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.