Ray Nolan got the barbecue bug early. At the age of 6, he started accompanying his father to buy ribs for the family on Friday night. By the time he was 13, he was in the business, cleaning the parking lot at a neighborhood barbecue joint.
"I told them, 'You don't have to pay me in cash,"' Nolan recalls. "Just pay me in barbecue. It's what my blood bleeds."
In the years since, he has opened no fewer than 14 barbecue shops in and around Memphis. None has stayed open for more than a couple of years, but it wasn't for a lack of good food. In 2014, Nolan competed in an episode of chef G. Garvin's Underground BBQ Challenge on the Travel Channel — and won, collecting a hefty $10,000 prize. He attributes the closures to a combination of bad location and bad financing.
"I've been doing this thing long enough," admits Nolan, now 62. "I made enough mistakes. Now I know how to do it. This is a no-miss situation."
Earlier this week, he opened Ray'z World Famous Dr. Bar-b-que on S. Main. Technically speaking, Nolan is no doctor; he says the name is a reference to the food's medicinal properties. In any case, the barbecue is truly tasty.
Start with a plate of ribs ($10.95). They're dry-roasted on an open-pit grill with a spice rub that Nolan calls his MFE — Miracle Flavor Enhancer. The meat is a dreamy pink, enrobed in a gorgeous, dark-brown crust. It's good enough to eat without sauce, but don't skip it. It's a signature recipe that features mostly natural ingredients, including red wine vinegar, minced garlic, and blueberries.
What's the secret to a good rack of ribs?
"You've got to control your fire," whispers Nolan, with a passionate intensity. "You can't rush it. You've got to stay with it like a newborn baby."
The story of Dr. Bean's Coffee and Tea Emporium is a buddy movie waiting to happen. The two founders started out as neighbors in Cooper-Young. One was an ER doctor, the other a restaurant manager. Both had a passion for coffee. So they did what anyone would do: They flew to Portland and went to barista school.
I can see it now. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover star in Higher Grounds, the story of two working stiffs who find friendship in a cuppa joe.
They would learn to make coffee during a three-minute montage to Michael Sembello's "Rock Until You Drop." The reality is much more complicated. After Portland, owners Charles Billings and Albert Bean spent a week in Vermont learning to roast. It's a good thing, too, because these days, the field is getting crowded, and you have to do something to stand out. Something like Dr. Bean's Ethiopian Yirgacheffe ($14).
"We try to roast in such a way as to highlight the best qualities of the bean itself," explains Billings, weighing out the coffee on a kitchen scale. "It's like a steak. 15 seconds and one degree of temperature can profoundly alter the flavor."
In the case of the Yirgacheffe, roasting yields something surprising: strawberries. Try it, and tell me if you don't taste them. That distinctive fruity flavor is nestled in a medium-bodied beverage with a lovely, bright aroma. This coffee needs no sweetener. (Also recommended: the Rwandan Kivu Kibuye, $14)
In January, Bean and Billings plan to open a coffee shop on Madison. For now, you can find their beans at local retailers like 387 Pantry, Miss Cordelia's, and Bedrock Eats & Sweets. Where retail is concerned, they are recalling bags that haven't been sold after two weeks.
"The Memphis palate is changing," Bean reflects. "They want to know what they're drinking, who made it, and where it came from."