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The Road to Great Memphis BBQ

The Road to Great Memphis BBQ
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By Matt Johnson

I didn’t eat breakfast, in anticipation. Business took me to Memphis for the day and I planned on sampling some barbecue. My initial intention was to stop at Jones Bar-B-Q in Marianna and get my first taste of the famous pork sandwich that earned the place a James Beard Award in 2012. From there I would swing by Payne’s BBQ for what some say is the best pork sandwich in Memphis. Things didn’t quite work out how I planned.

I knew getting to Jones early was important. They’re often sold out by noon. I arrived by 10:30, hoping that was early enough. It wasn’t. I walked up to the door of the ramshackle building and pulled on the handle, only to find it locked. I heard voices around back and followed them to an open space behind the restaurant itself. “You guys already sold out?” I asked. “Yes sir,” came the reply. “We’ll be open in the morning at 6:30.”

I continued on to Memphis, still looking forward to my experience at Payne’s. I plugged the address into my GPS and found the cinder block building on Lamar Avenue in the city’s Midtown area. I had high hopes as I entered the place. Sadly, they didn’t last long. Let me back up for a second. The pork sandwich at Payne’s is very highly regarded. It’s included on many ‘best of’ lists and consistently ranks as one of the best pork sandwiches in Memphis, if not the best. Maybe I caught them on a bad day. I might never know, because I don’t really have any desire to go back and find out.

I’ll start with the taste. Overwhelmingly, it’s sweet. The sauce was sweet. The neon green slaw that goes on top was sweet, almost like pickle relish. Together they torpedoed any hope I had of actually tasting the meat. Speaking of the meat, it definitely didn’t help when the first two bites I took were mostly fatty gristle that I couldn’t chew and had to deposit in a napkin. Gristle aside, the texture wasn’t pleasant. I thought perhaps I’d gone wrong in getting the chopped pork, but that’s what everyone recommends you get. The slaw should provide a contrasting crunch to the meat, but it was all the same mushy consistency. I was given a choice of mild, medium or hot sauce and I went with medium. It had no spice whatsoever. No underlying kick.

Dejected, I knew what had to be done. I hadn’t planned on going to any other barbecue places, but the best ribs in Memphis were just a few minutes away at the The Bar-B-Q Shop. I got a table and ordered the Boss Slab plate. A rack of ribs and two sides. “Dry, wet or glazed?” the waitress asked. The only correct answer is dry. These ribs don’t need sauce of any kind. I could go on and on about these ribs, but I’ll start with the flavor. The meat is succulent. There’s a nice crust on the outside of the ribs, while the interior remains juicy and tender. And then there’s the rub. It’s not like every other rub out there. Paprika is the first thing that hits your taste buds, but then there’s a salty, peppery, garlic finish that just adds to the already fantastic flavor of the meat. Some might argue the meat pulls away from the bone too easily, but that’s for bbq contests. When the meat is this good, I don’t really care because that just means it’s easier to get it in my mouth in a timely fashion.

I’m scheduled to be back in Memphis in a few weeks. I’m planning a detour through Marianna. I’ll leave Little Rock earlier this time.