Regional Barbecue Road Trip: Memphis
Here are 6 must-try spots for an ultimate Memphis barbecue tour, plus where to find great Memphis 'cue outside of Tennessee.
Best known for: pork (ribs, served wet or dry, and pulled pork)
Wood choice: mainly hickory but also oak, pecan and cherry
Sauce style: tomato (sometimes sweet, sometimes tangy) and vinegar-based dry ribs (layered with a dry rub that includes garlic, paprika and other spices) or wet ribs (mopped with sweet, tomato-based sauce throughout cooking).
Expert take: Memphis is best known for pork ribs served two ways: wet (slathered with tomato-based sauce) and dry (without sauce and dry-rubbed with seasoning). “The interesting thing about Memphis barbecue is that Memphis style doesn’t have a singular definition,” says barbecue champion and chef Chris Lilly. “Memphis style is so different and interesting: There are dry-rub ribs (like at Rendezvous), while pork ribs are wet and dry. Memphis is definitely pork city, without a doubt, and known for their traditional sweet, tomato-based sauce.” Lilly cites Rendezvous, Corky’s and Cozy Corner as some of his favorite places and Melissa Cookstone (of Memphis BBQ) as an area chef to highlight.
Chris Lilly, chef/partner at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q restaurants (multiple locations) and four-time winner of the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest
Charles Vergos' Rendezvous
Whether ribs are supposed to be rubbed dry or wet can be debated by barbecue historians, but there is no question that Rendezvous' ribs have become legendary, no doubt due to late owner Charlie Vergos’ dry-rub technique of seasoning his pork ribs. Basted and grilled over direct heat, not charcoal, there is no low-and-slow technique here either, but no matter. Traditional or not, Rendezvous has been synonymous with Memphis barbecue for generations, and the Vergos family continue to run the nearly 70-year-old historic Memphis restaurant today.
Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous, 52 S. 2nd St., Memphis, TN; (901) 523-2746
Leonard’s Pit Barbecue
Legend has it that Elvis Presley was a fan of Leonard’s, which first opened in 1922 as a drive-in-style barbecue joint. While the drive-in feature is gone, and the business has moved a few times since, the style of food hasn’t changed much, and today the iconic restaurant offers its customers an all-you-can-eat lunch and dinner barbecue buffet. Their chopped pulled-pork sandwich, the Big Leonard, lives up to its name and has made fans of many more customers since the King, as has the ribs-and-BBQ combo. Not to be missed: the sweet mustard coleslaw, unlike any around.
Leonard’s Pit Barbecue 5465 Fox Plaza Dr., Memphis, TN; (901) 360-1963
A favorite among locals and close to (but not in) downtown Memphis, Cozy’s is a true barbecue joint, with understated decor and finger-licking fare. While the ribs and rib tips are popular, served smothered in sauces, their house specialty is a barbecued, smoked Cornish hen, served moist throughout with crispy skin and glazed with their tangy sauce. Also on the menu is the lesser-known but equally popular BBQ spaghetti — noodles coated in barbecue sauce — a true regional specialty.
Cozy Corner, 745 North Pkwy., Memphis, TN; (901) 527-9158
A relative newbie, open since 2002 and popular with local college students, Central has made its mark in a city filled with great barbecue options. But there are options aplenty at this casual eatery — from the popular slow-smoked loin back (read: meaty!) ribs to the BBQ nachos topped with pulled pork to the house-made fresh fried pork rinds. Locals know to order the pork plate with extra “bark” (the dark, smoky crust) and always leave with a brown bag of the thick-cut potato chips, which are sprinkled with Central’s special seasoning and served with blue cheese.
Central BBQ, multiple locations
Center Point BBQ
Center Point, serving up barbecue since the mid-'60s, specializes in pork and chicken, but the family-run restaurant seems to get it all right — from their ribs down to their pies for dessert. Music City dwellers will find sandwiches, platters and sides on the menu along with the ever-popular Holiday Ham, which is brined for days and smoked for hours, resulting in a charred, tender piece of meat that will make some fans forget about the brisket and ribs. Also look for sides of excellent french fries, fried pickles and fried green tomatoes.
Center Point BBQ, 1212 W. Main St., Hendersonville, TN; (615) 824-9330
At Corky’s, a mainstay in Memphis, the meat is slow-cooked over hickory wood on open and closed pits for nearly an entire day. The result? Tender meat that just about falls off the bone, and pork shoulder that pulls apart practically on its own. The family-run business has grown exponentially since opening in the mid-'80s, branching into franchises, supermarket items, a cookbook and their signature BBQ fare shipped all over the country, but the dry-style ribs still remain a local favorite.
Corky’s, 1740 N. Germantown Pkwy., Cordova, TN, and other locations; (901) 737-1988
Plus: Where to Find Memphis-Style BBQ Outside of Memphis
Serving Memphis-style barbecue, Mike "Smokey" Emerson and the staff of Pappy’s Smokehouse in St. Louis adhere to the slow-and-low technique, smoking their meat for up to 14 hours over cherry and apple woods. Among Pappy's crowd-pleasing dishes are their ribs and burnt ends (get the combo meal) as well as their sauces: the Original, Sweet Baby Jane or Holly's Hot Sauce — not that they think the food calls for it. Emerson is known for saying, "We've got nothing to hide, so the sauce is on the side," a testament to good barbecue indeed.
Pappy’s Smokehouse, 3106 Olive St., St. Louis, MO; (314) 535-4340
Continue the road trip: Check out Kansas City, Texas and Carolina 'cue