Memphis BBQ: Central BBQ vs Corky's vs Insterstate
Quick review on these places because I'm no BBQ expert and big warning because I've spent most of my life between LA, NY, and SF.
I was only in town for 2 days and 2 nights so I had to commit myself to ribs. My friend decided to focus more on BBQ pork sandwiches and beans.
For pork ribs, I decided that I liked dry rub better than wet so my ranking for the 3 go:
1. Central BBQ (on Central). My first stop in Memphis, even before my hotel. I got a half slab with slaw and beans. The half slab was actually a little small and a bit dry. The crust was good and there was a depth of flavor to the ribs. Based on that first visit, I would have thought they were average. However, my return visit just before leaving town was stellar. The ribs were meaty, juicy, and deeply flavorful. I got the dry and applied the sauce intermittently. The sauce there is pretty darned good. The beans were average on the first visit but excellent on the return visit.
2. Corky's (on Poplar). Definitely commercialized but we got a full slab (half wet and half dry) along with an order of the pulled pork sandwich. The wet was medicore but the dry side was actually pretty decent. Almost as good as Central on the first visit but not even close to Central on the second visit. The pulled pork sandwich, I thought was better than Interstate's. The disclaimer is that I went to Interstate a full 45 minutes after Corky's so I wasn't the most hungry. The Interstate BBQ sandwich was chopped and at least for me, seemed a bit dry. Maybe I just like pulled pork better than chopped.
3. Interstate. Definitely a legit looking place but the ribs seemed cooked by some method other than BBQ (maybe just smoked) and dipped in a lot of sauce. The ribs were fattier then Central's and Corky's. The meat texture was good but by this time, I was firmly in the dry camp and not really wowed. The beans here are really good though with the huge chunks of pork floating around.
Again, just a city boy's perspective but man, that Central BBQ is really good when they're on.
Recently, we held a competition using ribs from Central, the BBQ Shop, Interstate, and Jack's Rib Shack (a place that is rarely mentioned on here). The consensus was that the BBQ Shop was the best, followed *very* closely by Central and the other two. But all of 'em were really good- in fact much better than you can usually find anywhere else!
Corky's? They have gotten to where they are available almost everywhere, though the store on Poplar is better. Rondezvous is a really fun experience, and as mentioned are really good when they are "on"... Also Cozy Corner should certainly be mentioned- as should about a 100 other places that I'm forgetting right now!
I am sad to see you missed Rendezvous and their dry ribs (you can have them shipped if you want to try them www.pigsfly.com)
Personally I like Central overall but when it comes to being nitpicky about BBQ Corky's for pulled shoulder and Rendezvous for dry ribs. Central has BBQ bologna which until they opened was only available at the Mid-South Fair, but was worth the year long wait to enjoy.
I grew up in Memphis and had a summer job as an event host that allowed me to try BBQ from just about every place that made Q in the mid '90s. Each place has something that is better than anywhere else. The most often catered in was Corky's, I still think their sauce makes a great salad dressing (try it you might like it too). But due to the over exposure to BBQ I am now a bit more selective and tend to order what I know I like at the various places. So my suggestion should you come back to Memphis is head to the Rendezvous for dry ribs and the sausage and cheese plate, then go to Central for your sauced up sandwich. Before you leave town hit the Corky's in the airport to take back some for your friends.
I leave out Interstate in my comments because they were just on Alton Brown's show and they were highlighted recently on RoadFood so they will be getting attention from out of towners.
re: Randal Cooper
We tried but Rendezvous was closed until Tuesday which prompted us to head down to Central for the second time. I had heard comments about them only occasionally being good and being more of a historical institution. I wanted to try the best ribs now and it seemd like Central was the most consistent...then again, the most recent discussion I could find was back in March of '07.