"While the Flyer's description of Payne's sandwich as 'distinctive' and 'bold' is spot-on, I'd like to add another adjective to the list: 'perfect.'"
1762 Lamar Avenue, Memphis TN 38114 (map); 901-272-1523 Closed Sundays and Mondays
Payne's Bar-B-Q, a family operation that has been in business since 1972, serves some of the best pork barbecue in Memphis, if not the country. The fact that the first thing on my mind whenever I enter Memphis is a Payne's sandwich is no minor detail. When most people I know think of Memphis barbecue, images of ribs come to mind. From the infamous, charcoal-cooked, dry-rubbed rack at Rendezvous to the smoked, sauce-slathered racks at Corky's, the pork rib figures prominently in this barbecue capital's delicious mission statement.
The barbecue sandwich, however, is just as important to the Memphis barbecue experience. Slow-smoked pork shoulder, pulled, sliced, or chopped, topped with red barbecue sauce and stuffed into a bun with a scoop of slaw, is always an option in this town. In fact, the broad range of eats available at Memphis barbecue joints is one of its strengths.
While a tour through North Carolina's sacred barbecue counties would bring you to some of the best pulled pork in the world, you'd be hard pressed to turn down the next cross street in Lexington and pull up to a similarly great rack of ribs. That Memphis shows love for both icons is a barbecue blessing.
Payne's stands near the corner of Lamar Avenue and S. McLean Blvd. Despite being just a few blocks away from the historic and hip Cooper-Young district, this is not a happening location. Recommendations to check out Payne's often come with some kind of hushed warning against showing up after sundown; during the day, though, cars of all types are constantly rounding this lonely corner for a taste. It's a motif of the barbecue world.
In its recent ranking of Memphis barbecue sandwiches, The Memphis Flyer awards Payne's chopped pork rendition the second place title. While the Flyer's description of Payne's sandwich as "distinctive" and "bold" is spot-on, I'd like to add another adjective to their list: "perfect."
The Paynes' smoked pork shoulder makes its own case for my exaggeration. Chopped into a coarse mixture of moist meat and crisp, chewy outside brown, the barbecue in this sandwich has a more adventurous texture than most. Payne's hot barbecue sauce—a thin, tangy, and spicy red—fleshes out the savory taste of the meat without masking its hint of smoke. The neon yellow, mustard-based slaw that sits atop ups the ante on the sauce with a great sweet-and-sour crunch, and the nondescript hamburger bun that's mainly there to sop up sandwich innards is simply classic.
Flora Payne and her son, Ron, who now run the business founded by Horton Payne and his mother, Emily, also smoke pork ribs, sausage links and bologna. I have yet to try any of those dishes because every bite of their sandwich, plopping bits of pork and slaw all over the plate to the sound of cleavers on the kitchen counter, is too good for me to order anything else when I walk back up to the counter for seconds.
About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.