The Quest for Fire 

Flyer judges search for the city's best ribs

In the beginning there was nothing, and the universe sang the blues. But later, there was man, and it was good, and there was fire, and it was good, and there was pig, and it was good. And some good person (coulda been Adam, coulda been Eve) saw that fire and pig belonged together, and it was oh so good. (Funny story: Eve liked ribs so much she tried one of Adam's. Meh, not much flavor.) In truth, nobody knows exactly where fire met pig, but everybody agrees on where it was perfected: Memphis, the Garden of Eatin'.

Fast-forward to today, when not only has the marriage of fire and pig been perfected in Memphis, it's been perfected in many different ways across the city. Barbecuing ribs is an art in Memphis, with many masters finding delicious subtlety in some fundamental variations: dry or dripping wet, spicy or sweet, spare or baby back ribs.

We here at the Memphis Flyer have taken upon ourselves the enormous burden of seeking out the best of the best of the best in Mid-South barbecue rib-ery. It's a noble quest for fire and pig, we'll admit, and one not taken without some measure of sober reflection. With a passive mien, we assumed the mantle of responsibility and trudged toward our fates, each step heavier than the ... oh, who are we kidding, it was the most fun thing ever! The Flyer staff was full of smiles — saucy, meaty-toothed smiles — for three days, as we performed our self-elected duty.

click to enlarge JUSTIN FOX BURKS

Ten years ago, the Flyer conducted a similar contest, sampling ribs from all over to find a winner. The story, published May 20, 1999, with a cover featuring Flyer writer Chris Davis' belly emblazoned with a saucy "Q," found a tie at the top, with the best ribs coming from Willingham's and Corky's, followed by Cozy Corner and Pig-n-Whistle (honorable mentions: Gridley's, the BBQ Shop, and Rendezvous).

Volunteering for judging duty this time around were Greg Akers, Tess Bailey, Mary Cashiola, Chris Davis, Chris Herrington, and Bruce VanWyngarden. We cast our nets around the ribs from 14 must-sample local establishments. We halved the list and held two qualifying rounds, with a half-dozen finalists competing on a third day. Scoring from the initial round did not carry over. The plate, as it were, was wiped clean.

Unfortunately, one of the winners from a decade ago, Willingham's, is no longer with us. Thankfully, the 'cue master from that establishment, John Willingham himself, is, and he graciously agreed to talk fire and pig with the judges and administer the rites of his Order of the Apron. A multi-time winner at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, Willingham is a nationally known expert in the field.

click to enlarge John Willingham - JUSTIN FOX BURKS

Willingham preached the gospel of the rib, which has five basic tenets: appearance, aroma, taste, chewability, and memory. On barbecue sauce, Willingham said, "Generally speaking, people cover up that which you love to see — it's like a woman wears a dress." And the congregation (well, some of us), replied, "Amen." Of barbecue judging, Willingham said, "We wanted to make it formal but with an element of freedom. I believe in the freedom of barbecue."

With freedom in mind, the contest was fashioned after good ole American democracy. Restaurants were not told that the orders of ribs would be used for a contest: We judged the 'cue that anyone can get on any given day. Ribs were then assigned numbers, so the judges didn't know where they came from.

Armed with score sheets based on those used in the Memphis in May contest (which broke down judging into four categories: Appearance of Entry, Tenderness of Entry, Flavor of Entry, and Overall Impression), our motley 'cue crew got to work. Rib by rib, we employed all of our senses to determine who has the best ribs in Memphis. Each judge had his or her preferences, of course, but cumulatively we came up with a final ranking. Who won? Read on, reader.

The Top Three:

click to enlarge #1 The BBQ Shop - JUSTIN FOX BURKS

1. The BBQ Shop: On the first day of testing, the BBQ Shop's rack of ribs scored well but only topped one of our six judges' ballots. "Pulls off bone nicely, but a little dry," one judge wrote. "It has a different taste from any other rib. Unique, but I'm not going to daydream about it. The meat is almost too subtle, but it's there and pretty good," another decided.

In the final round, however, the BBQ Shop left our judges plenty to daydream about, finishing in the Top 2 on five of six ballots and excelling in every category. Appearance: "Big bones with meat on top of the rib." "An appealing color — warm blend of red and gold." Texture: "The texture couldn't be more perfect. Stays on the bone but comes off the second the tooth hits it — and moist!" "Terrific chewability." Taste: "Sweet, excellent sauce, with the flavor of the meat emerging as you chew." "Good blend of spices and good meat flavor." And overall: "Two-faced — wet on one side, dry on the other. These are Hannah Montana ribs — the best of both worlds." One judged summed up the collective reaction: "I am very happy about this rib."

2. Leonard's: The bold, heavy rub on Leonard's ribs split our judges on the first tasting. "The rub is too thick and salty. It overwhelms the meat but has a nice hint of heat," one judge wrote. Another agreed: "Too much spice — it overpowers the flavor of everything else." Others were knocked out by the intensity: "Pops with taste," one judge gushed. "The dry rub is magnificently strong. Fantastic. Wanted to eat all of it off the bone." Another wrote, "Wonderful, wonderful spice. Coriander? Mustard? Complex, smoky flavors, but the flavor of the meat a little covered up."

In the finals, Leonard's seemed to find the right balance of spice and meat: "Spicy, but doesn't overwhelm the smoke, which doesn't overwhelm the meat," one judge proclaimed. "Piquant, tangy with a nice blend of sweet and smoky and an appealing aftertaste," wrote another judge. "Very spicy and tasty," another agreed. "Just the right mix of spice, heat, and saltiness, and not too sweet. Yummy." Still, this is one rib that is not for those who can't take intense flavors: "I worked this bone as long as I could, but you'll need a beverage with it."

3. The Pig on Beale: Neither as universally known as the likes of Rendezvous or Corky's, nor boasting the hipster/connoisseur cred of Cozy Corner or Payne's, The Pig on Beale is a relatively recent entrant to the Memphis' 'cue scene, and it's tucked away on Memphis' most famous street, where music and nightlife tend to overshadow food.

But our judges were impressed by the consistent, smoky, "pink to the bone" flavor of the Pig's ribs: "Too sweet and very little spice, but the smoke is brilliant. The meat's flavor swells in the mouth," one judge wrote. "Tender, smoky," another said. "Tender and easy to bite off the bone — a nice lean texture. It's sweet on top and smoky underneath. Good flavor," one judge decided. The sweetness of the Pig's offerings was the only aspect that split our judges, though everyone appreciated the beauty of the "dark, red, caramelized exterior." "It's a dessert rib," one judge wrote, capturing what seemed to be a consensus of opinion.

click to enlarge Left to right: Bruce VanWyngarden, Chris Davis, Greg Akers, Chris - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Left to right: Bruce VanWyngarden, Chris Davis, Greg Akers, Chris


Rendezvous: The spicy rub on this Memphis staple was a big hit with our judges. "Looks good like a dry rib should, with whole mustard seeds and crumbled spice that's still green (!) amid the red and black," one judge marveled. "Very pretty with lots of spice on top of what looks like a generous portion of meat," another judge wrote. But while our judges loved the spice, they were merely satisfied with the rest of the package. "Brilliant spice mix on nicely grilled meat, though it has very little smoke or other noteworthy characteristics," one judge decided. Another summed up the overall impression: "This tastes like backyard-cookout ribs but in a good way."

Pig-n-Whistle: The dark-glazed ribs from this suburban staple drew a mixed reaction. "The sweet sauce overpowers the meat," one judge complained. Another cracked: "I don't like having to forage my meat off the plate from a puddle of sauce. But maybe that's just me." If one judge thought Pig-n-Whistle's sauce was a "cover-up," another disagreed by inverting Willingham's aphorism: "The sauce, in this case, is like a well-cut dress on a woman — it enhances." And there was plenty of agreement on this issue. "Good sauce flavor — rich, hearty, not too sweet, and you can still taste the meat," one judge wrote.

Interstate: On its first tasting, three different judges praised Interstate's tangy sauce as a nice complement to meat whose "the texture is perfect — it pulls off the bone easily, but doesn't fall off. Moist, but not mushy." "This rib has good flavor that improves — swells — after you swallow," another wrote. A second tasting, however, drew criticism for the "tomato-paste-looking" sauce that drew "dress-on-a-woman" complaints. So Interstate suffered from inconsistency. Even on the second day, however, two judges praised the "subtle heat" of Interstate's ribs.

Honorable Mentions

(These contenders just missed making the finals in a close vote):

Central BBQ: Several judges were taken aback by the dark appearance of Central's rack: "Looks burned, the appearance almost makes you not want to eat it," one judge wrote, echoing others' sentiments. Some judges had a different reaction to the "as dark as my coffee" appearance: "a dark rub with evidence of smoke on the bone. Not pretty like a wet rib, but you can tell the meat's going to be good underneath." Once judges sank their teeth into Central's ribs, there was a similarly split opinion. "Inconsistent, the taste is almost oily," one judge complained. Another thought their ribs had a "dry, agey" taste. But others were impressed: "Good smoky flavor to the meat, solid mix of spice up top," one judge praised. "Meat is smoky and juicy. The spice rub is subtle but gains over time, with a spicy kick at the end," another wrote. A third said the meat "pulls off the bone just right, with a pleasant texture."

Germantown Commissary: The chewy texture of Germantown Commissary's ribs was a consistent subject of either minor or major complaints: "Tough and chewy, really chewy. This did not do it for me," one judge wrote. "The meat needs to be more tender," another wrote. "Sticks to the bone a little too much but has a nice texture to the taste," another judge wrote. Commissary scored well in other areas, though: "Nice hint of smokiness and good balance of sweetness," one judge wrote of the flavor. "A solid rib, though not as spicy as it could be. Lingers and improves. A subtle 'cue that sneaks up on you," one judge praised. Another summed up the Commissary's entry this way: "Great overall performance in terms of taste and appearance but not as tender as it could be. But I'll remember this one."

Cozy Corner: The first ribs tasted, our judges hadn't quite found their groove in terms of juggling messy finger food and comment-writing, but two judges complained that Cozy Corner's ribs had too much fat, while another questioned the "petroleum aftertaste." But another described these thick ribs as "beautiful" and praised the "great spice mix."

We judged the following 14 restaurants. Click on a restaurant name to leave your own comments and reviews!

(*Denotes location where we picked up the ribs for this contest)

A&R (1802 Elvis Presley Blvd., 7174 Stage Rd., 3721 Hickory Hill Rd., *22 N. 3rd St.)

Blues City Café (138 Beale St.)

The BBQ Shop (1782 Madison Ave.)

Central BBQ (*2249 Central Ave., 4375 Summer Ave.)

Corky's (*5259 Poplar Ave., 1740 N. Germantown Pkwy., 743 W. Poplar Ave.)

Cozy Corner (745 N. Parkway)

Germantown Commissary (2290 S. Germantown Rd.)

Interstate (*2265 S. 3rd St., 150 W. Stateline Rd.)

Leonard's (*103 N. Main St., 5465 Fox Plaza Dr.)

Neely's (5700 Mount Moriah Rd., *670 Jefferson Ave.)

Payne's (1762 Lamar Ave.)

The Pig on Beale (167 Beale St.)

Pig-n-Whistle (*2740 Bartlett Rd., 4265 Hacks Cross Rd., 6084 Kerr-Rosemark Rd.)

Rendezvous (52 S. 2nd St.)

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