Landed in Memphis last night about 6:15pm. I caught the shuttle to the rental car agency and a couple in the back seat kept going on about how good the BBQ smelled in a restaurant in the airport. They must have come through a different terminal because I didn’t smell any BBQ. If I had, I would have stopped. But their enthusiasm and all the lore about Memphis BBQ pretty much fixed my dinner plans for the night.
The rental car agency gave me a free upgrade: Black Ford Mustang. Yeah, I was leaning so hard had to aim the mirrors at the ground to see what was behind me.
About 8pm I began my exploration of Memphis BBQ with a tweet. I love the people in my twitter feed. They’re my kind of people. BBQ people. In a matter of minutes I had a long list of responders with about four or five recommendations shining through: Central, Rendezvous, Commissary, and Corky’s. Passed Central on the way to the hotel so into the Black ‘Stang I leaned and off I drove (thinking, where’s my Trip Lee cd when I need it).
Now, it’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I consider myself a BBQ connoisseur, and that by birthright. You see, I’m from the BBQ Capitol of the World, Lexington, N.C. We produce more chopped pork BBQ per capita than any place on the planet. And we have the body shape and heart disease to prove it. Every year there’s a BBQ festival and parade where the best pit cook profiteers turn the spit. We’re serious about BBQ. So when a couple tweeps responded by saying Memphis BBQ is better than Lexington BBQ, I drove my black muscle car to the restaurant with an attitude, hearing in my head, “Let’s get ready to rumble!”
Now, where I’m from, a BBQ restaurant has to be about one step up from a dive. None of this Red, Hot, and Blue neon nonsense, commercialized and starved of both character and taste! The place has to reek of “down home.” When I pulled into the half paved, half used-to-be-paved parking lot of Central, slowly climbing over the steep curve at an angle so as not to scrape the tail pipe on the Mustang, I knew I was coming home.
There’s no one on the payroll to “beautify” the place. If the billowing smoke and smell of roasted flesh is not beautiful to you, then you’re in the wrong place. The inside of the restaurant confirmed it. One way in; one way out. The building divided into two areas by one wall: an ordering and cooking side and a small dining area. The floor was unfinished concrete, the walls exposed brick, and the ceiling exposed beams. The walls were covered with 5×7 sized photos–old Polaroids it seemed–not of celebrities and concert posters but of people who looked like the owners’ family having a good time at tailgate parties and the like. Then there was the music: Candi Staton blaring out “I don’t feel like my man is doing me wrong, as long as he takes care of home.” Blues intertwined with 70’s soul, and old school R&B–Commodore’s and Lionel Richie’s “Easy Like Sunday Morning“; Zapp and Roger’s “I Wanna Be Your Man” and The Gap Band “Burn Rubber on Me.”
Ambience: Bona fide juke joint.
I placed my order at the counter. Well, actually, I introduced myself as a citizen of the BBQ Capitol of the World and asked the young girl to order for me the best of their pork fare. A giggly teenager with braces she happily accepted the challenge. After I ordered I took my number (8) and stepped through the hole in the wall to the dining side of the restaurant. I headed to the tea station–ahhh, real sweet tea! And before I could I could flip the little black flipper for the golden brown tonic, I heard a lady calling my number. The speed of service was amazing. I watched as subsequent customers placed their order, stepped through to the dining side, and almost immediately had their food served to them. In each case, the server had to call the number 2-3 times because we customers couldn’t believe it came that quickly.
Now, let’s get down to business. What about the food? Not afraid to serve anything they cooked, the giggly girl at the counter ordered a sampler platter for me. A heaping mound of food–half-rack of ribs (half dry and half wet), chopped BBQ, and ham served with a cup of baked beans, cole slaw, and two sandwich rolls. I was impressed with the array of pork products. Back home we’re specialists. BBQ means pulled pork. We’ll barbecue other things for you, but we’re really only serious about the pig. So, I have to give Memphis higher marks for variety.
The sides were mixed. I liked the baked beans–tangy, not too soupy or too thick, an appropriate serving. The slaw left a lot to be desired–bland, no personality. Lexington actually serves BBQ slaw, just a hint of sauce mixed in the slaw giving it a slight red color and a nice prick to the palate.
Now, the other thing I’m an expert in is sweet tea. My mama’s sweet tea will take you to the third heaven! Ask Paul. The tea at Central’s was… brace yourself Kristie… almost as good as my mama’s! Now folks that’s saying something. From what I can tell, the tea lacked my mama’s secret ingredient: sunshine. A couple hours on the roof in a glass jar and this would have that ray of glorious taste that so far only my mama has bottled.
Sides: Happy faces
Two things make BBQ: skill in the pit and savvy sauce. Central serves up four sauces at the customer’s choosing. There’s a mustard-based sauce–a complete abomination no self-respecting BBQ aficionado would ever ruin meat with. I understand this sauce has its origins in the swampy climes of South Carolina or some other place that gives BBQ a bad name. I didn’t try it, and judging from the dry drop of sauce beneath the spout most of the other patrons took a pass, too. Then there’s a hot sauce, a vinegar based sauce, and a mild concoction. Now, NC is home to two styles of barbecue known as Eastern NC BBQ and Lexington-styled BBQ. My wife is from Eastern NC where they serve the second best barbecue in the state. It’s good BBQ; it’s just not Lexington. Eastern BBQ is known for its vinegar base. Since I’m no partisan for Eastern NC’s vinegar-based chop, you can believe me when I say Memphis should stop trying to make it’s own vinegar-based sauce and simply import it from the folks who know what they’re doing East of Burlington, NC, especially down in places like Wilson, NC. I poured an entire thimble on one bite and still couldn’t get any flavor! The other sauces were okay. The “hot” turned out to be about medium. The red sauces were slightly peppery, which I like, but still lacking personality.
The meats themselves were mostly delicious. I loved the ribs–both the dry and the wet. Nicely cooked, peeling off the bones, good char but not burned. Smokey. I’d eat them repeatedly. The ham was the surprise to me. I’ve never before had sliced ham in a BBQ restaurant. But the meat was succulent, not dry, and required no sauce. It was fine eatin’ as we say down south. The disappointment: the pulled pork. Dark in color, lacking in flavor. In a good BBQ, you don’t want the sauce to have to rescue the meat. You want a good flavor from the meat even if the customer chooses not to use the sauce. But I had to use the sauce and even then I was underwhelmed. Tried the chop alone, on a roll in a sandwich, with sauce, with cole slaw–just about every way I could. Verdict: Run-of-the-mill.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Central’s. All the faces in the restaurant were happy–including my own. Where chopped is concerned, Lexington (actually, all of NC) still holds its title as “World’s Best.” But for variety and overall excellent taste, I’d eat at Central’s any day. Plus, central has one thing on Lexington: They give their customers a complimentary bag of BBQ skins! Now that’s class!
When I finished my meal and began to head back to the Mustang, you won’t believe what came over the speakers: the distinctive sound of Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft“. As I pulled up the collar on my leather jacket, I could hear the people murmuring, “This cat here is a bad–.” I turned and said, “Shut yo mouth!”
Note: A lot of pigs were killed for the making of this post.