Nearly Everything You Need to Know About Memphis Barbecue

Barbecue, Barbeque, BBQ. Spell it however you wish; Memphis celebrates barbecue and here, it’s all about the taste. Whether it’s a rib shack, a line-out-the-door joint or a favorite of the college crowd, every local has an opinion on the best barbecue in Memphis. Wet or dry, slab or pulled, hot or mild, tangy or sweet?

These are the questions that really matter when you’re talking Memphis barbecue. While the debate rages over taste, there’s a simple recipe for creating the perfect barbecue-eating experience, Memphis-style. 

THE MEAT

The question isn’t which meat – it’s almost always pork here in Memphis (though chicken, beef and even turkey are popular too) – but rather how it’s prepared: pulled and piled high on soft white buns or full slabs of ribs slow-smoked for hours on end. At the iconic Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous (walk from the Peabody Hotel across Union Avenue to the alley to find his basement of barbecue heaven) run by Charlie’s sons, John and Nick, Nick says there’s little doubt that his father’s charcoal-broiled method for ribs works just fine. 

‘Cue at the ‘Vous, as locals call it, is cooked over charcoal, not wood. But the quick and woodless method is the exception in this town. Barbecue kings like Corky’s are all about slow-smoking. Ribs are slow cooked over hickory wood and pork shoulders are hand pulled – the old-fashioned way, as they like to say. 

Don’t miss the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest at Memphis in May, when hundreds of teams compete to be known as grilling greats.

THE RUB OR SAUCE (OR BOTH)

Slabs generally come rubbed with dry spices, each joint having its own secret combination that may (or may not; they’ll never tell) include the following: garlic, onion, chili pepper, black pepper and paprika. Some, like Central BBQ, also sweeten their rubs with brown sugar. Most places actually rub the spices into the meat before cooking. 

Each bastion of barbecue concocts its own sauces as well. Cozy Corner’s hot sauce makes your lips tingle (Try the famous barbecue Cornish game hen slathered in it, if you dare!) Interstate Barbecue’s Jim Neely didn’t have a family recipe to rely on, so he made up his own and doesn’t share the ingredients. But it strikes a nice balance between sweet and tangy. 

THE SIDES & APPETIZERS

Beans, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, greens – those are the throw-down sides for barbecue found just about everywhere in Memphis. Central BBQ offers greens and homemade chips. Corky’s serves up baked beans, coleslaw, potato salad and seasoned fries, while Bar-B-Q Shop serves up barbecue spaghetti. 

A unique barbecue offering found throughout Memphis – even at Redbirds baseball games at AutoZone Park – is barbecue nachos: a combination of pulled pork, melted cheese and barbecue sauce that sounds funky but is downright addictive.