I recently had a chance to get back to Memphis and try some of the places I'd missed on a prior trip at the end of last year. Fuller details and photos can be found at the link below, but here's a thumbnail sketch:
(1) Craig's Bar-B-Q, DeValls Bluff, AR. Small joint. Divided dining room and separate entrances, harkening back to the bad ole days. Ordered ribs. Meat was ultra-tender, but not mushy. Bark was a bit degraded from storage and reheating. Mild, but detectable, smoke flavor. Good ribs. Also got an excellent chocolate pie from the "Pie Shop" across the street. Terrific crust, very good filling, and a dense, not-too-sweet meringue.
(2) Bar-B-Q Shop, Memphis, TN (on Madison). After multiple recommendations here on Chowhound, I was eager to try this one. Got a half slab of dry ribs and a pulled pork sandwich. The ribs were very tender (parboiled?), but not to a major fault. Little smokiness, but the pleasant dry rub gave them a flavor boost. Pretty good ribs, but I didn't think they were exceptional. The sandwich (pictured below) made a bigger impression. The pork wasn't stellar, but the Texas toast was a nice twist. And the slaw--crisp, fresh-tasting, and with a better rounded flavor than most--really elevated it. The mildly mustard-based sauce wasn't laid on too thick. A fine sandwich.
(3) Payne's, Memphis, TN (on Lamar). I went here on the prior trip and the sandwich knocked me off me feet and flat on my back. Worried that I might be romanticizing the memory, I decided to go back, so I'd have a better basis for comparison with the other sandwiches I was having on this trip. Once again, off my feet, on my back. Toasted bun, great pork loaded with crispy browned bits, an excellent sauce, and that sweet neon yellow slaw. I could eat one of these every day. Picked up a fried pie (apple), too. Light, very flaky crust. Sweet filling, but lower in quantity, making for a good balance between pastry and apple filling.
(4) A&R Bar-B-Que, Memphis, TN (on Elvis Presley). Randal Cooper obviously knows his 'cue. So when he said A&R has, in his judgment, the best sandwich in town, I had to try it out. The chopped pork was a saucy, sloppy mess, but was very tasty. Pretty good pork flavor, with a fair amount of browned bits. The slaw was overwhelmed by the sauce, offering more texture and temperature contrast. It was oversauced; but, since the sauce tasted pretty good, that wasn't a major problem. In all, a very good sandwich (though very different in style from, say, Bar-B-Q Shop's). They were out of fried pies, the first day I went, so I had to make a repeat visit. The fried pie (apple) was outstanding. The sugar-dusted pastry was crisp, greaseless, and not a bit soggy. Filling was abundant, but not overly sweet. I only wish I could have bought it straight out of the deep frier and with a scoop of good vanilla ice cream on top.
(5) Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous, Memphis, TN (on 2nd St.). Rendezvous draws plenty of red flags on Chowhound. And, after getting burned at Corky's (which you guys also warn against) on my last trip, I was fearful going in. I was worried about the half slab of dried ribs I ordered, but needn't have been. They were actually quite good. Firm in texture, but not tough or dry. Little smokiness, but a pretty tasty dry rub. This was nowhere near the disaster I was expecting. I may have gotten lucky. The sandwich was also pretty good. Decent pork. A safely pleasant sauce. The slaw (served on the side) didn't add anything, I didn't think. In the balance, it was a pretty good sandwich.
(6) Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Q, Memphis, TN (on S. 3rd St.). Here's another one the Chowhounds warn against. Luck may have favored me at Rendezvous, but she failed me at Interstate. The half slab of ribs was atrocious--mushy in texture, greasy, and with a gummy exterior coated in a thick, cloying, tomatoey sauce reminiscent of jarred spaghetti sauce. Ugh. The sandwich wasn't much better. The pork was bland and inoffensive. But the slaw, placed under the sandwich, was almost impossible to taste because of the pint of that sorry, gloppy sauce that was drenching the whole affair. Won't be back.
(7) Central BBQ, Memphis, TN (on Central). I didn't want to close the trip with such a poor experience, so I headed over to Central BBQ, where I got some excellent ribs on my prior trip. Got a full slab of wet ones, plus some barbecue potato chips. Though the ribs weren't quite as good this time (a bit too tender and with some burnt sugar spots in places), they were still easily the best of the trip.
It was a very enjoyable trip. I was able to visit most of the places I'd hoped to. And, with the exception of Interstate, I didn't end up eating anything at all unpleasant. Thanks to all the Memphis Chowhounds for sharing their wisdom and experience! You guys have a beautiful city and some fine barbecue.
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