Memphis: The Great Bbq Debate

The smoke still hasn't cleared on Memphis' most satisfying feud

Nick Vergos isn't kidding when he says: "The pig is truly a wonderful animal." As a member of the family behind world-famous Memphis rib joint The Rendezvous, he may be biased. After all, he sells a ton of pork ribs a day. But after touring 10 of Memphis' finest barbecue joints with John Edge, author of the guide to Southern food, The Southern Belly (Hill Street Press, $29.95), I must surely agree. Unlike Texas, where beef brisket rules, in Memphis, pork barbecue is king.

But there's fiery debate about what constitutes quintessential Memphis barbecue. There are wet ribs, made with a mild, sweet barbecue sauce that's basted on the ribs before and after smoking. There are dry-rub ribs, made with a spice rub applied during or right after they've been cooked. And some Memphians insist that Memphis barbecue's highest form is a pulled or chopped pork sandwich topped with sweet, finely chopped coleslaw, served on the most inexpensive hamburger bun to be found. For people who simply can't get enough barbecue, there's even barbecue spaghetti and barbecue pizza.

PORK PRIORITIES. What better way to spend a few days than discovering the city's wide variety of barbecue styles? A good place to stay is the Peabody Hotel (149 Union Ave., 1-800-PEABODY). You can also check out the newly opened Memphis Rock `N' Soul Museum or take in the kitschy pleasures of Elvis Presley's Memphis mansion Graceland.

To my mind, though, nothing can compete with the barbecue. Memphis has hundreds of barbecue joints, but there are five that no visitor should miss. First on the list is Cozy Corner, opened in 1977 in a nondescript North Memphis shopping center by Raymond Robinson, a former electrician at Martin Marietta. Robinson can still be seen most days sitting on a stool tending to his smoker and meat. "Just like a doctor," he says, "I'm still practicing." Robinson's dry rub permeates his crunchy ribs, chopped shoulder, and, most impressively, his cornish game hens. But aficionados of Cozy Corner especially favor the rib ends, which are deliciously charred and smoky.

The city's most famous dry-rub place is surely the Rendezvous Room, or the 'Vous, as the locals call it. Don't expect an intimate eating experience: The restaurant serves 10,000 meals a week in what feels like a college beer joint. Located down an alley 50 feet from the Peabody Hotel, the 'Vous was started by Greek immigrant Charlie Vergos in 1948 and is now run by his sons Nick and John. The ribs here aren't smoked but grilled for an hour over charcoal at 300 degrees in a grilling box. No seasoning or sauce is applied until the ribs are done. Then they're sprinkled with a vinegar-and-water mix and coated with a dry rub. The result is an intensely seasoned taste redolent of paprika, cumin, cayenne pepper, and oregano.

MEMPHIS ON A BUN. Lolis Eric Elie, author of Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country (North Point Press, $25 paperback), told me I had to try the chopped pork sandwich at the Big "S" Grill, a dark local bar where J.C. Hardaway functions as cook, pitmaster, waiter, and busboy. Hardaway cooks his pork shoulders eight at a time on a hinged oil drum fired by hickory and oak. His sandwich is a pork sandwich paragon--equal parts charred and tender pork bits, topped by terrific coleslaw. The key to his barbecue? "No secrets. It's my hands," he says, putting them up to the light. "I guess I'm gifted in my hands."

The other place for pork-sandwich purists is Payne's, which occupies what used to be a very large filling station and auto repair shop. The walls are painted Creamsicle orange, or maybe that's just what white walls become after they've been subjected to smoke for 50 years. Order a sandwich, and Flora Payne opens up the smoker, takes out a whole shoulder, and cuts the sandwich to order. The meat is alternately crunchy and soft, and suffused with just enough smoke. It's topped with a slaw that tastes of mustard and cider vinegar.

For an all-around barbecue joint, it's hard to beat Interstate Bar-B-Que Restaurant. Everyone from suit-clad business people to laborers comes here for pork sandwiches, which are very fine; wet ribs, which are just sweet and tangy enough; and first-rate beef brisket, which you're not supposed to be able to find east of Kansas City.

Jim Neely, Interstate's owner, is a wet man all the way. "The majority of people want spicy, sloppy, sweet-sauced ribs," he says. "That way, when they're done, they can lick their fingers. It's what you call savorin' the flavor." Wet or dry, ribs or sandwich, savoring the flavor is what eating Memphis barbecue is all about.

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