Porky Pleasure: Memphis Barbecue


Besides Graceland, there is another kind of Memphis excess that likewise should not be passed up. Lots of barbecue. Pig transformed into mountains of succulent ribs and sandwiches. No matter where you turn, you’re bound to run into a barbecue joint, the pungent, alluring aroma of meat slow-cooking over wood like a siren’s call to destroy disciplined diets.

Pig Sandwich

Memphis’ barbecued pork sandwich, known in these parts as pig sandwich, was first introduced back in the early ’20s at Leonard’s Pit Barbecue. Leonard Neuberger constructed a sandwich of chopped smoked pork shoulder, a big scoop of coleslaw and a sweet-tart tomato-based sauce. Unfortunately, because Leonard’s was far from downtown and only open for lunch throughout our stay, we weren’t able to get there.

Germantown Commissary

We were driving into the Memphis area rather late. We wanted to have dinner before checking in to our hotel. With the sun setting, we were still on I-40 when I saw the offramp for Germantown. I had on my list one of the highly regarded barbecue restaurants around Memphis called Germantown Commissary. Germantown is a well-to-do suburb of Memphis. When we got to the restaurant, parking was impossible. The lot only has spots for no more than a dozen cars. There was also non-existent street parking. Only after I circled around three times did a spot open up. Inside, there was a wait list (20 minutes). This is a very popular restaurant, even on Monday nights. Their motto: “So good y’ull slap yo mama!”

One of Germantown Commissary dining rooms

One of Germantown Commissary dining rooms

I ordered the BBQ Shoulder Sandwich, about which food critic Michael Stern wrote, “It would be a crime to come to the Commissary and NOT have pulled pork.” Adding a scoop of cole slaw, barbecued beans and deviled egg gets you the Sandwich Plate. You can have the pork chopped or pulled (default). The shredded pork didn’t have a lot of pork flavor, but it was moist. The sauce was a tad on the sweet side. An overall good sandwich (☆☆½), but not particularly memorable.

BBQ pork shoulder sandwich

BBQ pork shoulder sandwich

Interstate Bar-B-Que

Obtaining a #2 rating in a national barbecue survey conducted by People Magazine seems a mighty accomplishment, but it was done in 1989. The writer traveled throughout the country in search of the best. That was 26 years ago. I’d venture to say that a lot has changed in the national barbecue scene since then. Even so, Interstate comes up in BBQ conversations as one of Memphis’ outstanding restaurants. After a full day of exploring downtown Memphis on foot, we made it over to Interstate for dinner before heading back to the hotel.

Interstate Bar-B-Que

Interstate Bar-B-Que

Their pig sandwich is chopped pork shoulder. Cole slaw, when it’s ordered, is put at the bottom of the sandwich. The meat is piled high and has good pork flavor. Interstate’s sauce is justifiably famous, not too sweet, tart and complex, with flavors of cumin and herbs. It’s impossible to pick the sandwich up to eat it without falling apart under its own weight. I enjoyed this more than Commissary’s. A very fine pig sandwich. (☆☆☆½)

Barbecued pork shoulder sandwich

Barbecued pork shoulder sandwich

Barbecued Ribs

Eating in Memphis would not be complete without barbecued ribs. The city is known both for its “wet” and “dry” styles. The “wet” versions use a sweet-tart tomato-based sauce, which can be applied before, during and after cooking. For “dry” ribs, spices and salt are rubbed on before cooking and served without sauce. Rib aficionados have their hotly defended preference.

Central BBQ

This place was under my radar. The first I heard of it was as a lunch stopover on a Memphis city tour, which, in my mind, was not necessarily an endorsement as such. Then, on our bus tour, the driver Willie told passengers that Central was his favorite BBQ joint. We went there on our lunch break.

Central BBQ

Central BBQ

The ribs were so tender, they broke apart just looking at them. I could easily cut the meat between the ribs with a butter knife. Trying to take a small bite likely as not would pull a big section of meat away from the bone. Here too are two different schools about how tender ribs should be, the other being that they should provide good chew and not pull away from the bone that easily. The sauce had the perfect balance of sweet and tart. These were the best BBQ ribs we’ve ever had. Oh, my! (☆☆☆☆)

Central BBQ's ribs

Central BBQ’s ribs

Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous

This restaurant has gotten so popular that locals refer to it simply as The Rendezvous. Our city tour guide mentioned it but added that his personal preference was “wet” ribs. Memphians have been customers for 77 years. The Rendezvous specializes in “dry” ribs, spices and herbs rubbed on them and cooked directly over charcoal, rather than slow-smoked over wood. This gives their ribs a chewier texture. The place is hard to find. Although the address is on 2nd Street, the entrance is actually in an alley between Monroe and Union. Furthermore, the restaurant is downstairs in a basement.

Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous

Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous

I was surprised at how well I loved these ribs. While regular and spicy barbecue sauces are in squeeze bottles at the table, the ribs need no embellishment, rather a nice change from “wet” ribs. They arrive at the table with a crusty dry rub exterior and sitting in a pool of vinegar, which is a surprisingly good accompaniment. Although these weren’t the tenderest of ribs, I could still cut between the bones with a plastic knife. These are ribs worth sinking your teeth into. (☆☆☆☆)

The Rendezvous' pork ribs

The Rendezvous’ pork ribs

Interstate Bar-B-Que

Interstate’s ribs are not as tender as Central’s nor as fatty. But that doesn’t mean theirs is sub-standard, because they are good. And like the pig sandwich, the sauce is just right, a little spicy, just sweet enough and tart. (☆☆☆)

Interstate Bar-B-Cue's pork ribs

Interstate Bar-B-Cue’s pork ribs

Conclusions

Memphis does have some fine barbecue joints. The ribs have been consistently good. And while the pig sandwiches have been good, I’ve decided I’m not a big fan of them. Being on a consistent barbecue diet gets old fast, even if done in the spirit of “research.”

Shipping

A service that all four restaurants offers is shipping. This is made possible largely because both FedEx and UPS are headquartered in Memphis. Our city tour guide Willie related a rumor that the two giants were in merger talks. The new company would be called FedUp. (He was joking, of course.)

Central BBQ
147 E Butler Ave
Memphis, TN 38103
901.672.7760

Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous
52 S. 2nd St.
Memphis, TN 38103
901.523.2746

Germantown Commissary
2290 S Germantown Rd
Germantown, TN 38138
901.754.5540

Interstate Bar-B-Cue
2265 S. Third St.
Memphis, TN 38109
901.775.2304

 

Advertisements

Santa Maria-Style BBQ at Far Western Tavern (Orcutt, CA)


For the past several years, it was a goal of mine to sample barbecued beef in the Santa Maria Valley along California’s Central Coast. But, the opportunity never came for one reason or another during the long drives between Seattle and Los Angeles. Either the timing was not right or we were in a hurry to get somewhere else. That would change today as we were headed out of L.A. en route to Monterey and we would be in the valley around lunchtime.

Why Santa Maria-style barbecue isn’t as well known as its Midwestern or Southern cousins is not clear. Maybe a lot has to do with what Americans envision as being quintessential barbecue—meats slow-cooked or smoked and slathered with sauce. The valley did not start out its tradition with pork, by far the preferred meat for American grills. Instead, it was and still is beef, these days typically top sirloin and tri-tip, rubbed with salt, pepper and garlic powder, then cooked over flaming red oak, which is abundant along California’s Central Coast. There is no barbecue sauce. Because of its beginnings in the old days of California’s rancheros and vaqueros, essential parts of the barbecue tradition are beans and salsa that evolved with their distinct regional styles. Salsas are more mild, tempered by the Europeans who moved into the area, and the beans are made with pinquitos that are native to the Santa Maria Valley.

I began to wonder early on if some unseen force was trying to prevent me from completing my mission. My choice was Roundup Market in Santa Ynez (in the middle of the Chumash Indian reservation), a short drive north of Santa Barbara. We drove up to shuttered doors and a “for sale” sign. It must’ve closed for good sometime in 2014. Not to worry because Hitching Post II was not far away in Buellton. We pulled up, only to find out from an employee that it opens only for dinner. Next, we headed for Far Western Tavern in Santa Maria in the heart of where the first barbecue restaurants opened in the 1950s. We were flustered when all we saw were a Jack in the Box and car wash on the corner where our GPS took us. Fortunately, a local told us where it was actually located in Old Town Orcutt, just blocks west. Another rare time that our Garmin failed us. All of this rigmarole took a good hour.

Far Western Tavern is one of three, legendary restaurants (Hitching Post and Jocko’s being the others) that started serving Santa Maria-style barbecued meats in the late 1950s, to commercialize the long tradition of what before was cooked only at social gatherings and fund raisers, much like huli huli chicken in Hawaii. The Santa Maria Elks were the primary practitioners of this mobile form of cooking (fire pits on wheels). Far Western Tavern moved a few years ago to Santa Maria from Guadalupe, a small town about 10 miles west of Santa Maria, and home to La Simpatia that our waiter Emmanuel claimed serves the best, most authentic Mexican food in the valley. What a coincidence, for we ate there in 2009, at which time the tavern must’ve still been located there.

The restaurant is very large. At the front is the bar. Toward the back is the more formal dining area, though it has a distinct western decor, including mounted steer horns, dark wood paneling and furnishings covered in cowhide. The menu is pricey, what one expects at a good steakhouse nowadays. This is a far cry from the informality of neighborhood cookouts and Elks fund-raisers where I suspect the prices are more down-to-earth. At lunchtime at least, a steak sandwich lets you try the Santa Maria-style in more affordable fashion.

Far Western Tavern bar

Far Western Tavern bar

As it was, our Rancher (☆☆☆), an 8-oz. ‘cowboy cut’ top sirloin sandwich, which we split with a nice, classic Caesar salad, was still $20. A basket of complimentary house-made potato chips was served. I made the mistake of ordering the steak ‘medium,’ when I should’ve asked for medium-rare. The steak was nicely seasoned and tasty but a bit dry with no pink in the center. There was none of the succulence that made these steaks famous. A rib-eye sandwich was also on the lunch menu, but I was determined to sample the ‘classic’ cut. The bread was the traditional slice of grilled garlic French bread, dipped in butter.

Complimentary house-made potato chips

Complimentary house-made potato chips

The Rancher, served with salsa and soup of the day (tomato-basil)

No Santa Maria barbecue would be complete without pinquito beans. Small and flavorful in their own right, they have the remarkable ability to maintain firmness and plumpness through long cooking times. FWT’s beans are simply prepared with water, bacon and ‘pinquito seasoning,’ which means a propriety blend. The beans might seem bland when compared to traditional barbecued beans, but their straightforwardness complemented the steak nicely.

Pinquito beans

Pinquito beans

In the future, we’d like to pass through the area on a weekend when the cookouts happen and enjoy the barbecue as it was meant to be experienced, in the outdoors and a community setting.

Far Western Tavern
300 E Clark Ave
Old Town Orcutt (Santa Maria), CA
805.937.2211

Barbecue Choice at The Boar’s Nest (Seattle, WA)


It has been getting warmer in Seattle. Warm weather tends to stimulate my appetite for barbecue. Only a few blocks from my daughter’s condo, maybe The Boar’s Nest would fit the bill.

BBQ sauces at every table

BBQ sauces at every table

Opened in 2011, The Boar’s Nest specializes in pulled pork and ribs, though there are also chicken and links on the menu. Looking through the Yelp reviews, I gather that beef brisket used to be offered, but is no longer. The two guys who run it are from Tennessee, thereby laying claim to a pedigree of Southern cooks who churn out some of the nation’s best barbecue, the Midwest being the other region. So, what regional style does The Boar’s Nest adhere to? None, it seems, though a diner could reasonably expect Memphis. The pulled pork sandwich does come topped with cole slaw. Instead, the restaurant offers a choice of eight different barbecue sauces, running the gamut of the barbecue belt (Kansas City, Memphis, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Alabama and Kentucky, with a house-made roasted habañero tossed in for good measure). The meats are slow-roasted only with a dry rub; the customer chooses the sauce. At each table, five of them are in squeeze bottles, a worn-out outline of the state identifying each (except the habañero); the other three (North Carolina, Alabama and Kentucky) are presumably available when ordering.

Sides include not only the standard slaw, fries (including sweet potato), baked beans and collard greens, but also a couple of unusual items: fried pickles and fried mac and cheese.

Several meats can be had as sandwiches—pulled pork, fried chicken, smoked sausage and links. I decided on the pulled pork plate, which includes cornbread, Texas toast and a choice of any two sides. I had to try the pickles and mac & cheese to satisfy my curiosity.

As I was waiting for my order to be served, I sampled each of the five sauces in the squeeze bottles. Overall, I preferred the KC.

South Carolina — mustardy and sweet with a bite
Texas — very sweet and tangy, tomatoey
Memphis — spicy, mildly sweet, tangy, a little heavy on dried thyme
Kansas City — sweet, vinegary
Habañero — spicy, fruity, balanced

Lunch arrived on a tray with generous portions of everything, clearly more than I’d be able to finish at one sitting.

Pulled Pork Plate with fried pickles and fried mac & cheese

Pulled Pork Plate with fried pickles and fried mac & cheese

Let’s start with the sides. Who ever thought of frying dill pickles? They were pleasant enough (☆☆½), crispy from cornmeal batter, tangy, boosted by dipping them in the remoulade, served in a little plastic tub. The fried mac and cheese was unremarkable (☆☆), big balls of fried cheesy pasta that are just crunchier versions of the popular combo. There was little cheese flavor. As many a Yelp reviewer opined, the cornbread was flavorless (☆½). The pulled pork was smoky and moist, oddly watery (☆☆½). It didn’t outdo Stan’s version closer to home on the Eastside.

The Boar’s Nest wants to appeal to a broad range of BBQ preferences. I’m not sure this is a good strategy because barbecuing in the States is so regionally specific, encompassing several kinds of meat and cooking styles. It’s easier to get away with it here in the Pacific Northwest far removed from the meccas.

The Boar’s Nest
2008 NW 56th St
Seattle, WA 98107
206.973.1970