Memphis is one of the few Southern cities that can claim its own widely recognized barbecue style. It has been famous for ribs since the 1920s, when John Mills wowed visiting celebrities like Bing Crosby with his pit-cooked slabs. But Memphians will barbecue just about anything—beef, pork, chicken, sausage, turkey. They'll even smoke whole rolls of bologna, which they slice and serve between two pieces of white bread, transforming this humble lunch meat into a sinfully rich treat. The pits in Memphis tend to be fired not with split logs but charcoal briquettes, which impart a distinctive juicy and mildly smoky flavor to the meat. The signature sauce is thick, tangy, and reddish brown, and it can range from unassumingly mild to tongue-scorchingly hot. Yellow mustard-laced slaw and sweet but savory beans are the standard side dishes, along with barbecue spaghetti—an eccentric combination of pasta, pork, and barbecue sauce found only in Memphis. This list of restaurants could be longer, but you won't find better places to taste the city's inimitable style than at these seven spots.
The chopped-pork sandwich at A&R is a wonder. The first bite explodes with flavor, the tender meat merging into the warm, soft bun with cool, crisp pops of slaw. The rib sandwich is even better—a short, meaty slab, wedged (bones and all) between two slices of plain white bread with lots of slaw and A&R's signature sauce. The Pollard family still cooks barbecue on old-school charcoal-fired pits, and the sauce here is thick and only moderately
The Bar-B-Q Shop
1782 Madison Avenue
Visit the home of barbecue spaghetti, Memphis' unique contribution to Southern barbecue sides. The Vernon family still uses the recipe created by Brady Vincent, the restaurant's original owner. It's the ideal accompaniment for a platter of succulent half-and-half ribs, which are dry-rubbed on one end and mopped with sauce on the other, a delicious compromise uniting the city's competing wet and dry styles.
With pulled pork, brisket, chicken, turkey, sausage, and even smoked portobello mushrooms, Central BBQ can please the fussiest of crowds. It now has four locations around the city—from the original Midtown joint on Central Avenue, which gave the restaurant its name, to a newer spot downtown.
Charlie Vergos Rendezvous
52 S. Second Street
Back in the 1940s, Charlie Vergos took a few racks of ribs, rubbed them down with a spice blend borrowed from his father's Greek chili recipe, and cooked them hot and fast over charcoal in a pit fashioned from an old coal chute. The Rendezvous has been the revered home of Memphis-style dry-rubbed ribs ever since. Robert Stewart Jr., pictured here, has been at Rendezvous for over 30 years.
Cozy Corner Restaurant
735 North Parkway
Beneath a sweet and tangy glaze of sauce, the ribs at Cozy Corner burst with intense wood-smoke flavor, and the meat is pleasantly firm and chewy. You can order the brown sauce mild, medium, or hot. But beware: Even the medium will leave
your lips tingling. In an unusual twist on the barbecue sandwich, they tuck thin-sliced pork or beef inside long, sesame-topped sub rolls with plenty of bright yellow slaw.
2265 S. Third Street
Jim Neely founded this place back in 1979, and it has been one of the city's top smoked-rib destinations ever since. (Their chopped-pork sandwiches are notable too.) Pro tip for air travelers: If you miss the original Third Street location, grab a sandwich at the Memphis International Airport. There's an Interstate Barbecue next to Gate C7.
1762 Lamar Avenue
Big, sloppy sandwiches are the name of the game at Payne's. They're piled so high with finely chopped pork; golden slaw; and a pool of sticky, sweet sauce that you'll need a plastic fork to scoop up every last scrap (not to mention lots of napkins). In a city known for putting anything from beef to spaghetti on its pits, Payne's menu is a minimalist exception: just chopped pork and ribs, plus a little sausage and bologna.