A deep-rooted grill culture combined with a handful of excellent restaurants means you’ll never get stuck inside of Memphis with the BBQ blues again. The city has mastered the art of the dry rub, and different places have come up with wildly divergent concoctions for flavoring their raw meat, from tangy tomato glazes to spicy paprika-based powders. And while these usually go with the ribs, which tend to be the standout choice in Memphis BBQ joints, the sliced or pulled pork is a good bet too, and some places also serve unbeatable BBQ chicken.
Corky’s is the undisputed master of ribs in Memphis, which come in two equally delectable varieties, dry and wet. Both are moist and tender; dry ribs are hand-rubbed with a salt and spice shake, wet ribs are glazed in Corky’s Original BBQ Sauce, infusing the fall-off-the-bone meat with a sweet-and-spicy tomato-based flavor. All Corky’s meats are slow-cooked over a hickory wood fire, and the pork shoulder is worth pummelling your stomach to fit in alongside the two types of rib. If you’ve any room left, baked beans and coleslaw compose the classic Corky combination of sides.
Payne’s is all about the intense flavors, which are served over the counter in a bare and basic canteen-style dining area, smokey and devoid of any decorations on the walls. Ribs and chopped pork are the order of the day, the pork served swimming in Payne’s fiery sauce and both accompanied by a dollop of coleslaw infused with taste-bud-popping quantities of mustard and vinegar. Taken on its own, this can all seem a little overwhelming. But the best way to experience Payne’s is through its BBQ sandwich, considered by many in Memphis to be the best in town. It comes out enthroned on a vast Styrofoam plate, the chopped pork drenched in the spicy red sauce and topped with a generous splat of the uber-tangy slaw, making for an intense, delicious and supremely affordable five-minute feast.
In stark contrast to the barebones and minimalistic Payne’s, Charlie Vergos Rendezvous is a lively and stylish Memphis institution that draws on the spirit of the city’s legendary music scene. The place was born in 1948, when sandwich vendor Charlie Vergos was clearing out his basement and discovered a coal chute. This, he pondered, would work well as a vent, enabling him to pursue a personal passion for charcoaling meat. Soon after he began experimenting with different seasonings, mixing Greek spices with chilli and paprika to create the famous deep-red dry-rub that coats his ribs today. They’re among the most distinctively flavored ribs you’ll find anywhere in the US, which when combined with the buzzing atmosphere of Vergos’ restaurant have made it one of the best-known BBQ joints in the country.
Central BBQ, which opened a decade ago, is a young player on the field of Memphis BBQ, with a distinctive style including waiters clad in tie-dye T-shirts. Unlike several of the places in Memphis, this isn’t just about the ribs: Central has got it all well-covered. The smoked chicken is unusually popular, and there’s usually someone heartily tucking into a plate of it. The pulled pork is stupendous, particularly if you ask for some "extra bark" – the dark, smoky crust which adds some real bite to the mound of soft meat. There are some uniquely hard-hitting sides, particularly the potato chips and home-made blue cheese dressing. And OK, OK, the ribs are irresistible too – marinated overnight and infused with a deep smokiness from the hot-burning hickory wood.
Old tunes drift through a small carpeted dining room, while leisurely serving staff glide through Cozy Corner’s laid-back, smoke-scented ambience. Cozy’s sweet BBQ sauce, drizzled over tender ribs that come in a range of sizes, have won it many fans, as have the various pork dishes, whether pulled or sliced and mixed with a mustardy slaw. But Cozy is most famous for its Cornish hens, a traditional feast in the American south. Essentially a small single-serving chicken, the bird comes out whole and slathered in sauce, with a little white bread on the side. The meat is soft, moist, and suffused with a delicious smoky flavor.