The Real Guide to Memphis BBQ
Chicago is famous for deep-dish pizza. Louisiana is famous for Cajun cuisine. Memphis, TN is famous for barbecue. In fact, the largest pork BBQ cooking contest in the world is held in the city every May. It is a way of life in the city that provides a uniqueness that is lacking in many areas of the country. I was born and lived in the city for 20 years and it was a common occurrence to have BBQ served at any major event.
This article will highlight my favorite BBQ restaurants and is based on many years of “research”. This is not a top 10 list, because every single restaurant in this article is #1 in my book. Each one has unique qualities. If you have a chance, then try to visit all of the locations.
Memphis BBQ Basics
Memphis-style barbecue is one of the major regional styles in the United States. Other regions include North and South Carolina, Kansas City, and Texas. It is always entertaining for me to run into someone from any area that is known for BBQ, because we can get into some friendly arguments over who has the best. Plus I can relate to the person because they understand how serious of a matter good BBQ is.
In Memphis, you will find BBQ made using pork, usually ribs and shoulders. Some restaurants offer beef and chicken, but keep it to pork if you want authentic Memphis style. The BBQ is general slow cooked in a pit and ribs can be prepared either “dry” (seasoning rub) or “wet” (BBQ sauce). The sauce is characterized by being both vinegary and sweet. All of the restaurants in this list have great pork BBQ. If you really want to determine the quality of a BBQ restaurant, then order a pulled pork BBQ sandwich. Make sure you try the pork meat by itself without any sauce. It should have smoky flavor and not be dry.
The List (in no particular order)
Central BBQ was founded in 2002 while I was still living in the city. It quickly became a favorite of mine and won many local awards. The original location on Central Avenue is located in the “hip” part of the city and has a more alternative or hippy vibe, which is unique to most BBQ places in town.
What to get: Besides the pulled pork sandwich, try the pork BBQ nachos.
Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Que
Interstate Bar-B-Que is a local favorite. It is a quintessential classic BBQ joint that looks like you stepped back to the 1970s. The Neely family is local legends within the city with a few restaurants around town. Some of the family members have even been featured on the Food Network with their own shows. The restaurant is located in a part of the city that is a little sketchy, but I have never had any issues during my many trips there. A friend of mine loved this place so much, that he had the food shipped to Illinois for the reception dinner at his wedding. That is true devotion.
What to get: Check out the ribs, polish sausage, BBQ bologna – even if you don’t like bologna you should still check it out, and pulled pork sandwich. One of my mom’s favorite dishes is the BBQ spaghetti. That’s right – BBQ spaghetti.
Corky’s has been a treasured Memphis establishment since the 1980s. It is very popular with the local residents, but I didn’t eat there much when I lived in the city. On a recent trip back to Memphis, I decided to give it a try. I couldn’t have been happier. I enjoyed a great pulled pork sandwich. The meat and sauce were both excellent and I could not complain about the $3 price.
What to get: I have only tried the pork sandwich, but I have also heard good things about their ribs. I’m sure it would be hard to find something not good on the menu.
The BBQ Shop
This restaurant is a true hidden gem of the city. It has been a Mid-Town Memphis establishment for over 50 years and a quick look on Urban Spoon and Yelp confirms that my visit was not a fluke. The BBQ is excellent and the atmosphere is relaxed.
What to get:The pulled pork is what it is famous for. Try it on buttered Texas toast.
Blues City Café
Blues City is located on Beale Street, so it is easy to visit this restaurant if you are already planning to visit Beale. Be ready for a crowd and more of a touristy spot than any of the other restaurants on the list.
What to get:The wet style ribs are some of the best in the city.
Tops BBQ was founded in 1952 and is a favorite of my dad and grandfather. There are many locations around the city. The food is served pretty quick and you can eat in the seating area of the restaurant or take it on the go. The sandwiches are even served with a wrapper that prevents all that good pork from dropping into your lap during your commute.
What to get: Pulled pork sandwich.
Food for Thought
If you notice, I did not include Rendezvous, one of the most popular BBQ restaurants in Memphis, on the list. I have eaten there a few times, and I just find it too expensive and to touristy for my taste. The food is okay, but with so many other excellent restaurants to choose from, I don’t see the reason to venture into the establishment.
I hope this guide will help you decide on which BBQ restaurants to visit while you are in Memphis. In an era of chain restaurants and interchangeable menus, it is truly refreshing to have so many unique and delicious establishments owned and operated by regular people to choose from. Have fun and happy eating.
Memphis BBQ Map
Locations of all the restaurants mentioned in the guide. There are multiple locations for some of the restaurants. I have selected the locations that are my favorite or are in safer areas of the city.