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Nov 25, 2002 12:18 PM

Memphis BBQ round-up

  • h


I just came back from a six week stint in Memphis on business.

One of my off-time goals was to try at least the most interesting sounding BBQ places I had read about. I believe I was fairly successful, though one never knows if the very next piece of smoked meat is the one you have been dreaming of...

Below is a round-up of my experiences.

I made a semi-conscious decision to use the pulled pork sandwich as my tasting constant while visiting the joints I had heard or read about. Partially because the pork sandwich is a real treat and can give one some sort of an overview of the quality a restaurant is offering (along with some beans and slaw), but also because Memphis, TN is supposed to be the birthplace of the said sandwich.

In alphabetical order:

Cozy Corner
745 N. Parkway
Memphis, TN 38105
Closed Sun and Mon
Hours Tue - Sat 10:30 am - 7 PM
My personal favorite in Memphis for many reasons.
Hard to find and get into. Located very close to downtown and yet in a dreary nether-world area that is surrounded by blank cement buildings. I like that.
Only open 12-5 M-S. Makes for difficult visiting if you are working 5 days a week and are not close enough to go for lunch. Make it more challenging.
Cool glass smoker right there behind the counter. Looks like it is held together with rubber bands and love, the glass is of course all smoked up so you cannot really see inside it, which only hightens the mystery of the fine meats. Also, it is so small!, I guess they are making the Que in small batches ensuring freshness.
But most of all, This is the best pork sandwich I had while in Memphis. Uniquely served on a small oblong sesame seeded hoagie roll, it just has everything going for it. Great meats that are cut and not pulled into strings. Fantastic rich sauce, just spicy enough to add some zip. (they are one of the few places I went to that had a "regular" and "hot" version of there sauce. I had the hot and it is just right where it should be. Almost uncomfortable.
CC is supposed to have a specialty that I did not have time to enjoy. BBQ Cornish game hens.

Gridleys Bar-B-Que II
787 Poplar Avenue
Memphis, TN 38105
Gridley's annoyed me. Looks great, tastes lousy.
Small diner-esque front and an equally diminutive interior got my BBQ senses tingling. But even after seeing a bottle of there own "the sauce that made Memphis something or other" BBQ on the table I was really quite eager to dig in.
The ribs (did not have the sandwich this time) were extremely greasy and tasted like they had been re-heated. The beans had obviously been "nuked" and thus I was very disappointed.
Upon leaving I realized I was at Gridley's Two", but I am not sure if I would make the original Gridley's top of my list if I had the choice.

Jim Neely's BBQ
Neely's 670 Jefferson Ave.
Not to be confused with "Interstate". My tangled understanding is that Jim and his brother had a parting of ways a bunch of years ago and now there is "Interstate BBQ" and Jim Neely's (3 locations).
Jim's place has a good vibe, looks like bar from the outside. But I was not taken with the merchandise. It was good, maybe very good, it just did not wow me. Maybe I need to go back?

Neely's Interstate BBQ
Interstate 2265 S. Third St
My favorite overall, just find that it has everything I want from a BBQ joint. Very friendly service in an open full sized restaurant with a mixed crowd.
The Pork sandwich is #2 behind Cozy Corner, but not by much. The meat is part pulled and part chopped (or so it seems) and therefore you are left with a sandwich that offers some nice crispy bits along with the fine tender bits. The ribs tips are intense, abundant and mouthwatering. Had to go back just to see those little beauties again. When the plate first arrives there is a sense of giddiness and fear. Fear that they will be gone some day, or fear that you have to eat them all??
The sides are all above average, the slaw has a little welcome spice to it. The BBQ spaghetti left me flat as it pails in comparison to the meat offerings.

52 South Second Street
(General Washburn Alley)
Memphis, TN 38103
Closed Sun - Mon
OK, OK, Rendezvous has something special, there is no doubt. But it still is not my favorite Q joint. Too main stream. The building is pretty amazing with room upon room of tables waiting for the endless leagues of patrons. But the decor is unimaginative and there are too many fatty tourists stuffing there gourds. (sorry)
OK, I got that out of the way. What the rendezvous has is a dry-rubbed rib that defies definition. The spiced mixture is evenly coating the entire rack forming a wonderful crackly of spice and smoke and dam good eats. And below this amalgamation of herbs and spices are the leanest, tenderest ribs I have ever seen. It is astounding how much meat there is on these rather medium sized ribs.
The spice "rub" seems to have an effect of sealing in the moisture, so instead of a smoky, part juicy part crunchy meat that I love from most BBQ vendors, Rendezvous has created a unique and very satisfying experience and the line out the door is no coincidence. Located in the heart of "new" downtown it is a major tourist trap, but still one must go.

Three Little Pigs Bar-B-Q Inc
5145 Quince Road, Memphis, TN 38117
(901) 685-7094
Situated out of the way in the Eastern portion of Memphis. 3LP offered a pretty decent portion of sandwich meat. Well flavored and not pulled too much, it made for a decent sandwich. I cannot say the same for the sides. Everything felt lackluster and overlooked. Lifeless slaw, un-special beans and overcooked onion rings and fries.
A pleasant place and open on Sunday, 3LP has a minor place in the Memphis BBQ scene.

5465 Fox Plaza Drive
I was most excited about visiting Leonard's. It's semi remote location and certainly the possibility that the pulled pork sandwich somehow originated here led me to believe that certainly this must be the real thing.
Well, it ain't
There are some charms to it, cafeteria style serving certainly makes one happy if your hungry and the sides are some of the best I have had. Specifically the beans and slaw. More seasoned and spicier than any other I have had in Memphis.
The drag is that it feels like a family restaurant and not a BBQ emporium. Long waits, high turn-over that force dirty tables to be left adrift all over the place. I dunno, it just held no mystique.

Places I didn't get to and really wanted to:

Payne's on Lamar
The BBQ Shop on Madison
Brown's BBQ on South Third
Blues City Cafe on Beale. More than one person recommended "Blues City Cafe". A place I would never imagine having decent 'Q, but I kinda wish I had been to now.

Places I passed on:

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  1. Great post! Next time you're in town try a different Gridley's location and, by all means necessary, get to either Payne's location. I'd also recommend A&R on Elvis Pressley Blvd. I can't wait to get back to MPS as I haven't been to Cozy Corner or The Barbecue Shop to name a couple of spots reportedly worth a visit.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Jim

      The BBQ Shop and Cozy Corner are both very much worth a visit. Either location of Paynes would be my favorite, going back from the mid-70s until the present. Payne's coleslaw is heavy on the yellow mustard, which gives S. Carolina bbq an odd familiarity to Payne's fans (at least this one; my first experience of mustard-based sauce was "this isn't so unfamiliar," but not being able to place it till I was back in Payne's the next time).

      One odd thing about the Cozy Corner that I didn't believe till I tried: Their bbq cornish hens. Their sandwich is good, but the cornish hens are amazing. My second favorite Memphis bbq experience, after the sandwich at either of the Payne's locations.

      The BBQ Shop is a sort-of descendent of Brady's & Lils, an old bbq place in the same neighborhood where Stax was located, and the texas toast a legacy of the fact that Brady's served theirs on wonder bread. I've not been in the BBQ shop in a while, but have always had good sandwiches there.

      I have never understood the response people have to Interstate bbq. I've eaten there three times, each time hoping to get the point and not getting it at all. There are at least half a dozen better places for bbq in Memphis (two of them being Paynes...).

      I have heard great things about Big S but not been there yet.

    2. Interstate rules!!

      1 Reply
      1. re: Jim Leff

        I once had McClard's in Hot Springs and Interstate within 8 hours of each other. Both, remarkably, were "hot off the pit." I preferred McClard's. Having said this when I went back a year later as part of the same annual driving business trip McClard's was nowhere near as good. That year Dreamland in Tuscaloosa was the winner while the year before this was the most disappointing experience of the trip.
        Point is, Jim, finding Q-even at the absolute best places-is frustratingly inconsistent at best. I've actually been foolish enough to stand in line at Arthur Bryant's and look at the slab the person next to me was served and compare it to the boney collection that my greasy fries rested on. I know their's was better. To this day. I also know that if they had changed the grease the night before my visit my french fries would have been among the best in the world. As it was the grease (they cook with lard) was overwhelming.

      2. It's always interesting to hear perspectives from visitors, especially when they have expectations and know their stuff.

        Two notes.

        First, Tops Bar-B-Q has two things going for it - it's quick and convenient. Not to say the BBQ isn't tasty. It's very tasty. Tops is nice to have around when you've got a bad BBQ craving and have to get in and out of a place quick (and cheap).

        Second, any particular reason The Bar-B-Q Shop on Madison was not on your list? Their sandwich on Texas Toast with lots of Dancing Pigs sauce is one of the best in town.

        6 Replies
        1. re: Al

          Great point about Tops. Wherever you are in the MPS area, you're not far from a Tops location. Not the best, but by far the most convenient.

          1. re: Jim

            As a Memphian and lifelong lover of BBQ who has spent alot of time in Austin, I commiserate with your plight. Problem is they cook the wrong animal down there.

          2. re: Al

            The Shop's bbq spaghetti also rivals the Interstate.

            1. re: Al
              Jim Wilkerson

              What I would give for a Tops in Austin, TX! (I lived in Memphis for 10 years before moving to Austin a couple of years ago.)

              As you've said, Tops is only average for Memphis BBQ really, but I sure do miss a BBQ sandwich for lunch. And there is nothing like it in Austin.

              Don't get me wrong (especially any Texas Board regulars), we have incredible barbeque in Austin/Central TX, but it's a completely different experience and in my opinion, less suitable for a quick lunch.

              Enjoy what you've got Memphians!

              1. re: Al

                Good to see the Shop mentioned. I just ate there for the first time and thought it rated very well in the sandwich category. Must get back for the ribs.

                Would love your opinion, Randal and/or ted.

                1. re: Tater
                  Randal Cooper

                  I used to live within walking distance of The BBQ Shop, so it was an ideal choice for convenience. The barbecue was pretty good; unfortunately, neither I nor my companions ever got exactly what we ordered in terms of sandwiches: If we ordered pulled pork, we got chopped pork, if we ordered a sandwich on a bun, we got it on Texas toast. That sort of inattention to detail decreases the overall dining experience, and sent me to Cozy Corner pretty often for my barbecue fix. Unless it was after 6 pm, or I was already walking by, and didn't really feel like Huey's or Fino's.

                  Don't get me wrong; The Barbecue Shop makes a good sandwich any way it's delivered. But in my mind the buttery, salty flavor of Texas Toast completely obscures the subtle smokiness of the meat. As such, I really only recommend it as a matter of convenience (which is against the Chowhound oath), or for those who want a "complete" Memphis Barbecue Experience.

                  That said, it's still way better than Corky's.

              2. r
                Randal Cooper

                Great round up--pretty much spot-on. I'd note that the Rendezvous makes a pretty good sandwich, as well

                I might suggest a visit to the Big "S" Grill, especially if you're in the market for a sandwich. The pitmaster there recently held court at the Southern Foodways Symposium, as did Ray Robinson from Cozy Corner, so I assume he's doing well. The Big "S" sandwich is a testament to the value of technique in barbecue sandwich-making: the exact same ingredients (these are not secret ingredients, incidentally) compose any number of mediocre sandwiches all over town, but here they approach perfection. Mmm.

                A&R probably makes the most heavily-smoked sandwich in town (they smoke their shoulders, etc., in a separate building out back), but if you go there and don't get a fried pie you're missing the point entirely.

                1. I just saw a show about a restaurant called General BBQ in Memphis. Dry rub only and the coolest tie dyed shirts since Woodstock. Can't find it on the web.