Cornish Game Hen at The Cozy Corner
Cornish game hens are not a common sight at Memphis BBQ restaurants, but The Cozy Corner has made them a specialty. The hens are slow smoked to a juicy tenderness and nearly blackened skin before being dipped in the sweet, glaze-like sauce. Be sure to load up on napkins before tearing into the bird. The Cornish Hen Dinner Plate ($11.75) comes with two sides, and here you'll notice another local curiosity: BBQ spaghetti. Usually this is mixed with pulled pork, but the Cozy Corner serves theirs with just BBQ sauce. It's sweet and spicy and almost always served as a side dish.
Charcoal-Broiled Lamb Riblets at The Rendezvous
The Rendezvous has been a Memphis institution since 1948 when Charlie Vergos started smoking ribs in his small underground diner. That downtown alley now bears his name, and this restaurant has been host to celebrities and presidents for decades. The fame rests on the classic dry rub ribs, but Vergos honored his Greek immigrant parents with a handful of Mediterranean delights on the menu. Try the delightful Charcoal-Broiled Lamb Riblets ($18.75) or the fresh Mama's Real Greek Salad ($8.95) for a little touch of Greece in the South. I particularly love grilling and smoking lamb at home and wish it were more popular around here. (The sign has had a misplaced apostrophe forever, so no angry comments about it below.)
Turkey Tamales at A&R Bar-B-Que
A&R Bar-B-Que is just a couple of miles north of Graceland, the home, museum, and gravesite of Elvis Presley. I stopped here for some Delta Tamales ($1.05 each) which are a local favorite inspired by but divergent from Mexican and Central American tamales. A&R makes theirs with beef and turkey, and they are steamed to perfection with a spicy broth. The leftmost one has been unwrapped and shows the coarse cornmeal outer layer, while the inside is a heavily seasoned, chili-like meat paste. The remaining three on the right are still in their paper wrappers, which are much more common around here than corn husks.
Beef Brisket at Corky's
We used to go to Corky's a good bit when I was a kid, and everyone always got the same thing: Mom got wet ribs and Dad got dry ribs (despite this they've remained married for 40 years), my brother would go for a pulled pork sandwich, and I'd get the brisket. It's still my favorite and also makes for a great sandwich. BBQ brisket is much more of a Texas thing, but you can find a lot of it in Memphis like Corky's Bar-B-Q Beef Brisket Dinner ($10.99). Be sure to order an onion loaf for the table: thinly sliced onion rings that are battered and fried all together in one glorious chunk.
Smoked Turkey at the Germantown Commissary
My buddy Paul was fresh out of the Air Force when he first saw the Germantown Commissary. The name brought back bad memories of terrible military food, but after his first visit he was hooked, and years later he would host his huge friends and family Thanksgiving with smoked turkeys from the tiny little restaurant by the railroad tracks. While the whole ones are only available during the holidays, you can get a delicious smoked turkey sandwich anytime, as well as some of my favorite deviled eggs in the city.
Beef Hot Links at Interstate Barbecue
A lot of people know Pat and Gina Neely from their Food Network show, but the family BBQ dynasty goes back further with Pat's uncle Jim and his restaurant Interstate Barbecue. Here in Memphis a lot of the smaller mom and pop BBQ joints feature a variety of sausages in addition to the pork and chicken and classic sides. At Interstate, I like the Beef Hot Links ($8.50). They take a spicy beef sausage in a snappy casing, smoke it until well cooked, and then slice it and braise it in a rich tomato sauce. A slice or two of white bread and some cold potato salad will cool off your palate before you have to go back to work.
BBQ Tofu Nachos at RP Tracks
RP Tracks is not a BBQ restaurant, but it is a destination for its famous BBQ Tofu Nachos ($8.50). Located on the edge of the University of Memphis campus, the bar has many creative and delicious vegetarian options in addition to your more traditional meaty pub grub. One-inch cubes of firm tofu are gently cooked and tossed in a tangy BBQ sauce before being added to a generous pile of black bean chili and the usual nacho accompaniments. While filling, the overall taste is light and fresh with the individual ingredients shining through rather than just melting into a gloopy mess.
Portabella Mushroom Sandwich and Smoked Jerked Chicken Wings at Central BBQ
Somehow I didn't get to know Midtown's amazing Central BBQ until just a few years ago. I like taking out-of-town guests there because it's convenient to downtown (where a lot of people stay), the food is great, and they are small enough to avoid tons of tourists but big enough to sell beer and be open seven days a week. (The latter two qualifications are often an issue with small shops.) I have to sing the praises of the meatless Portabella Sandwich ($4.99), which uses the Memphis standard of adding coleslaw to a BBQ sandwich, but takes a twist and includes smoked Gouda on top of the mushroom cap. A portabella sandwich also brings back fond memories of my vegetarian phase (1994-1996, RIP). The Smoked Jerked Chicken Wings ($8.99) are also a fantastically aromatic snack without being too hot for those who don't go crazy for hot peppers.
But wait, there's more!
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned the Memphis in May BBQ contest held on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi River. It brings in competitors from all over the world, and my favorite category is "Anything But", meaning anything but pork. The Anything But category has guys smoking or grilling kangaroo, alligator, ostrich, buffalo... If it walks or crawls or swims or flies and isn't an endangered species, it's welcome. I've been a judge at a local church BBQ contest that involved a lot of wild game: geese, ducks, venison, elk, and more, all prepared with a focus on fire and seasoning and proper saucing. You won't find those meats on Memphis restaurant menus, but in addition to the dishes I've profiled here you can enjoy wonderful chicken, shrimp, catfish, oysters and other delights that involve smoke and our savory sweet BBQ sauces. If you're coming to Memphis for work, for pleasure, for music, or for one of the two main Elvis holidays (his birthday and the anniversary of his death), I'd strongly encourage you to explore all of wonderful food available at our local BBQ joints and many other restaurants.