The Nondating Life

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Putting the 'meh' in Memphis

I'll dispense with the suspense immediately. Memphis barbecue was a disappointment. And though I haven't completed my tour of American 'cue regions, Texas is still the clear leader. For anyone who knows me and my predilection for pork and pork-based products, it may come as a shock to hear me chucking in with the beef crowd, but such is life.

The fact of the matter is pork predominates in cue regions for three reasons: 1) it usually tastes better than beef; 2) it's usually cheaper than beef; 3) it's usually much easier to cook than beef.

I can say this much for Memphis barbecue: it's cheap. But it failed on the other accounts. Susan and I, on our drive down to Louisiana, made a wide detour to Memphis and managed to squeeze in three places. To be blunt, Memphis barbecue is highly overrated and, to some, might not even classify as barbecue. From what we saw, Memphis 'cuers stuck to charcoal. There was a split on dry vs. wet ribs (with the wet ribs winning out in this case ... and I don't usually go with wet). Because Memphis seems to be famous for its ribs, we stuck to ribs at all three places.

We hit Cozy Corner, Rendezvous and Blues City Cafe.

Of the three, Cozy Corner, a ramshackle hut in the non-tourist part of town, is the only one I'd recommend spending any money or time at. Oddly enough, it was highly reminiscent of Louisiana barbecue - well seasoned meat cooked over charcoal. The sauce - a spicy vinegar blend was about the only difference I could detect. They weren't falling off the bone, but rather had a fairly decent chewy texture. The atmosphere was perfect for a cue joint -- extremely nice people in a ratty old shack starting to see its first customers of a busy Saturday. I've read raves about the barbecue bologna and cornish hen (which they heat up in a microwave, I was told), but we stuck to the ribs.

Next on the list was Rendezvous, supposedly THE premier joint in downtown Memphis. To say Rendezvous was a disappointment would be an understatement. I was looking forward to dry rub ribs ... until I actually got my hands on them. I'm not going to tell you what was in the rub because I didn't bother guessing or asking. Whatever it was, it tasted like it was rubbed on during the latter end of a high-heat cooking process. The meat was chewy, the outside was actually crisp (one bit actually tasted almost like a pork crackling -- which is fine for rinds, but not for, you know, barbecue). When I tell you that the ribs at Rendezvous reminded me of Shake n Bake, I don't mean it as a compliment.

Finally, on the recommendation of a few people who worked the shops on Beale Street, we went to Blues City Cafe. I had low expectations as the place looked like a diner, not a cue joint. The ribs fell off the bone, were moist and ... well, they tasted fine, but they didn't taste barbecued and lacked a smoke ring (which you'll get even if just using charcoal). So I went snooping around. I asked the waitress.

"Oh, they're barbecued for about eight hours."


"Out back, I think."

"What kind of wood do yall use."

"I don't know."

So coming out of the bathroom I found one of the cooks.

"We use hickory chips. We let 'em sit eight hours in that thing."

That thing turned out to be a metal box near the ovens that looked suspiciously like an electric smoker of some sort. Sure, you can cook 'em all day in sauce and they'll come out moist. And on this particular day, it also seemed someone failed to put chips in the smoker.

At least the service at all three places ranged from decent (Rendezvous) to downright friendly (the other two). And, unlike in Texas, the cue eater doesn't feel intimidated at any point. No one's going to smirk at you or look at you like you're city folk just because you eat with utensils or ask for sauce.

This trip proves that people's passion for barbecue often overwhelms their critical faculties. It happens with a lot of foods. People get excited about Cajun, about chili, about all sorts of things and then go ga-ga over the first thing they come across. It's like being a single dorky kid all through high school and finally you come across a girl who says yes and you think you're in love.

To read some of the comments online about these various places, you'd think the cue was handed down by the Cue Gods themselves. I'll concede that Cozy Corner is decent -- and probably strikes one as fantastic if you have nothing else to judge by. I'd gladly eat there once a week and would love to have such an establishment down the block. And if you're into the stuff passed off as barbecue at places like Dallas BBQ (in other words, slow-cooked ribs in sauce), then the praise lavished on Blues City Cafe is undestandable, if not justifiable. But for those singing the high holy praises of Rendezvous -- including the readers of Southern Living magazine, who named Rendezvous best barbecue restaurant in the reader's poll -- I can come to one of two conclusions: 1) They've never had proper barbecue in their life or 2) Their tastebuds are broken beyond repair.

I guess some people just don't know any better.

At any rate, we've yet to do Kansas City and the Carolinas, but so far, Texas (and ... gah! ... beef) are winning in the regional barbecue wars.

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  • I live in Austin and have spent plenty of time sampling vittles around Texas, including Lockhart, the bbq capital of the world. I was in KC not long ago and sampled some of their supposed best and was appalled that it shared the same name as the delectable stuff that is readily available here. All sauce and the meat had no flavor... waste of good animals.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:06 AM  

  • Lockhart rocked my world. I don't know how I'm going to feel about Kansas. The little I've had, the meat was decent -- the bits I could actually taste under the ketchup-like substance they call sauce.

    By Blogger Ken Wheaton, at 1:25 PM  

  • You went to Memphis to eat cue and didn't email me first to ask MY suggestions? Shame on you.

    By Blogger Lola, at 2:45 PM  

  • Yeah, well, I know how worked up you get! But to be honest, I think I sampled enough to get the general idea. I'd bet that Cozy Corner is up there with Memphis' best, it's just I'm not a huge fan of the style of barbecue.

    By Blogger Ken Wheaton, at 3:00 PM  

  • Well I don't know who sent you to Cozy Corner but it doesn't even rank in my book and you must remember I've lived in Memphis almost all my life.

    By Blogger Lola, at 4:21 PM  

  • That's cuz you're a racist! :)

    And keep in mind Cozy was the best one on the list. Rendezvous was crap. Crap in a bucket.

    By Blogger Ken Wheaton, at 4:29 PM  

  • Oh yeah I forgot I was a racist. Rendezvouz isn't on my list. I mean sure you gotta go there just because it's the Rendezvouz but I wouldn't send anyone there as a recommendations of good cue. IF you had bothered to ask my opinion I would have sent you to Three Little Pigs if you wanted a pulled pork samich. A&R Barbecue and the Bar-B-Que shop would have rounded out my list if I could only give you a top 3. Who the fuck sent you to Blues City? Waste of time and money.

    By Blogger Lola, at 4:38 PM  

  • Blues City recommended by the large black woman who worked the desk at our hotel as well as another woman who worked on Beale Street. I figured asking the locals couldn't hurt. I wasn't looking for pulled pork, though. I was on a rib hunt.

    By the way, why's Memphis so damn sketchy. I was basically accosted right outside the freakin' Peabody (and not by ducks). And that stretch down by the water... dear lord, there were actually trolls and shit hiding under overpasses and in alleys.

    Also -- and I say this as someone who grew up in the South -- yall talk funny!

    By Blogger Ken Wheaton, at 4:46 PM  

  • I don't know what to tell you about Memphis being sketchy. I rarely venture downtown unless it's for a really good meal or a really great band. On behalf of my city I apologize for you being practically accosted. I would have bought you a drink if I had known you were coming through... except I'm on vacation and probably wasn't even there when you and your lovely lady came through.

    You figured asking the locals couldn't hurt yet you somehow forgot to ask me?!?!?!? Hmmph.

    OK well I would have sent you to Corky's for ribs before I sent you to any of those other places you went but sometimes you just need a good pulled pork samich and the place for that is Three Little Pigs..

    By Blogger Lola, at 4:56 PM  

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    By Blogger Alexandr, at 8:57 AM  

  • You'll always have a large place in my heart and stomcah for bringing me to Lockhart for the first time. I've been to Lockhart three times since that day at Black's and have yet to go to Kruez Market. Smitty's had me once I saw the pit. They say Luling City Market in Luling (just south of Lockhart) is top notch as well and I've heard from a couple at Smitty's that Louie Mueller BBQ in Taylor gives Smitty's a run for it's money and has even more smokey good ambience, if that's even possible. I've taken my Dad there as well. When you drive 130 miles just for lunch there comes a time in the car when everyone grows silent and you wonder if it was such a good idea. Until they had the brisket. Everyone napped on the way home.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:15 PM  

  • Lola's right. People go to Rendezvous for the ambiance of entering through the garbage-strewn back-alley, and the abuse by the waiters. (It's kinda like Dick's that way.) The ribs are not very good. Blues City is a tourist dive. I haven't ever even heard of Cozy Corner, but then I've only lived here for 4 years. You can definitely get good Memphis style ribs, but they're hard to find. Lola's recommendation of Corky's isn't half bad.

    Yes, Memphis is definitely sketchy. There's about a 4-block by 4-block section of downtown that's somewhat safe to walk through during the day, but don't leave that area. And don't leave the immediate Beale Street area after dark. The riverfront park is nice on weekdays at lunchtime.

    It's a typical, run-down, Democrat-run old city with no chance of ever being renovated or improved until the politics change. And that's never gonna happen until the demographics change. Until then, it'll continue to look like the bombed out shell of a war-torn Middle Eastern city, a la Beirut in the 80s. -Wiz.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:39 PM  

  • Wiz - ell I'm not sure I necessarily agree with your last paragraph and your description of Memphis but I would like to know where you would have sent Mr. Wheaton.

    By Anonymous Lola, at 5:33 PM  

  • Lola- I don't know. I haven't found anyplace reliable for good ribs. I'll find some good ones someplace, and the next time I go back, they're nothing but gristle.

    I kinda agreed with your recommendation of Corky's. They're not the best I've ever had, but at least they're pretty reliable.

    The best, most reliable ones I've found are dones by a neighbor of mine who competes in the rib cook-off every year. You can't just stop by his house on any given day, though!


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:59 AM  

  • Hey Ken, Have you ever tried Bone Suckin Sauce?

    Peace bro.

    By Blogger Rye, at 11:52 AM  

  • I haven't eaten at The Rendezvous, just because it struck me as an over-rated tourist joint. I am partial to Central BBQ and The BBQ Store. (But for pulled pork -- I haven't tried their ribs.) If you get back this way, give them a try. I think they're pretty good and I love The Iron Works and Green Mesquite BBQ in Austin.

    By Anonymous class factotum, at 8:38 PM  

  • I was born in Memphis, but moved to Texas at a veerry young age. However, my parents forced us there for as many visits as possible when we were kids.

    My father is a big fan of pulled pork and he would second the 3 Little Pigs recommendation. There's another place, too, that we would usually go that I thought was better, but the name is escaping me right now.

    Rendezvous is just one of those places you go. Not necessarily for the food, just the experience. Although, the dry ribs last time I was there were tender and tasty.

    Corky's has always been good to us as well.

    One thing I noticed is that, in Memphis, there seems to be less of a tendency to drown the meat in sauce. That's what I liked best about it.

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