It’s no surprise that I am a huge fan of Texas barbecue – after all it is where I live. I also love trying the many styles of barbecue from other regions. So I was very excited when we took a family road trip last week to Tennessee to spend Thanksgiving with family. On the way, we spent a couple days in Memphis – and I was absolutely stoked to try Memphis-style barbecue in Memphis (I’ve tried the Corky’s chain in Houston a couple times – but wanted to get the real deal in the actual city of origin). I was hopeful to try Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous (given its iconic status), but our schedule did not allow for that. So instead we got to experience Central BBQ. And I am happy to report that it was a great experience – not perfect, but outstanding.
We went to the original Central BBQ downtown location just a few blocks south of Beale Street on E. Butler, and literally right across the street from the Lorraine Motel, sadly made famous on April 4, 1968 as the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. As a side note, the National Civil Rights Museum, located there as well, is a museum that is well worth visiting.
I couldn’t choose between dry and wet ribs, so I ordered half-and-half of the world-famous Memphis ribs. Both the dry-rub and the wet ribs were exceptional. All their smoked meat undergoes a beautiful smoke bath of both hickory and pecan, two of my favorite smoking woods. And the dry rub they use is phenomenal. I actually took the liberty of turning part of my wet-rub ribs into “muddy ribs”, much like what I have enjoyed at Corky’s. Central BBQ came from the roots of competition barbecue – starting in the 1980s at the world famous Memphis in May barbecue competition – so it was no surprise that their ribs were outstanding — perfectly smoked with well-rendered fat, a fantastic chewy bark and great smoky flavor. Available to all of their smoked meat is a variety of different barbecue sauces – their original mild sauce, plus a hot version, a South Carolina-inspired mustard sauce, and an eastern Carolina-style vinegar-based sauce. I am a big sauce fan – and enjoyed all four. All of these complemented the smoked meats very well. That brings me to the other smoked meats we tried. My wife had the pulled pork, which was very good. It was served without any sauce at all. The unsauced flavor was good. But of course it was improved by the variety of sauces. And my daughter, being the true Texan that she is, ordered brisket. It was a fine example of Memphis lean brisket – but it was not impressive for us Texans. So I’ll stick with pork in Memphis. The sides were a mixed bag. I had an order of pork skins, which were absolutely exceptional – maybe the best I’ve ever had, as well as potato salad – which was nothing to write home about. My wife tried the coleslaw and greens. Neither was outstanding or memorable. And my daughter got the mac-n-cheese and french fries. Both were serviceable, but not memorable.
The feel at Central BBQ has a great vibe, very fun and lively – there was a great blues band playing in the attached building. There is plenty of space for the nonstop line of patrons. And there is a wide variety of souvenirs to go – t-shirts, pre-packaged dry rubs, barbecue sauces, etc. I’d go back to Central BBQ again and again. But I’ll always focus on the ribs and probably just skip the sides.