Memphis has long been host to the biggest barbecue act around — balancing gritty kitchen smarts with a sweet disposition and a slow-cooking way of life.
No doubt you've seen the main event: pork ribs crusted with salty, spicy rub and doused with sweet, smoky sauce; sandwiches piled high with tender pulled pork, dripping with tangy sauce and creamy slaw.
But there are other attractions in town — some you won't find in a typical tourist guide or brochure. The fact is, Memphians will barbecue just about anything. Read on for a peek at some of Memphis' uniquely delicious twists on barbecue basics. From cultural crossovers to barbecue beer — behold, the barbecuriosities!
Korean Barbecue at DWJ Korean Grill and Sushi Bar
Memphis barbecue purists probably won't allow that what DWJ Korean Grill and Sushi Bar serves is actually barbecue. DWJ's 'cue is cooked over a gas flame right at your table — no wood or charcoal involved — and for some sticklers, that's a deal-breaker. But when it comes to flavor and spice, Korean barbecue, like the best Memphis-style preparations, really delivers.
Barbecue pork bellies — which should really appeal to pig-centric Memphians — come to the table coated in a flavorful red chili sauce and laden with mushrooms and onions. DWJ's barbecue short ribs are thinly sliced and not nearly as sweet as Korean ribs can be, which is a good thing. Lightly marinated in minced garlic and sesame oil, the ribs are served with plenty of condiments and can be piled onto lettuce leaves with a blob of rice, a schmear of bean paste, some fresh green chili slices, and thinly shaved chunks of garlic and eaten like a wrap. Too much fuss? Just grab your chopsticks and eat them right off the grill. — Chris Davis
DWJ Korean Grill and Sushi Bar, 3750 Hacks Cross, 746-8057
Lamb Riblets at the Rendezvous
This is counterprogramming at its finest. Who on earth would go to the world-famous Rendezvous and order lamb? I would and did. The serving consists of six or seven chunky, two-rib sections coated with Rendezvous dry rub. The lamb meat is much thicker than the Rendezvous' pork ribs — plump, even — and pulls off the bone easily. It's got a fine, tender, chewy consistency with a slight, lamb-y aftertaste. I added Rendezvous sauce to the rub and greatly enjoyed these off-the-beaten-path riblets.
The price is $18.75, the same as a full order of pork ribs, and the lamb riblets come with the same sides: slaw, beans, and a roll. I can eat a full order of pork ribs, but I couldn't finish these — too much meat for one sitting. So, I took some home to enjoy the next day. Verdict: not baaahed at all. — Bruce VanWyngarden
Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous,
52 South Second, 523-2746
Char-Grilled Oysters at Pearl's Oyster House
Fishermen scour the rocky coastline and sandy ocean floor to bring these pale, watery creatures to Memphis, so Memphis does what we do best: We barbecue them.
I'm not a great oyster aficionado, but I love the char-grilled oysters at Pearl's. And what's not to love? Oysters on the half-shell are sauced with a tangy, barbecuey, chipotle-garlic blend, then sprinkled with shaved Parmesan cheese. The little morsels are then shoved under a charbroiler long enough that the cheese gets browned to a chewy, crispy texture and the sauce is bubbling. A half-dozen, served on a rock-salt platter with a little spinach, also crispy and grilled, will set you back $9.99. But go for a dozen at $19.99. It's seafood — how bad for you can it be? And these things are delicious. — Bruce VanWyngarden
Pearl's Oyster House, 299 South Main, 522-9070
Cornish Game Hen at Cozy Corner
For 30 years, Cozy Corner, a tiny barbecue shack on North Parkway just east of Danny Thomas, has done things just a little bit differently from Memphis' other pig palaces. Take, for instance, the most perfect thing on Cozy Corner's menu: the barbecued Cornish game hen. So what if Cornish hens aren't exotic game birds? And who cares if they aren't always hens? These young chickens are Cozy Corner's elegant, personal-sized twist on good old-fashioned barbecue chicken.
The Corner's hens are cooked dry with a tasty spice rub until the skin is a beautiful mahogany color and the rich, smoky flavor goes all the way to the bone. They are served wet, with a thin, sweet-and-sour sauce that can be ordered mild or spicy but which might be more correctly labeled spicy and spicier. At $11 without sides, it may seem a little pricey, but it's worth every penny. — Chris Davis
Cozy Corner, 745 North Parkway, 527-9158
BBQ Beer at Jack Magoo's
While beer cocktails may be considered eclectic to the light-beer-drinkin' masses, they're not terribly uncommon. The British black and tan — half pale ale, half porter or stout — and the German Radler — half pilsner, half lemonade or soda — started showing up in pubs and biergardens close to a century ago and deserve their place in the world of beer. But the skeptics aren't completely off the mark, with drinks like Jack Magoo's BBQ beer out there.
A mix of Bud Light, Bloody Mary mix, Cattleman's BBQ sauce, and olives garnishing, BBQ beer tastes more like a Bloody Mary than anything else. Its tomato, Worcestershire sauce, and peppery heat mixed with subtle, sweet barbecue notes make for a compelling combination. For those of you who enjoy a good Bloody Mary but are looking for an interesting take on the cocktail, this might be right up your alley — especially at a mere $2. — Andrew Caldwell
Jack Magoo's Sports Bar and Grill, 2583 Broad, 746-9612
BBQ Tofu Burrito at R.P. Tracks
R.P. Tracks claims its barbecue tofu is "world famous." And while international prominence might be a stretch, their deep-fried, 'cue-covered bean curd is at least locally famous. It's perhaps best known for its starring role in Tracks' BBQ Tofu Nachos (tofu, black beans, tomatoes, cheese, and sour cream atop a bed of seasoned tortilla chips). But the BBQ Tofu Burrito may actually be the best tofu-to-mouth delivery method. The same toppings from those nachos are stuffed into a massive tortilla wrap (available in a white flour, wheat, sun-dried tomato basil, or spinach tortilla) topped with cheese (optional for vegans) and black olives. It's a little hefty for lifting, so a fork (and maybe a to-go box) is recommended. Of course, you won't miss out on those perfectly seasoned chips by skipping out on nachos. They're served as a side item with Tracks' signature garlicky tomato salsa. — Bianca Phillips
R.P. Tracks, 3547 Walker, 327-1471
Barbecue Brunswick Stew at the Germantown Commissary
Brunswick stew being served at a barbecue joint may only be considered sideshow in Memphis, the Mid-South, and the Delta. But in many other barbecue capitals in the South, Brunswick stew topped with pulled pork is a staple. Its recipe varies, and where the stew originated is up for debate, with folks from Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina vying for the honor.
The hearty soup offered at the Germantown Commissary comes chock-a-block full of stewed tomatoes, green beans, corn, and lima beans, and the restaurant's signature hickory-smoked pulled pork makes a big island in the middle. You can get a bowl for $5.50 — a generous portion that's a meal — or as a side dish for $2.50. Crumble in some of the slab of cornbread provided to lend some sweetness to the spicy endeavor. — Greg Akers
The Germantown Commissary, 2290 Germantown Road, 754-5540
The Original Barbecue Pizza at Coletta's
Eating barbecue pizza in the "Elvis Room" at the original Coletta's on South Parkway is a singular Memphis experience. The "we can turn anything into barbecue" ethos we celebrate in this issue was arguably born in second-generation owner Horest Coletta's kitchen in the 1950s. The basic concept — a sturdy, medium-crust cheese pizza topped with smoked pork and barbecue sauce — has become fairly common, especially with chicken, and has probably been improved on. But this where it began. And the atmosphere can't be beat. The wood paneling and checkerboard tablecloths transport you back to the era of the barbecue pizza's creation, while the Elvis paraphernalia framed along the walls — which includes the front page of The Commercial Appeal from the day after his death and appears as if it's been unchanged for decades — pays proper tribute to a former regular who may himself have been among the first to savor this quintessentially Memphis creation. — Chris Herrington
Coletta's, 1063 South Parkway, 948-7652
Barbecue Portobello Sandwich at Central BBQ
In the beginning there was tofu.
Central BBQ, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary and is on the verge of opening a third location, has well established that barbecue is indeed central with its award-winning ribs, pulled pork sandwiches, and hot wings. From the start, says owner Craig Blondis, they knew they wanted to offer diners a vegetarian option. They tried a barbecue tofu sandwich, but they couldn't figure out how to keep the tofu from falling apart, so they switched to the heartier Portobello mushroom.
The Portobello is marinated in a mix of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, oregano, thyme, and garlic and then grilled. The sandwich is topped with smoked Gouda, slaw, and the restaurant's mild barbecue sauce.
Blondis estimates that he sells 30 to 40 of the sandwiches each week. And while he notes that he's had customers request that the barbecue Portobello sandwich be topped with pork, he says that this one's for the vegetarians: "It's for people who don't eat meat to take part in the experience." — Susan Ellis
Central BBQ, 2249 Central, 272-9377
BBQ Spaghetti at The Bar-B-Q Shop
If you're from Memphis, chances are you're quite familiar with barbecue spaghetti. But outside the Mid-South, this spin on the standard spaghetti side dish is a true novelty. You might think barbecue spaghetti would be a simple concept, merely replacing a traditional Bolognese sauce with barbecue sauce and smoked pork. But, at the BBQ Shop at least, it's not that simple.
"People think it's just our sauce and oil," owner Eric Vernon says, "but it's not." Rather, at the Vernon family's Midtown institution, cooked spaghetti is finished off in a base that's considerably sweeter than the Shop's tart sauce and then mixed with an au jus left over from the cooked pork. This infuses the pasta itself with a smoky, sweet flavor entirely unlike the restaurant's Dancing Pigs sauce, which is added to the top along with a pile of chopped pork. A personal confession: For about three or four bites, I think this is one of the best things ever. But I find it almost too intense for further consumption. It's perfect for a side. Others have the stamina to make a meal of it. — Chris Herrington
The Bar-B-Q Shop, 1782 Madison, 272-1277
24th Annual ASBEE Kosher BBQ Contest
While the annual Memphis in May barbecue festival was gaining its current international reputation, a parallel local event has also landed a place for itself on the festival map. This one, the annual ASBEE Kosher BBQ Contest, on the sprawling East Memphis grounds of the Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth Congregation, is held in the fall — at just about that time (October 21st, this year) when fond gustatory memories of the barbecue festival itself may have faded.
Which is to say, the ASBEE event ("the world's largest," and maybe the only one of its kind, say the sponsors), while it is genuinely kosher — in that no pork products are served and other dietary restrictions are observed — is open to everyone. As the proprietors put it, "You don't have to be Jewish or kosher to join us!"
Competition is usually in three categories, brisket and ribs and beans (yes, beans), with chicken recipes sometimes admitted. Radio legend and longtime Elvis bud George Klein is the emcee, and local celebrities, both Jewish and non-Jewish, serve as judges. A basketball tournament, a pickle-eating contest, and train rides and other frolics for the kiddies complement the eats. Nosh away! — Jackson Baker
1st Annual Cochon Heritage BBQ
When Cochon 555, a sui generis (dare we say, sooey generis?) swine-wine-and-dine event made its first stop in Memphis this year, foodies were beside themselves with joy. So when Cochon founder Brady Lowe announced that the inaugural Cochon Heritage BBQ event would be held in Memphis, we nearly swooned. This Labor Day, chefs, farmers, distillers, wine-makers, and pig-lovers will come together (at a location to be determined) to celebrate the union of heritage pork and whiskey for National Bourbon Month. Tastings, demonstrations, and some good old-fashioned competition will keep festivalgoers entertained while they stuff themselves to the gills with whiskey and pork. Above all, the event is dedicated to bringing heritage breed hogs back into the tradition of barbecue in one of the world's biggest barbecue cities. — Hannah Sayle