Barbecue is something else in Memphis. It has a deeper meaning that goes beyond the food. It is as if the cuisine is so deep-rooted within Memphis that it has become part of its very soul. Families have risen to fame purely because of their restaurants and their signature menu items.
It’s not out of the ordinary for states to have their own barbecue styles. Texas, famous for succulent brisket. The Carolinas, famous for their hog roasts. It’s unusual, however, for individual cities to claim their own barbecue style. That’s precisely what Memphis does. Slabs of ribs cooked over charcoal briquettes, delivering a unique smoky flavor with an unctuous sauce with tang for days. Slaw that’s spliced with mustard that packs a punch. Even unique dishes like barbecue spaghetti can be found in Memphis.
It seems a disservice to only pick 5 of the best BBQ restaurants in Memphis, but that’s what I’ve done here. Consider this your Memphian barbecue 101. Try these, then graduate to more off-the-beaten-track places.
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Best Memphis BBQ Restaurants
Central BBQ has sat within the top three barbecue restaurants for nearly 20 years. The ribs are phenomenal and they should be seeing the effort put into them. Don’t expect a sauce-slathered rack here. They’re proud of their secret blend of spices that are rubbed into each rack by hand, then marinated for 24 hours. Each rack is then gently smoked over a heady mix of hickory and pecan until you can strip the bones with the slightest of pulls. Dip into their fine selection of mild, hot, vinegar, or mustard sauce, again, made on site.
Come for the ribs, but stay for the nachos. In fact, they’re considered Central’s biggest seller. Take a pick of tortilla chips or the in-house barbecue chips (I mean is there a choice?!), two kinds of cheese, then pulled pork, smoked chicken, or a vegetarian smoked portabella mushroom. Pull it high and dive in.
Charlie Vergos Rendezvous
The story goes that Charlie, owning a diner in 1948, wanted to try something new. After cleaning out the diner’s basement and uncovering a coal chute, the Rendezvous and its charcoal ribs were born. If you head here on a weekend, expect company, multiple thousand people come through the basement every Saturday night, hoping to grab a taste of the dry-rubbed ribs of fame. After all, this is the barbecue joint that invented them.
The ribs here are cooked quicker than in many of the low and slow restaurants. With only around 18 inches between the racks and the coals, this is more of a grill than a smoke, creating a welcome bite to the pork under the caramelized, charred exterior.
Expect truly brilliant service from the black bow-tie-clad waiting staff as you’re surrounded by a sea of famous faces looking upon your table from the photo walls. Not a lot has changed here since Charlie started the place. And I couldn’t be happier about that.
A Memphis staple, Cozy Corner has been run by the same family, the Robinsons, for 45 years and shows no sign of going anywhere. This is a joint that focuses on what it knows and does it well. Ribs done in the classic Memphis style are featured, but Cozy is famed for their whole Cornish Hens. Slowly smoked in Raymond Robinson’s Chicago-style smoker, these juicy birds deliver incredible flavor. Cozy offers a mild, medium, or hot sauce, but let this be a warning that even the medium plays host to its fair share of heat.
If you’re after barbecue in a roll, look no further than Payne’s. Overflowing with succulent pork slathered with homemade sweet barbecue sauce, topped with that Memphis-classic mustard slaw. The menu here is understated excellence. Don’t expect to be able to order a plethora of different meats and cuts, but what you will get is superb.
Ordering pork sandwiches in Memphis is a unique experience, where usually you’d find pulled pork, you’ll find chopped pork. The technique is said to maintain the char and present a deeper flavor than its pulled brethren. That’s exactly what Andrew and Rose Pollard set out to create when they founded A&R. Nowadays you can find a huge variety of meats on offer, all cooked on site in the smokehouse just next door to the restaurant. If you can try only one thing, get yourself the rib tip sandwich. And some of the homemade links. And some of the pork shoulder. That’s not one thing but you’ll be sorry if you miss out.
The Best Memphis Has To Offer
These are, in my opinion, as good as it gets in Memphis. These joints have been serving barbecue to locals and tourists alike for the best part of half a century. They must be doing something right, and trust me, try just some of what they have to offer and you’ll agree.