Thanks to the Memphis Chowhounds who have posted their thoughts on the local scene. That body of collective knowledge helped steer me to some really good things and away from bad things.
Here's a short summary, with a longer report (with photos) linked to below.
Cozy Corner. Cool to see the aquarium tank up front. Ordered the Cornish hen (with mild sauce) and rib tips (with hot sauce). White meat on the hen was on the verge of dryness, but still had pretty good flavor that wasn't overwhelmed by the agreeable sauce. (The dark meat was hopelessly dry.) The rib tips seemed rather average to me. The meat was tender, but not really succulent, and lacked smokiness. Overall, it seemed like a pretty good place, though nothing I had there knocked my socks off.
Payne's. The pitmaster and owner were friendly and funny. I liked seeing the pit in the serving area. (Hidden pits are usually a bad sign.) Got the rib sandwich and chopped pork sandwich. The ribs were pretty good, in terms of texture. And I liked the mild sauce with them. But they didn't have the flavor intensity of great ribs. (I ate the ribs straight, rather than as a sandwich.) The pork sandwich, however, was excellent. Good texture to the pork. The hot sauce wasn't so strong that it overpowered the pork. And the combination of pork, sauce, and mustard-yellow slaw was fantastic--the only such combo I had on the trip where I felt it worked perfectly. I'd love to go back.
Germantown Commissary. Yuppie feel to this place. Portland Chowhound Nick (ExtraMSG) wasn't impressed with their ribs in his recent trip through Memphis, but liked their sandwich; so pulled pork sandwich is what I ordered. The pork had good texture, but little flavor. The sauce tasted okay, but wasn't very distinctive. Their slaw didn't seem to add anything to the mix, so I scraped it off. The toasted bun was above average. A pretty good sandwich. But it tasted something like what I'd expect from a mid-priced chain--not bad, but really lacking character.
Central BBQ. I'd heard really good things about their ribs, so I ordered a dry half slab (along with some of the house-made chips). Focusing on meat alone, this was the best bit of barbecue I had on the trip, up to that point. (Payne's sandwich was great. But it was more about the combination of flavors and textures than the brilliance of the pork.) I thought the dry rub was a little too heavy and the smoke was way too light. But, still, these were very tasty ribs. I came back a couple of days later and tried the wet ribs. I preferred the wet to the dry, simply because the tasty sauce gave the ribs a flavor boost that they needed, due to their lack of smokiness. (The chips were, as I'd been told, excellent.)
Corky's. I'd been warned here and elsewhere to steer clear of this tourist trap. But it was one of very few places open on New Year's Day. Got a combo of dry ribs and pulled pork. The ribs were abysmal--very possibly the worst ribs I've had in years. The meat was tough, incredibly dry, and flavorless. The powdery "rub" heaped on top of the slab after cooking tasted like synthetic barbecue Lik-m-aid. The pulled pork was at least edible, though it didn't distinguish itself in terms of flavor or smokiness. Our meal at Corky's was the most expensive of the trip. But they had, by far, the worst food and service of all the places to which we went.
Blues City Cafe. I don't remember reading anything about this place, positive or negative. Given the location and the look, my hopes weren't high. But, again, it was one of few places open on New Year's Day. Ordered a half slab of wet ribs. The meat, low on flavor and smoke, was just shy of being unacceptably tough. The overly sweet sauce was way too much for the meat. Not truly bad ribs (ala Corky's), but not at all good, either.
Overall, I found the average quality of Memphis barbecue to be good, given its style and aims. And there were some moments of greatness with Payne's sandwich and Central BBQ's ribs. Beautiful city, friendly people, and good barbecue. What more can you ask for?
For more details and photos, see the link below.