq sandwich is one of my favorite bbq sandwiches in Memphis.
- Beef Brisket-had nice wood smoke flavor.
Bark Central BBQ has always been well known among bbq connoisseurs for wood-smoked meat with a wonderfully crusty and well-seasoned bark.
Sauce Central BBQ offers a variety of sauces to appeal bbq palates from various bbq regions in the U.S. Their house sauce, a tomato based sweet and tangy sauce, is my favorite and
compliments the smoked pork and ribs well.
Slaw The crunchy mayo-based slaw is refreshing and compliments the pork.
Thanks for visiting my Memphis bbq blog! Tim Shirley