Blues, Booze and BBQ

Memphis is not your bustling American metropolis. The downtown core has a few skyscrapers, some massive churches, a police station three blocks long, and two dozen bail bondsmen whose lights come on after dark. There are no coffee shops or boutiques. The only shopping area, Peabody Mall, had more security guards than shops. “They all left,” one told me in a quick drawl, “they gone.” Sidewalks are in disrepair and the only thing that looks new are the Memphis Police Dodge Chargers. The natural respite was the abundance of old Magnolia trees with their massive white flowers in full, fragrant bloom.

The tourist oasis in an otherwise abandoned core is Beale Street, a solid two and a half blocks of bbq restaurants and blues bars. Alleyways turned into music venues with a porch as a stage and a minibar serving beer and bourbon. You can buy a ‘Big Ass Beer’ at one block and have it refilled at the next. Oh yeah – we were in heaven.

We started our day with breakfast at Dyer’s, a Memphis tradition since 1918. An open kitchen surrounded by a silver bar and red banquettes, they cook their burgers in a massive cast iron skillet, in the same grease since 1918. Yes. They strain it every night, but they never, have never and will never, throw it out. When they opened a few more locations, the grease was transported, accompanied by armed police escort. We ordered cheeseburgers, some of them double doubles, and sweet tea. The best iced black tea with real sugar and no lemon. We would come to find out, every restaurant had the exact same sweet tea. No one ordered fries, as lunch would be our next stop. The patties were hand formed and almost thin, with good processed cheese like it was in your childhood, yellow mustard, and salt and peppered raw white onion, on the quintessential slightly greasy burger bun. The dimensions were sexy. We ate in muddled silence, in awe of the perfect cheeseburger.

A short walk past the Gibson Guitar Factory and Grizzlies stadium, we battled the southern sun through abandoned neighborhoods of beautiful brick buildings and empty lots begging for community gardens. The images of the desolate urban landscape were accompanied by a thorough silence, which was eerily appropriate when we reached the Lorraine Motel. The balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 42 years ago still had his car parked out front.

A grand antique store lured us in with massive iron gates and a plethora of antique mantels, stained glass windows, and a 16 foot, white and black metal sign reading, “Grand Community Food Store” we hope to ship back for our new store at the Atrium.

Back on the block, we were steps away from another Memphis original, Gus’s Fried Chicken, where they posted a sign behind the till, “$5 charge for whining.” One square room with white tiled walls, a pressed tin roof, two dozen tables and a simple menu. Fried chicken. You can have whatever pieces you want, with or without sides. A short wait later, during which every person leaving told us it was worth the wait, we promptly ordered the family dinner with beans and coleslaw served with slices of white bread, and a 40 oz of beer, because we could. Cornmeal crusted fried green tomatoes and pickles were crunchy delicious and a welcome moment to bring ranch dressing back into our lives. The fried chicken was, as promised, worth waiting for. Marinated and deep-fried, the skin was so thin and crispy it adhered to the meat for the best bite every time. The first beans and slaw we had so far, they would not be the last, as it seems everyone serves Hunt’s baked beans and the same shredded fine creamy slaw. We didn’t care, the fried chicken, the 40’s of Bud, and the quick-pickled jalapeños, kept us smiling.

We headed to Beale Street to find a patio and a cold drink. It wasn’t long before we heard the booming voice of Miss Zena and the Memphis Kings, so we took a seat at a metal picnic table. We were stunned to see BBQ legend, Myron Mixon, having a drink with an old friend at the bar. The epitome of the BBQ guy, friendly and down to earth with a thick southern accent and a deep laugh, he was too nice, offering us a tour of his smoker the next day at the BBQ Championship, taking photos, and even recording his famous line for our camera, “It’s all about the f@$%!n’ flavour profile!”

That night we were set on going to Rendezvous, a Memphis classic since 1947. Located in an alley that is now named after their founder Charles Vergos, a busy back door entrance gave way to an expansive two storey restaurant. Serving over 1500 people a day, it was like the Memphis equivalent to the Parisienne brasserie. Downstairs were the main dining rooms, a huge, shiny service bar down the centre, and the kitchen, containing four pits where the ribs are charcoal-broiled. These are Memphis-style ribs, dry rubbed, broiled and rubbed again, the fat from the ribs drips into the coals to create a subtle smoke flavour. We all ordered ribs with pitchers of the only beer on tap (Michelobe). Covered in a thick coating of dry spices upon arrival at our table, we were somewhat hesitant, weary of the over-use of dry spices in general, let alone being so upfront about it, as these ribs were, but they pulled it off and many of us opted out of adding bbq sauce, either mild with a tamarind flavour, or a classic spicy. The ribs required more effort, as they are not fall-off-the-bone as when they are smoked, but in that sense, more dedication, and we began to love these ribs, and yield to their strong flavours: cumin, coriander, chili flakes and paprika, with the odd mustard seed. Although their beans were clearly Hunt’s with some sautéed veg, their coleslaw was mustard based and balanced the sweet beans nicely. The most perfect white dinner rolls came as well, little mouth pillows smelling of fresh promises. We were not surprised to find out later that they had come from the Wonder Bread factory down the street. Emerging well fed and Michelobed, we headed to Beale Street for the night’s events.

– by Brooke Fader. Brooke works at Pig BBQ, lives in West Sooke with her husband where they raise kosher pigs, and does not collect pig figurines.

Written By:

We get many people writing guest articles for us, as well as past contributors. This is the Guest ...

Comments are closed.