If you’re looking for down-home, finger-licking, need-lots-of-napkins barbecue, Memphis is certainly one of the first cities that comes to mind. The town’s “Memphis in May” celebration features one of most famous of all barbecue competitions in the free world.
We were in town on a cold winter’s evening and decided to heat things up with some authentic Memphis-style ribs. Probably the most well-known barbecue restaurant in Memphis is Rendezvous–that’s the one the tourists go to after they visit Graceland and the bars of Beale Street. Rendezvous has lots of charm for sure, staffed by servers who’ve been there forever and never feel the need write anything down while you’re placing your order.
But we were accompanied by some locals who steered us to Central BBQ, home of, in their opinion, the best barbecue in Memphis. Central has two locations. We dined at their smaller location on Central Avenue.
It’s a bit of a dive, honestly, with well-worn wooden booths and tables inside that somehow adds to the authentic “barbecue joint” atmosphere. There are also some wooden picnic tables on the patio outside. With the temperature in the 30’s, we opted for indoor seating.
You place your order at the counter up front, where it can get pretty cramped when things are busy. The menu is pretty varied for a barbecue joint, even including choices like salads and portabella sandwiches. But let’s face it, you come here to indulge in some meat–slow-smoked, Memphis-style. Central does pork, beef, turkey, chicken, smoked sausage and even bologna.
My partner and I chose the delicately-named Slab for Two, a foot-long slab of pork ribs which comes with your choice of four sides including BBQ beans, french fries, slaw, mac-n-cheese, greens, potato salad or home-cooked potato chips. It’s all served up in plastic baskets, and comes with fresh-baked rolls as well.
Wet or Dry?
At Central BBQ, they rub the ribs with a special “rib rub,” then they’re dry marinated overnight and slow smoked for hours. You can choose wet or dry ribs. We selected the wet-style ribs. (You can also mix half-and-half wet/dry.) These ribs were tender, meaty, well-seasoned and out-of-this-world. The sauce complemented the meat beautifully without overpowering the pork ribs flavor. The meat pulled easily off the bone and practically melted in our mouths.
The fries were hot and crisp and the BBQ beans had generous chunks of meat and a savory barbecue twang. Central also offers a wide variety of beverages, including many domestic and imported beers on tap or by the bottle.
Classic rhythm and blues rocked the house on the night we were there, broadcast from a satellite radio station, I believe. An old-fashioned jukebox was part of the decor, but was unused while we were there.
Our recommendation: if you’re planning a trip to visit Elvis or listen to some blues on Beale Street, try to make a trip to Central BBQ part of your Memphis itinerary. Unless you’re a vegetarian.
You can visit their website if you’d like to learn more about their operation.