Memphis. Sometimes I struggle to write up a meal months after I actually ate it. Even with thorough notes, something visceral is always lost as the memories grow stale.
Not so with Memphis. I taste Memphis when I’m sleeping.
Perhaps Memphis has excellent food that isn’t barbecue. I have no idea. Barbecue is all I ate, for every meal every day. If I lived there barbecue is all I would ever eat until I died fat and happy at 32. In fact, I'm considering it.
Barbecue in Memphis is really extremely good.
Even without barbecue Memphis is a lovely little town. It is unfailingly fun, friendly, charming and manageable with lots of good history (and lots of history that isn’t good at all). I barely even got a taste but it looked like the nightlife held a lot of promise for acting out.
I really loved Memphis and can’t recommend highly enough that everyone who can should visit. If you do, stay at the Peabody Hotel or at least poke your head in for the daily marching of the ducks: . YouTube it.
Anyway back to the barbecue.
The two barbecue places in Memphis that made the deepest impressions on me were Central BBQ and Payne's Bar-B-Q.
Payne’s is as local as it gets, known mostly to native Memphisians and barbecue fanatics, Payne’s was the name I would drop around town when I wanted people to think I had my finger on the pulse—though in reality I found Payne’s by googling “best Memphis bbq”.
When I asked the concierge at our hotel which spots I should checkout for good barbecue, she went through the well-rehearsed tourist list: The Rendezvous, B.B. King’s on Beale Street. But, when I mentioned Payne’s she became downright unprofessional, fanning herself with a folded map, leaning on the desk with her eyes rolling back, moaning: “Yes, yes, YES. Payne’s is the spot! Payne’s!”
And Payne’s is the spot. It is dilapidated to a degree I have only seen in Southern restaurants—looking at you Doe’s Eat Place—which I love. If I see your entire restaurant is a few half-broken picnic tables, mismatched patio furniture , and an ancient cast-iron oven, as Payne’s was, what I think is “They are really focusing on their food.”
The traditional way of serving barbecue in Memphis is on a sandwich, with the sauce, slaw, meat, and all between two slices of white bread. This is absolutely correct; in all things the sandwich really is the way to go.
Two things set the sandwiches at Payne’s apart: the neon yellow slaw mixed up with lots of mustard, and the meat which they chop instead of pull so that a bite might include chunks of char, fat, and meat. Locals call the sticky, crispy, burned edges of the pig bark, and it is magical stuff.
Also, Payne’s sandwiches are infamously over-stuffed and messy.
Still, for all this Payne’s was not my favorite barbecue in Memphis*. My favorite barbecue in Memphis, and the best barbecue I have ever had, came from Central BBQ. Central is, brace yourself, a chain. But, it is a local chain and beloved by everyone I spoke to in the city.
My first bite of the pulled pork sandwich with spicy barbecue sauce at Central was when it all really clicked for me; it was the first time I got it. As soon as I closed my mouth around that sandwich it felt like the world fell silent, tears formed in my eyes (not an exaggeration) and I understood how barbecue could be more than just excellent food. It gave me what Freud called “that oceanic feeling”. Central BBQ’s pork sandwich took me out of time itself; I think a part of me is still there chewing.
My notes say: “perfectly balanced, fatty, sweet and tangy” but for some things language just isn’t up to the task. If you want to know what that first bite was like, better to go look into your lover’s eyes or watch your child while they sleep. That should take you part of the way there.
Central is also where I dipped my toe into the great wet versus dry debate.
You see, aside from the sandwich the preferred mode of barbecue in Memphis is ribs. Pork of course. You can either order them wet (covered in barbecue sauce), or dry (served as is with a dry spice rub). Now, I just assumed I would be a wet type of guy. I’ve always been of the “fuck subtlety more sauce” school of culinary arts, but in Memphis I learned I am ride or die dry all the way.
At Central they let you order a rack of ribs half wet and half dry. The wet half was great; barbeque sauce is great. But, if the wet was great, the dry had greatness—even I’m not sure what I’m saying at this point, I’m mostly on Yelp looking for barbecue places that deliver in Brooklyn.
My first few bites of the dry were underwhelming, tasting pretty much only of char and smoke, but then slowly the happiness grew until I realized I totally got the whole dry idea: the deep almost prurient pink smoky funk, the sweet slick fat, the thick strings of meat and the chewy rough candy-like shellac of the spice rub. Just awesome.
Memphis forever. Dry for life.
*Payne’s did have the best beans I have ever had in my entire life. Imagine just perfect sweet baked beans, then throw in about two handfuls of slow cooked pork butt. The beans are worth the trip on their own.