I was born in Memphis and I've lived here my entire life. Any visitor's guide will tell you the most famous restaurants and those that have been featured on the Food Network, but I've compiled a list of truly local establishments that are native favorites but, for the most part, not well known on the national stage. I'm talking about places that are just as good, if not better than those well known spots. Plus, when you eat at these restaurants, you won't find yourself surrounded by tourists or folks making the pilgrimage to Graceland, but instead you'll be dining with real Memphians.
Southern-Style Breakfast: The Pancake Shop
If you find yourself in East Memphis, my go-to spot is The Pancake Shop. Open 24 hours, this cash-only establishment offers an extensive menu, including all-day breakfast as well as burgers and other Southern favorites. No alcohol, no smoking, good home cooking and a menu that's barely changed over decades (except for minor price increases). Waffle House has more than 2,100 locations, but there's only one Pancake Shop.
I like to celebrate my local upbringing with country ham steak ($4.65) and a small order of grits ($1.35) alongside the requisite short stack of pancakes ($3.95). Most people from outside the South don't get a chance to enjoy country ham prepared properly. It needs to be soaked in water for a few hours before pan-frying it, otherwise it will be like trying to gnaw through prosciutto that's a quarter inch thick. Grits are, of course, a staple of the region, and while I enjoy them with spruced up with cheese and shrimp, all you need for a Memphis breakfast is a healthy dollop of butter along with salt and pepper.
Most folks go with the special combos, which get you a mountain of food. Even with a 20% tip you can get out of there for under $10. Spring a little for the fancy blueberry or walnut pancakes, and it's still one of the best bargains in town that's always there for you when you need it. Grab a booth and you'll be surrounded by friendly locals any time of the day or night.
Freshly Roasted Coffee: Republic Coffee
Here in the South, we get our caffeine mostly from sweet tea and Coke. (Just about any carbonated beverage is referred to as a "Coke" in this part of the country. Waitress: "What would you like to drink?" Me: "I'll have a Coke." Waitress: "What kind?" Me: "7-Up.") Coffee has always been around, but over the past two decades, we've embraced more complex espresso drinks.
I'm a big fan of Republic Coffee, which opened in 2003. Located near the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library (the main public library in the city), Republic offers indoor and outdoor seating with a full coffee menu, as well as a range of snacks and sandwiches. Because everything in this town has to have an Elvis reference, one sandwich is named The King ($8); it's a smoked chicken sandwich with chipotle barbecue sauce and homemade coleslaw on a toasted ciabatta roll. We'll put barbecue sauce on anything, but the challenge is achieving a good balance. This sandwich nails the right mix of sweet, savory, smoky, creamy, with just a tinge of gentle heat from the chilies.
Because it is summer and temperatures frequently top 100°F in this swampy part of the Mid-South, I recommend the iced dark coffee with no sweetener, which is refreshing as well as invigorating. A lot of iced coffee has been sitting around for a while and tastes stale, but this one is always fresh. All the coffee beans are roasted on site. You won't see special designs in the foam on top of your cappuccino, but you will get a great brew made by someone who cares about the subject. The coffee shop is also beloved by local artists, so while you're there be sure to take a look at the work featured on the walls.
Best Burger: Huey's
You can grab the best burger in Memphis at Huey's. The meat is custom ground for the restaurant by Charlie's Meat Market. The blend is a company secret, but the griddled burger is a good 3/4-inch thick. The fries are thick-cut and there's always a dill pickle spear hiding in your basket.
Huey's was an early pioneer in the Memphis burger scene with interesting buns, cheeses, and topping choices years before major burger companies decided to start upping their game. I go with the Bluff City Burger ($7.25) with smoked cheddar, onion straws, barbecue sauce, and the other goodies on a Kaiser roll. It's one hearty burger that isn't overwhelmed by any one ingredient.
While you're waiting for your burger, feel free to write on the walls, booths, and pretty much anything that isn't nailed down. You can also take the frilled toothpicks and a straw so that you can blowgun dart the toothpicks into the drop ceiling tiles. (It was fun as a kid and continues to amuse me today.)
Dry and Wet Ribs: The Bar-B-Q Shop
A lot of people come to Memphis and want to know if they should go to Corky's or Rendezvous. Both are established institutions, but locals tend to hit other places so we don't have to wait in line. One great example is The Bar-B-Q Shop in Midtown, which I first discovered thanks to their super-hot Dancing Pigs Bar-B-Que Sauce that began appearing in local grocery stores. (Milder sauces and dry rubs are available for those who aren't into heat.)
The dry vs. wet ribs debate is one that has split this city long before I was born and will continue long after I'm gone. Both are smoked for hours, but dry ribs are caked with a generous layer of sugar, salt, and other spices. These are a true local style but often confuse outsiders who expect their ribs to be dripping in sauce. Wet ribs are smoked more or less naked (mopped with vinegar, and seasoned simply) and then finished with sauce before serving (otherwise the sugary sauce will turn to carbon in the smoker). These are much messier, but more popular on the national stage.
I grew up in a mixed family—Mom prefers wet ribs with a sweet sauce and Dad enjoys a complex dry rub. I prefer to not take sides, so I get my Regular Rib Order ($13.95) served half and half. But that rosy smoke ring on the edge of the ribs demonstrates a real attention to proper pork smoking. The ribs are as good as anything you'll get at Corky's or The Rendezvous, but you won't have to wait in a long line to get in. You can also get Rib Tips, which are the ragged end pieces of the ribs.
Barbecue Sandwich: Three Little Pigs
There's more to Memphis barbecue than just ribs. The barbecue sandwich is another local favorite, featuring chopped, sliced, or pulled pork shoulder on a bun. Three Little Pigs smokes their pork shoulders for over 20 hours, and the Regular Bar-B-Q Sandwich ($3.29) is served in the traditional Memphis style, with a sweet molasses and tomato based sauce with cole slaw. I always hit mine with some extra hot sauce for an an added kick.
Three Little Pigs also offers dinner packs for takeout. Instead of individually packaged meals, you get pounds of meat, a bag of buns, a quart of beans, a quart of slaw, and sauce.
Cupcakes: Muddy's Bake Shop
It was in 2010 when I had my first taste of Muddy's cupcakes. I had resisted the cupcake craze, but was easily converted by these beautifully sculpted offerings. They are moist and the icing tastes freshly made instead of like it just came out of a can.
While the shop offers a wide and constantly changing menu of cupcakes, the most famous is the Prozac ($2.00), chocolate cake topped with chocolate buttercream icing and a dusting of sprinkles that, I'm assured, don't violate the patents of pharmaceutical manufacturer Eli Lilly. The shop is a fun and relaxing space that is within walking distance of a movie theater, a Whole Foods, and several great restaurants.
Beale St. Bar: Silky O'Sullivan's
Silky O'Sullivan's was founded in 1992, but it feels like it's been around forever. The owner, Silky, died a year ago, but he was quite a character. The bon vivant made himself an unofficial ambassador to Ireland and even brought back goats that have their own little habitat and climbing tower right on historic Beale Street. That partly explains why the bar is a fusion of Irish, New Orleans, and Memphis elements, and is most famous for The Diver ($18), a secret cocktail served in a gallon bucket with multiple straws. My best guess involves vodka, rum, beer, wine, and various fruit mixers—basically the sort of trash can punch famous from frat parties. Considering the price, I seriously doubt any top shelf liquor is in the mix. While fun, the regular cocktails are far superior.
The food is quite good at Silky O'Sullivan, and as I get older I find that I enjoy stopping in for a boozy brunch, starting with a Hurricane ($9) and the Memphis BBQ Benedict ($7.95). The latter combines French bread, pulled smoked pork, poached eggs, and Hollandaise sauce. There's really no better way to sum up Memphis. We'll put pulled pork in anything.
Late Night Haunted Bar: Ernestine & Hazel's
If you find yourself downtown late at night and want to get away from Beale Street (everybody needs a break), hop down Main Street and visit Earnestine & Hazel's. It's open until 3 a.m. downstairs—you can grab a PBR and listen to the haunted jukebox (which some claim has a mind of its own), or you can go upstairs for live music. When you get hungry, grab a famous Soul Burger ($6) with cheese, lots of onions, pickles, and a bag of chips. These are greasy little burgers smashed flat on a hot griddle in the 1950s fast food style. Bring cash.
Earnestine & Hazel's has previously been a pharmacy, a brothel, and many other things over the years as downtown Memphis has gone through its ups and downs. As it currently stands, the decor and furnishings are leftover from the 70s. Don't expect local microbrews or a lengthy vegetarian and gluten-free menu. Enjoy a cold brew, listen to the music, and chat with the bartender for stories. If you're interested in ghosts, tours are available. You won't forget the experience.
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