In the heart of Memphis In May barbecue season, we're bold to suggest you travel beyond the bounds of the greater Memphis area to get elbow-deep in a plate of ribs. In fact, we're firm believers that you don't need to venture past our city limits to get what you need by way of sweet, tangy sauce and succulent smoked pork. But let us just entertain the idea for a moment, that you, our fair readers, might find yourselves on the road in the near future and hankering for some smoky roadside attraction. For that mixed breed of barbecue lovers and road trippers, here's a catalog of barbecue joints within a two-hour drive of the River City. We're pretty confident that by the time you finish this, you'll have your next few 'cue trips queued up.
Demo's Barbecue and Smokehouse
1851 S. Church St.
Before a decisive Game 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers, I happened to meet a Grizzlies season-ticket holder from Jonesboro, Arkansas, on the FedExForum concourse. "What's your town's best barbecue?" I asked. "Demo's," he said, without hesitation. And so I headed 60 miles northwest, to the home of Arkansas State University.
The exposed-wood-and-tin interior at Demo's has the studied clutter of a Cracker Barrel but is smaller, smokier, and more well-worn. After ordering and paying at the counter, a five-bone rib dinner — which actually contained eight bones — on a Styrofoam plate was in my hands before the receipt. My companion got a sandwich, and we split it all. The tender, flavorful chopped-pork sandwich — well in the mid-to-upper range by Memphis standards, as are the pork-inflected baked beans — was the winner, served on a nicely toasted bun and without sauce. The mild and hot sauces on the table were sweet but not cloying, with the "hot" variation having more spice than heat. The ribs were served dry — as God intended — but without much of a rub. Even dry-rib partisans would likely want to incorporate some sauce. Fried pies were available at the counter, as they should be at fine-dining establishments everywhere. — Chris Herrington
1016 N. Washington Ave.
Helen Turner has been the pitmaster of this smoky shack in Brownsville since she took over the joint about 17 years ago and changed the name from Curly and Lynn's to Helen's. Ever since, she's been packing customers into the cozy 10-seater and serving them from a small kitchen window. "The only day off I have is Sunday," Turner says. "And then I make church and go home."
Turner smokes the ribs for seven hours, the shoulder for 12. With the dining area directly adjacent to the kitchen and the kitchen sidled up to the smoky pit room, Helen's is a peek into the roots of barbecue, a no-frills pit-to-table model that yields fall-off-the-bone ribs and tender shoulders.
The sauce at Helen's is a holdover from Curly and Lynn's. A sweet and tangy concoction, it approaches the consistency of a vinegar-based dressing but tastes a little more like Polynesian sauce. The ribs come wet but not so wet that you can't still taste the smoky pork, fresh from the pit.
There is nothing fancy about the dining experience at Helen's, nor should there be. For barbecue purists, Ms. Turner passes muster. And when you're polishing off your shoulder sandwich, ambience will be furthest from your mind. — Hannah Sayle
3503 Dan Ave.
Don't let the gravel yard filled with rusty tractor parts fool you. There actually is a barbecue stand on Dan Avenue just outside of Jonesboro, Arkansas, and they're cooking up something good.
Turning onto Dan Avenue from U.S. 63 North, I got the feeling I may not be eating barbecue anytime soon. Jonesboro came and went, and I seemed to be heading deep into rural Arkansas. But there, just as I made the right turn at Exit 49, sat a family-owned gravel parking lot that doubles as the grounds for a tractor repair company and J&N BBQ.
On the end of the lot farthest from the road sits a converted double-wide trailer that serves as the kitchen, with a tin roof on top. Behind the trailer sits a smokehouse that looks at least 30 years old. This is the type of place that you're probably not going to find on your own. But one taste of the J&N BBQ recipe, and you can see why they've never bothered to move to a better location. The food is cheap, freshly made, and extremely fast. A barbecue sandwich plate complete with beans and potato salad was $7.50, and by the time I had taken two or three pictures of the grounds, my food was ready. — Chris Shaw
616 N. State St.
Rarely do you run into a group of Norwegian men singing Irish ballads and Elvis tunes a capella in perfect three-part harmony in a barbecue joint. About as rare as finding frozen grape leaves on the menu. But that's Abe's Bar-B-Q in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a landmark at the junction of U.S. Highways 61 and 49 since 1924.
Is this the legendary crossroads, where bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil and the blues was born? Maybe, maybe not — there are lots of competing claims from Tunica to Greenwood. But it will do, as either a destination or a jumping-off point for a day trip in the Delta.
"Abe" was Abraham Davis, a Lebanese immigrant and founder of the restaurant. Owing to its location and lore, Abe's attracts crowds of locals as well as visitors from around the world, like the traveling Norwegians, whose renditions of "Peggy O'Neil" and "All Shook Up" drew a round of applause from the patrons.
"Not at all," said their waitress, Lucille, when asked if such spontaneous musical outbursts are unusual.
The food is pretty good, too. The basic sandwich ($3.99) comes on a buttered bun smashed flat and toasted. The loin back ribs ($13.89) are slathered in sauce and served with vinegar-soaked cole slaw and baked beans. Lucille, who has worked at Abe's for 15 years, recommends the hot tamales with chili and cheese ($6.79). The grape leaves (16 for $14.95) are sold to-go only.
Good stuff, but the scrappy Delta ambience of Abe's and Clarksdale, a sort of living blues museum, is what keeps it going. — John Branston
500 W. Main St.
More than 80 miles outside of Memphis, the small city of Humboldt, Tennessee, is home to a population under 9,000 and an annual West Tennessee Strawberry Festival, which takes place the first full week of May.
The strawberries weren't what brought me to Humboldt, though. Instead, I came in search of barbecue — Sam's Bar-B-Q to be exact. The restaurant, which was completely restored in 2012 after suffering a disastrous fire, has been operating since the late '80s, though the original owner, Sam Donald, had tended the pit long before that, smoking ribs and shoulders as early as the 1940s.
The smell of barbecue perfumed the air as I entered Sam's. After looking through the menu, I ordered the whole-chicken plate, which came with two sides. I opted for potato salad and substituted a slice of homemade buttermilk pie for the other side.
Chicken isn't Sam's specialty per se, but it was instantly my favorite, with its smoky, hickory flavor. I drizzled it with some of the restaurant's homemade mild barbecue sauce.
"What makes us different than a lot of places is we still cook with wood," Sam's granddaughter, Francesca Martin, told me as I finished my meal. "A lot of places have converted to electricity, but we go get wood from any tree that bears fruit or nuts to use for firewood. That's what makes us unique." — Louis Goggans
107 Main St.
Missouri sounds far away from Memphis, but it's really not. The bootheel kicks down in easy range of a day trip, and, let me tell you, a visit to Strawberry's Bar-B-Que is worth the less-than-two-hour drive.
Strawberry's, a combo restaurant/"rec" hall (pool, foosball, dominos, video games), is the inspiration of Jerry "Straw" Holsten. His Horatio Alger life story had its humble origins as a civilian entering the Show-Me-State Bar-B-Que contest and finishing in last place before ditching his pedestrian recipe. He supplanted it with a local, century-old, wet recipe and distilled it over the years into a dry seasoning that plays off the inherent wetness of the meat. You know what happened: He won grand champion in the event and opened his own restaurant.
The center-cut pork steak dinner I had at Strawberry's in 2006 was one of the best meals I've ever had (and I haven't skipped many meals). The meat was as emphatically juicy as those short-pant messages that say it across the butt. And the flavor — a combination of the sublimely acquiescent pork and the tangy, aromatic rub — continues to stalk my daydreams. The nightmare is that I haven't been back since. — Greg Akers
Craig Brothers Cafe
15 W. Walnut St.
De Valls Bluff, Arkansas
Craig's Bar-B-Q, officially Craig Brothers Cafe, was a mainstay of family road trips when I was a kid. We would wolf down a shoulder sandwich at Craig's, while saving room for a chocolate pie from the Pie Shop across the street.
I hadn't been back as an adult until this trip, but it was just as my fuzzy memory had preserved it: a simple square room with around 10 tables, packed to the gills with hungry patrons eyeing the kitchen door as waitresses swing out of the kitchen with plates of ribs and sacks of to-go sandwiches. The ribs are meaty and tender, and the pork comes in slices or chopped, however you prefer.
The sauce is wholly different from what we're used to here in Memphis. Where our sauce is sweet and smoky, Craig's is tart and salty, almost too tangy to be enjoyed by itself. We paired our sauce and sliced pork with the sweet slaw and piled it all onto a buttered and toasted bun. The result was a perfect blend of flavor profiles, washed down with a cold Pepsi.
Of course, the trip wasn't complete without a visit to see Mary Thomas, the owner and operator of the Pie Shop across the street from Craig's. In that small, converted shed behind her house, Thomas has been rolling out road-trip-worthy cream pies with meringue topping since 1977. Her pies come in chocolate, coconut, egg custard, sweet potato, and lemon, and at just $9 a pop, you should bring enough cash to buy one of each. — Hannah Sayle
Bill's Pit Bar-B-Q
535 S. Church Ave.
Liz's Pit Bar-B-Que
311 S. Church Ave.
To scout out two nearby barbecue eateries in Henderson, Tennessee — a 15-minute drive down Highway 45 from Jackson — is to be reminded of that early-'80s William Least Heat-Moon classic, Blue Highways, in which the author chronicled out-of-the-way places on the travel map. Bill's Pit Bar-B-Q and Liz's Pit Bar-B-Que are destinations you have to know about to find. Neither is prominently signed, and both are in modest, unadorned frame buildings that could be mistaken for storage sheds. Further, they are on the downscale end of a downscale street. (You can find well-known franchise outlets like Gus's Fried Chicken farther up on North Church, which is the scenic route.) Nevertheless, once there, you'll find the pleasantly pink, pulled-pork barbecue sandwiches offered by both establishments to be worth a savor. Bill's is a mom-and-pop operation, with mom taking the orders and pop — presumably, Bill — doing the cooking in the back. Prepare to wait your turn in line; the tiny place fills up at lunchtime. Liz's is, for whatever reason, less traveled, and the hickory-smoked barbecue comes in chunks unless you specify you want it chopped. Bill's also offers chicken and ribs; Liz's can cook them up for you if you call and let them know in advance. — Jackson Baker
Fat Larry's BBQ and Southern Favorites
7537 Highway 70
Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm supposed to be writing about a road trip and this joint is in Bartlett. Let me explain. My original assignment was Bozo's Hot Pit Bar-B-Q in Mason, Tennessee, but I screwed it up by going on Monday, when Bozo's is closed. Being a modern kind of guy, I asked my iPhone friend, Siri, to recommend another barbecue restaurant in the area. She came up with Arlington Barbecue Company, which, as it turned out, is also closed on Mondays. Siri's next suggestion was Fat Larry's, which had the good sense to be open.
Fat Larry's is on the far east side of Bartlett, on old Highway 70, near its intersection with Appling Road. Within view, across the street, are a large, abandoned barn with a rusty tin roof, a small farmhouse, and a strip mall — a perfect distillation of the area's rural/suburban landscape. Fat Larry's is in a nondescript one-story building. The interior décor is thrift-store chic — old pictures, a stuffed bird, assorted weird knickknacks — and three circa-mid-'90s trophies from Memphis' World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. So Fat Larry's has some historic cred.
My companion and I opted for the BBQ Sampler Platter, which consisted of beef brisket slices, a half-chicken, four ribs, a mound of pulled pork, and sides of beans and slaw for $15.99. Curiously, buns did not come with the order, so we popped for another 50 cents per to be able to make sandwiches.
Fat Larry's sauce is smoky and very sweet, with a light tangy aftertaste. Everything was okay — not bad, but not great either. The menu offers a lot of non-barbecue options, including five different kinds of steak, fried chicken, catfish, pasta, etc. At Monday lunch, we were the only people eating barbecue; most diners seemed to be opting for the meat and three or other sandwiches.
So, is Fat Larry's worth a road trip? Maybe a short one. But next time, I'm trying the rib-eye. — Bruce VanWyngarden