Sunday, April 12, 2009
On our tour of Interstate’s inner workings, I asked Jim Neely about the Bar-B-Q Shop in Midtown. He said it was one of the few places he recommended folks go other than his family’s shops. When you get a positive recommendation from a barbecue owner about another place, you should go. Don’t ask questions, just go.
So that’s what we did, leaving Interstate immediately and heading to Midtown Memphis. The Bar-B-Q Shop has been around for years, and exists as a very well kept secret to folks outside of town. But if you are ever in Memphis, you simply must go there.
As you walk in, you see the interior is full of dark wood and red painted walls, which creates a warm, cozy feel in the place. Then you notice that the wooden benches they use for tables are old church pews. And a close look over to the bar will cause most Catholics to do a double take, as the back of the bar is a converted confessional unit. Absolutely brilliant.
It’s under that backdrop that owner Eric Vernon and family have been serving what I believe is the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten. Eric bought the restaurant from his parents after getting his MBA from the University of Memphis. Unlike some of the owners I met on the tour, Eric was incredibly friendly from the beginning. I told him about what I was doing, and I showed him some of the pictures from the places I had visited. He told us about the history of his restaurant and how he came to owning the place after a venture outside of the family business.
Eric took us on a tour of their pits. They have an old pit up front where they keep some of their meat, and a new Southern Pride smoker in the back that has made life a lot easier for their pitmaster. Eric personally makes all of their sauce by hand, and it’s ridiculously good. He makes hot and regular, and I would caution against taking a heaping tablespoon of the hot before your drinks have arrived (trust me). I tried like hell to get him to tell me what was in the sauce, but he artfully dodged my questions with the ambiguity that would make a White House press secretary proud. Just as he should have.
We ordered half and half ribs and pulled pork, and as I anxiously waited for the food I took my first sip of sweet tea. That’s when I had to cry “uncle” for the first time in 20 years of drinking the sugary, Southern goodness. Most people say that sweet tea isn’t right unless there’s enough sugar to make the spoon stand up in the middle of the glass. At the Bar-B-Shop, the spoon might not even make it through the ice. The outgoing waiter saw my reaction, laughed and generously offered to make me a glass of ½ sweet, ½ unsweet. He explained that many of the regulars love the sweet tea, but a lot of folks take it ½ and ½. The new concoction was perfect, but I must admit I felt a bit of shame at my request.
The food arrived looking like a picture out of a magazine. I went first for a dry rib with a little bit of sauce, and I wanted to fall out of my chair…er, pew. It was the perfect combination of smoke, meat and spice. The dry rub formed a slightly crispy crust that gave way to succulent, smoky goodness. The smoke ring permeated the meat almost to the bone, and the ribs were meaty and delicious. It was barbecue heaven. The wet ribs were also fantastic, but I’m partial to the flavors and texture of the dry ribs with a little bit of sauce.
The pulled pork was phenomenal. It was pure gossamer, the most tender meat I’ve ever put in my mouth. The smoke flavor and spices all worked together to make my stomach forget that this was the second full meal in an hour. Like Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I couldn’t help myself. I had to have more. Luckily JP has a human-size stomach, so I was able to throw down a good portion of his share as well.
There are certain times in life where you find yourself in the presence of greatness. For some it may watching the Northern lights or standing on the beach at sunset. For others it might be seeing their newborn child for the first time. For me that day, it was eating the dry ribs and pulled pork at the Bar-B-Q Shop. Yes, I have a problem.
I bought two t-shirts and promised Eric that I would do my best to steer all of my friends his way. Now that I have seen the light, I can’t imagine ever making a trip to Memphis without visiting the Bar-B-Q shop.
I hope you find your way to this hidden jewel on the Memphis barbecue circuit. Since the tour I have been a second time, and it lived up to the ridiculously high bar that I set for it.