Memphis holds a special place in my heart. It was the first place I visited after starting The Royal Tour, and my first attempt at writing about a destination. (I think I’ve come pretty far in that respect.) Likewise, Memphis BBQ holds a special spot in my soul. Growing up largely keeping Kosher – the Jewish dietary laws – I had only eaten pork twice; bacon and pepperoni each shortly after my bar mitzvah, the Jewish ceremony at 13 years old where a child becomes an adult. When I decided to start The Royal Tour, I decided that in order to truly experience a place, I had to eat its food. So Memphis BBQ was my first real foray into pork, and my first experience of it in any manner in more than twenty years.
I can still remember the feeling of ribs that somehow both fell off the bone and still had some bite, sauce dripping down my face and hands. But what makes Memphis BBQ – one of the four main regional BBQ cuisines, along with Texas, Carolina, and Kansas City – unique? Where does it originate, how has it been perfected, and where should one go for the best versions? Today we will delve into this amazing cuisine and try to answer those burning questions.
A sign in Memphis is totally spot-on!
The story of Memphis BBQ really begins with two things: World War Two and the Mississippi River. Confused? I’ll explain. At the end of World War Two, cities like Memphis exploded in size as many soldiers who had grown up on farms returned from the war and settled into urban or suburban areas. Many of these soldiers were people of color who had had little access to education before leaving for the fronts, and who returned pretty much in poverty despite the service rendered for their country. For those people, pork was about the only affordable meat in a place like Tennessee. So, armed with a whole pig and ingredients like tomatoes and molasses supplied by Memphis’ role as one of the largest river ports on the Mississippi, BBQ joints popped up in poor areas as commercially viable eateries. Pigs were placed into pits and smoked whole, then slathered with a sauce of tomato, molasses, and vinegar.
In 1948, a guy named Charlie Vergos opened a diner called Rendezvous in downtown Memphis. One day, he discovered a coal chute in the basement, and he turned this into a “pit” for smoking pork ribs. It was in this moment that Memphis BBQ was truly born. Before long, Rendezvous served nothing but BBQ, focusing on those pit-smoked ribs basted in a sauce of tomato, molasses, and vinegar. As its fame spread, imitators popped up, offering their own takes on smoked ribs slathered with sweet and vinegary sauce.
Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous
Today, while the cuisine offers a nearly whole-pig experience, smoked and sauced ribs are still the backbone of Memphis BBQ, and the core recognizable dish that will differentiate this brand from its other regional counterparts. So let’s talk about ribs. Memphis BBQ is always pork ribs, and they are always smoked. However, some are smoked with a dry rub and served with sauce on the side, while others are basted with the sauce during the smoking process. These are called dry ribs and wet ribs, respectively, although both will be served with sauce on the side. The sauce falls in the middle of the BBQ spectrum, being thinner and less sweet than Kansas City, and thicker and sweeter than Carolina.
Memphis ribs. You can see both the dry rub and the wet sauce.
Most other dishes in a Memphis BBQ restaurant will be ubiquitous to southern cooking: greens, mac and cheese, and other sides, along with pulled pork (after all, the rest of the pig has to go somewhere) and even other meats. One other must-order dish, though? Sausage and cheese, something I have never seen outside of Memphis as a complete offering. It comes as a tray of sausage and cheese slices – with pickles – sprinkled with the Memphis dry rub of salt, sugar, and spices. (Each joint has its own take on the dry rub – and sauce – so it’s hard to really state with certainty what is in each beyond those basics.)
On a trip to Memphis, if you want to experience the breadth of BBQ, plan to eat in two different places. First and foremost, eat at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, now run by his son, John. Still in its original location, and still with its original coal chute pit, tended to by pit masters who have been at the restaurant for decades, Rendezvous is still churning out the best ribs I have ever eaten. The restaurant is filled with Memphis memorabilia; after all, it has been a major part of the fabric of the city for more than seventy years!
The coal chute smoker at Rendezvous
Just on the other side of downtown, right behind the National Civil Rights Museum, lies Central BBQ, the relative newcomer to the scene. (Central has several locations in the city, but this is likely the one you’ll visit.) Central BBQ is a model of efficiency, a line (normally very long) and a counter at which to order, rather than a sit-down establishment, in a building that is more warehouse than fine dining restaurant. But oh the food! Central BBQ has won best BBQ in Memphis more times in the past decade than anyone else, and besides the standard fare, offers hybrids like BBQ nachos. It has a more modern feel, and a cheaper price point, than Rendezvous, but lacks in the history. It’s an even trade-off.
A tray of goodness from Central BBQ. The mac and cheese has dry rub on it!
Few things change when it comes to Memphis BBQ – other than nachos – and I am glad for this. Slow cooking seems to be a thing of the past in today’s fast-moving society. But not in Memphis, where the ribs still smoke for hours and the patrons still lick every last drop of sauce off their fingers. Memphis BBQ is a reminder that the hustle and bustle of city life can wait for a bit. This is not a meal to be rushed.
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