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I’ve been going to bbq joints all across Memphis for many years and never knew about this place until late 2008, which as it turns out, is only about eight minutes from my house. And as it turns out, I’ve driven within a few hundred feet from it countless times down through my years of discovering Memphis bbq and it’s been right under my nose the whole time. I actually first learned about Morris Grocery in a forum on the internet. A few people were praising it as the best bbq sandwich in Memphis. Of course, I couldn’t stand knowing about this place that was so close to home and not having been there. It was my off-day from work and about 9:30 A.M. By 11:00 A.M. I was there getting two sandwiches, two fried apple pies and a pound of hoop cheese. But before I get into the bar-b-q, here’s what to expect when you pull up to the place. Morris Grocery is one of those hidden gems, buried just outside of suburbia, on the edge of rural Tennessee. It’s located in the Cordova/Eads area, tucked away in a back road with a bumpy gravel parking lot and a small metal sign on the front of the small cinder block building. On my first visit, I noticed some sort of metal pit in the back of the property, with smoke rolling out. That wonderful smoky aroma is usually a good sign that barbecue goodness is in store for me if I stop in. I did, and there was.
This “grocery” store actually only had a few items in the entire store for sale: barbecue sandwiches, homemade fried fruit pies (when available), drinks, snacks, a few old-school deli items such as hot souse, stick-bologna and hoop cheese, as well as some convenience items (i.e. lighters, gum, etc.). The gravel parking lot, old pipes running through the store, and a leaning shelf behind the counter, all reminded me that I wasn’t in a five-star restaurant. And I loved it. For me it was like going on a bbq expedition and finding a rare artifact.
I wondered how Morris Grocery remained under my bbq radar for so many years, so I asked Mr. Laddie Morris how long he’d been selling barbecue there and got this grinning response, “Since before you were born. Over forty years.” As I’ve asked around since then, I occasionally discover someone who grew up on Mr. Morris’ barbecue shoulder sandwich and fried pies. I’ve never met a soul who didn’t like Morris Grocery after visiting. Besides his smoky barbecue, he’s just a good man. I sometimes hear that he has always been so good to people. He was also nice enough to give me a tour of his smokin’ pits in the rear of the place, escorting me through a screened-in back porch and into the backyard of the store. Notice in my photos that the heat source is positioned below the meat, but the opening is smaller than the size of the smoking chamber where the meat is. It’s sort of a hybrid form of cooking both over the coals and indirectly. I’m assuming he rotates the shoulders in and out of the direct position. Whatever he did, he did it right. I enjoyed various elements of Mr. Morris’ succulent smoked pork.
First big plus: instead of storing pre-pulled or chopped pork shoulder in a warmer or pan, Mr. Morris pulled it right off the shoulder to order, which generally means two things-juicier meat and fresher meat. In other words, it didn’t dry out or lose flavor already chopped, sitting in a hot pan. I noticed that he chopped some of the meat, yet some was pulled as well. It was definitely tender enough to be pulled. But I don’t mind chopped too if it is tender and moist. The fact that the meat is chopped doesn’t necessarily mean the shoulder is tough and therefore has to be chopped as some pull-purists allege. Some just prefer the way the bark is better mixed throughout the meat by way of chopping. I like both chopped and pulled. My sandwiches at Morris Grocery have included a little of both.
Of course great barbecue is not only tender, but smoky. Morris’ sandwich was full of great smokiness and bits of crusty bark. What really set this bbq sandwich apart from others was the way that he assembled it. He served a tangy, sweet and spicy sandwich with a slight twist. Instead of mixing hot sauce into the bbq sauce to create the kind of spicy bbq sauce that can be found in many Memphis-area bbq joints, Mr. Morris layered the flavors of his sandwich. That’s really one aspect that makes a Memphis-style bbq sandwich so great anyway, that the sauce is not (usually) mixed with the meat, rather it is poured on top. That way, you get some bites with a complimenting sauce and slaw, but you also get some bites with smoky meat not masked by the sauce, allowing you to get some smoky barbecue yumminess. Mr. Morris took that concept a step further by layering his sandwich as follows: the bottom bun, then meat, then hot sauce (Louisiana) and bbq seasoning, then bbq sauce, then slaw, then top bun. By layering the flavors, he achieved a unique bbq flavor that stands out from most other bbq sandwiches here. I could taste everything distinctly, yet in harmony together. I wasn’t just getting bbq sauce with heat, because I could also distinctly taste the vinegary flavor of the hot sauce, which elevated the sandwich to the next level of bbq nirvana.
Being located in an old building is certainly not a pre-requisite for a good bbq joint, nor does it mean the ‘que will be great, but in the case of Morris Grocery it is the very picturesque “hole in the wall” bbq joint that doles out real-deal Memphis-style barbeque. When you go, don’t forget desert. The best crispy, buttery fried fruit pies are also served there, while they last. On my last visit, I enjoyed some good ole southern homemade peach cobbler-good as any you’ll find. Sadly, Mr. Morris hasn’t offered barbecue ribs at his place (at least on any of my visits), but he does serve one of the best constructed bbq sandwiches in Memphis.
Tenderness-The smoked pork shoulder held its moisture, because Mr. Morris chopped the meat to order.
Smoke-Smoke flavor has been good on most visits. It’s kept me goin’ back.
Bark-The crusty bark was flavorful and added a slightly crispy dimension to the sandwich.
Sauce-It was sweet and tangy sauce that complimented the pork. It may have some liquid smoke added. What set Mr. Morris’ sandwich apart was how he layer the flavors-hot sauce, then bbq seasoning, then bbq sauce. The result was a sweet-heat sauce with distinct, yet blended flavors.
Thanks for visiting my Memphis bbq blog! Tim Shirley