Waitress Patrice Haymon serves lots of pork shoulder at A&R Bar-B-Que, but it's the restaurant's caramel cake she eats every day.
"I can't leave without one," says Haymon, beaming. "The caramel is the best. It's fluffy, buttery, and melts in your mouth."
At $2.50 a slice, the hefty portion is plenty for two, but it's unlikely you'll want to share. (Think moist and flavorful yellow cake with a melted Sugar Daddy on top.)
"We have lots of customers who come in for our desserts," says Brian Pollard, who manages the restaurant's newest location downtown at the intersection of Court and Third. "My grandmother did all the baking until she passed, but we still use her recipes."
These days, employees crank out 25 or 30 sheet cakes (strawberry, chocolate, German chocolate, and caramel) every morning for the four-restaurant chain, started in 1983 by Pollard's parents, Andrew and Rose. "Plus we have cheesecake, butter cookies, cobbler, and fried pies (apple, peach, and sweet potato)," Pollard says. "People love those fried pies."
Desserts aside, A&R's bread and butter is barbecue, served by the sandwich, plate, or pound: pork rib, rib tip, pork shoulder, beef brisket, chicken, and turkey. Prices range from $5.50 for a turkey leg or sandwich to a slab of ribs at just under $20. Hot dogs, nachos, tamales, and wings also are available, along with traditional sides such as baked beans, spaghetti, slaw, and fried pickles.
Pork shoulder is A&R's bestseller, but don't miss out on the restaurant's beef barbecue. It is equally delicious.
"Most people cook their beef brisket in the oven, so it doesn't have much flavor," Pollard says. "We cook ours on a pit overnight, just like our shoulder, so it has the same smoky taste."
Adding to the barbecue's popularity is A&R's signature sauce, described by Pollard as "sweet, tangy, and twangy."]
"Some barbecue sauce in Memphis is vinegar-based, others ketchup-based," Pollard says. "Ours is a secret recipe of my dad's that falls somewhere in between."
A&R Bar-B-Que, 24 N. Third, AandRbbq.com (524-5242)
Popular legend claims crawfish are descendants of lobsters that shrunk in size while traveling from Maine to Louisiana in search of the Cajuns who were banned to the swampy state in the late 1700s. Whatever. We're happy the tasty crustaceans ended up in the region's freshwater marshes and even happier when crawfish boils herald the start of spring.
While most crawfish boils in Memphis are scattered through April, crawfish season runs from late February through June, says chef Clint Boutwell. He should know. His family has been boiling a spicy concoction of crawfish, corn, potatoes, mushrooms, sausages, and whole garlic for 30 years, a tradition he's continuing at his downtown restaurant, Orleans on Front.
"A crawfish boil is simple and spicy pot-cooking," Boutwell says. "And the spicier I can make it, the more beer I can sell."
Boutwell is planning crawfish boils (at $4.50 to $6 a pound) on Thursday nights and for afternoon block parties from noon to 6 p.m. on the last three Sundays in April. "We set the cooker up in the parking lot and boil about 400 pounds of crawfish at a time," he says. "It's a great excuse for a party."
Similar crawfish get-togethers are happening all over town this month, including at T.J. Mulligan's in the Pinch on Mondays at 7 p.m., at Owen Brennan's in East Memphis on Wednesdays at 6 p.m., and at Calhoun's Sports Bar in the South Main arts district on Sundays, starting about 5:30 p.m.
For $5 a pound, customers at Owen Brennan's are served crawfish, corn, potatoes, and hot dogs, says manager Lawson Baker. "We boil hot dogs with our crawfish, and they come out nice and spicy," he says. "The hot dogs are something a little different."
A similar price and recipe (sausages instead of hot dogs) are offered at Calhoun's on the bar's new outdoor deck. "We've got a huge HD TV outside too," says owner Max Lawhon. "With television and the crawfish, it's a good time."
Next up at Calhoun's: a new name, prompted by a trademark dispute last year from a restaurant chain in East Tennessee. After asking customers for suggestions, Lawhon settled on something simple: Max's Sports Bar and Grill.
"All the rest of the names sounded like strip clubs," he says. "It's amazing what people come up with after a few beers."
Orleans on Front, 94 S. Front (522-1475), T.J. Mulligan's, 362 N. Main (523-1453), Owen Brennan's, 6150 Poplar (761-0990), Calhoun's Sports Bar, 115 G.E. Patterson (528-8600)