Enjoy the Best Barbecue Restaurants of Memphis, Where BBQ Reigns Supreme
By Sally Walker Davies
Memphis Local Expert
Trying to find the best Barbecue in Memphis? 10Best has you covered. Our editors and locals search the city and suburbs for the top places. Then, we showcase popular restaurants like Central BBQ, and we highlight eateries with great user reviews, like The Bar-B-Q Shop. We also help you find areas where barbecue is prominent - the Midtown area, for example - so that you not only get terrific dining recommendations, but you also have choices to boot. After all, if you're going to eat, you may as well do it right and take advantage of Memphis's best.
Our list is actually based on quite a bit of research, which means we've eaten multiple times at each of these barbecue restaurants. Everyone in the city tends to play favorites, meaning that they have a favorite Barbecue joint for ribs, another for pulled pork sandwiches, maybe a third for the sausage and cheese plate - you get the idea.
So, you ask, how does yours truly fashion her list? Here we go: Central is my overall favorite, Payne's for the pulled pork sandwich, the Rendezvous for best atmosphere and sausage and cheese plate, Corky's for ribs. Truly, any dish at any one of the barbecue restaurants on this list will leave you wanting more.
Yep, it is a chain - 14 Memphis-area restaurants, including over the river in Arkansas and across the border in Mississippi - but all 14 shops offer the same menu and pricing - and delicious pork shoulders, cooked for 10 hours over a combination of green hickory wood, hardwood and charcoal. Most of the locations are small - just a few basic booths or tables, maybe a picnic bench or two out front - and some have drive-thru service, which struck us as funny at a barbecue joint. But it's amazing how efficiently the small staff, especially at the Summer Avenue location, can pull together an order for drive-thru customers. True, this isn't fast food, but simply good barbecue, fast. Side offerings include the usual suspects of beans and slaw, but also chips, fries, potato salad or pudding. Party packs, pork and brisket by the pound are also available. (901-452-5616)
There's always a line at Corky's on Poplar Avenue and the parking is a challenge, and - but don't let any of that scare you away. The restaurant can hold a fair amount of people,and the service is fast, and the 'cue is worth the wait. (And if you can't wait, there's always the drive-thru, which REALLY makes the parking interesting!) Inside, the music runs to oldies, the crowd runs to a mix of mostly east-side locals with a smattering of tourists, and the decor runs to Memphis-chic, with images of Elvis, the city, and awards on the wall. Here, wet ribs are hand-basted with a sweet, almost tangy sauce, while the dry version is loaded with a slightly tongue-searing mixture of herbs and spices. Bread, beans and slaw come with rib plates, offered in full and half racks. (901-685-9744, 800-926-7597)
You'll get a huge bang for your buck at this family-run restaurant, located in a strip mall that has admittedly seen better days, just outside of downtown in a neighborhood that has also seen better days. What's missing in ambiance is more than made up for by the food, however. Served on paper plates and set on plastic tablecloths, barbecue comes in the form of baby back ribs, regular ribs and sandwiches. But the piece de resistance is and house specialty is the scrumptious Cornish game hen. Smoky and spicy, this isn't so much barbecue as a smoked meat - and is a truly unique taste of Memphis. (901-527-9158)
Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Q
There's a huge menu at Interstate - and this long-time favorite does a brisk business for lunch and dinner, whether at the take-out counter, the dining room or the drive-thru. Interstate is a down-home spot where the wood is stacked outside and ready to fire up the pits, and you can order in one room at the counter for take-away, or sit down to a full meal in the dining room. There's wide variety on the menu,including pork and beef ribs, hash, chicken, bologna, hot wings and even spaghetti -- yep, all barbecued. Service is super-fast and friendly, and the family recipe for barbecue sauce is outstanding. (901-775-2304)
Located in a century-old former country store in downtown Germantown, the Germantown Commissary serves some of the best barbecue around in the tiny building it calls home. At certain times, you may even have to yell your order to the waiter - literally; the restaurant is adjacent to the train tracks, which are busy night and day. While the barbecue is the main attraction, veer off the usual path and try the smoked sausage or pork tamales; tamales are actually a staple in Mississippi and served quite frequently around Memphis. Be sure to save room for homemade desserts, which are reason enough to wait in line - including coconut cream pie and banana pudding. (901-754-5540)
One & Only BBQ & More
With locations in two small spaces in two upscale East Memphis neighborhoods, One & Only feels more like a charming boutique restaurant instead of a barbecue joint. But don't be fooled by the lush appearances - wrought iron tables outside, a beautiful chalkboard menu inside full of tantalizing possibilities, and a well-heeled clientele. The 'cue is the real deal here, with the meat marinated for at least 24 hours, then slow cooked at 225-degrees. Ribs are offered dry or wet, while pork shoulder is pulled or chopped - your choice. There's also smoked turkey, chicken and sausage offered, as well as a huge variety of sides, from the usual suspects like beans and slaw to sweet potato fries, a mustard potato salad and even fresh fruit. Homemade desserts - including a baked banana pudding with a meringue top, whipped up by the owner's wife - are worth the extra calories. (901-751-3615)
The Bar-B-Q Shop
It's all about the sauce at the Vernon family's Bar-B-Q Shop. The award-winning, vinegar-based sauces come in hot or mild -- and both fulfill that perfect balance of just-right thickness and smoky flavor. It doesn't get any better than a load of the mild sauce covering the top of a rack of dry seasoned ribs - a killer combination of smoky, tangy and hot. Dinner plates come with beans, slaw and Texas toast (but you can add barbecue spaghetti for $3.95); brisket and polish sausage are also on the menu - and there's a surprising amount of beef on the menu. (901-272-1277)
Nothing about Payne's - from the gritty neighborhood location to the cinder-block exterior to the dark interior - endears one -- but as my mamma used tosay, appearances can be deceiving. Once inside the old gas station, you meet Mrs. Payne and her son - who both man the counter, the old stove (where a pot of the best beans around simmers) and the pit - you won't care about the no-frills atmosphere. They serve up what is our favorite pork sandwich in the entire city - the perfect combination of a bit of crisp on the outer layer, a tender inner layer, and a sweet tang tang that comes from either the sauce or the slaw - we're not sure. Piled high on a bun, this sandwich is big enough to split and about as close to pig perfection as it gets. Do ask for a serving of beans - so good that even those who aren't bean fans - like yours truly - will sing Mama Payne's praises. (901-272-1523)
Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous
One local politico lovingly calls this Memphis favorite "ambrosia of pork" -but locals simply call it the 'Vous. Charlie Vergos started this Memphis landmark in 1948 - selling pork sandwiches and coleslaw on the street, eventually opening this one and only location tucked into a downtown alley. The best bets on the menu are the sausage and cheese plates, barbeque nachos and full slabs of ribs; the waitstaff can be brusque but don't take it personally - they are simply trying to get everyone served in the cavernous basement that is the main dining area. On any given night, the restaurant overflows with a combination of locals and tourists; upstairs, if there's not a private party, there's a simple bar and waiting area - and be prepared to wait. If there is a private party, don't be surprised if the waiting room is actually the alley; in either case, keep your ear out to hear your name called over the tinny microphone. (901-523-2746, 888-464-7359)
Central is one of our favorites, thanks to the huge patio that's open during fine weather (often with a band tucked into the corner), the homemade potato chips with bleu cheese dressing, which our table of six agreed recently were the work of the devil, they're so delicious, or maybe it's just the atmosphere - fun and funky, with that aroma of smoking meat wafting from the pit. The magic numbers for Central are 250 (as in degrees) and 14 (the number of hours meat is cooked). The pork is always tender, the ribs have just the right balance of crust on top and moisture inside. Probably our favorite dish is the pork barbecue nachos, which feature a two cheeses - the melt-y nacho cheese down under, then a layer of pulled pork, then shredded cheese on top. Y-U-M. Central's patio is always hopping, and many times there's a band on Friday nights, or Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The beer selection focuses on local brews like Ghost River, and the staff - from the counter help to the food runners - are super-friendly. A second location is further east, at 4375 Summer Avenue. (901-272-9377)
About Sally Walker Davies
Sally Walker Davies is enchanted by Memphis' music, history, and characters. From the artsy South Main Historic District to the grittiness of her favorite live music clubs to the sophisticated style of the eastern edge of the city, there’s a Memphis for every mood, and she loves every part of it. Walker Davies is an experienced broadcast, print, and online journalist focusing on travel, writing for the Commercial Appeal, AOL Travel, BudgetTravel.com, and The Tennessean. She is the author of Tennessee: An Explorer’s Guide and the Elvis-themed travel app King Me: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Royalty Tour.
Read more about Sally Walker Davies here.