We took a late summer trip down along the Mississippi River to Memphis. We hadn't been to Memphis for about 14 years and we decided on this trip that we'd stay away from the tourist-trap places in the downtown area and branch out to see the rest of the city away from the lights and glitz of Beale Street. Of course, Memphis barbecue is part of the Mid-South/Midwest triangle of St. Louis and Kansas City - at least to me. We wanted to try a couple three places while we were in town and I was particularly interested in giving Central BBQ a try.
Memphis-style barbecue features dry-rubbed ribs and other meats. The Rendezvous is the most famous place, but we didn't think it was all that good when we first went there years ago. We checked on other places and found that Neely's Bar-b-cue had closed (I ate at the location in Nashville - click here to read that entry), we were told their uncle Jim Neely's Interstate Barbecue wasn't as good as it used to be, and that some of the really good places for barbecue aren't places you'd necessarily go to at night. But the consensus with people that we talked to was that Central BBQ was quite possibly the best in town. (Some people will dispute that, I'm sure. We found that almost everyone in Memphis has an opinion on their favorite local barbecue joints.)
As I've found with a number of barbecue joints I've visited over the years, Central BBQ came about from the barbecue competition circuit. Back in the mid-80's, Roger Sapp and Craig Blondis met on the competition trail. The two began to compete the annual Memphis in May World Barbecue Championships and got the bug for competition-style barbecue where you have to do everything - smoked meats, sauces, sides - very well.
In 2001, Sapp and Blondis formed a company - Central BBQ LLC - and began to look for buildings for their first barbecue restaurant. They found a small place on Central Ave. about a mile from the University of Memphis and opened on April 1, 2002. The inside of the place only sat 45 people, but they built an outdoor patio area for additional seating in warm weather.
A little over four years after opening their first location, the partners found a building that housed a former Red Lobster restaurant on Summer Ave. on Memphis' east side and opened their second location in the fall of 2006. The kitchen area was appreciably larger than their original location allowing for two large smokers to be installed. Plus, a lot of the kitchen equipment was still in place from the old Red Lobster so the move in was a snap. The second location also seated about 220 people more than tripling the seating capacity of the original location on nice days.
A couple years ago, Sapp and Blondis opened a third location in an old warehouse location in the South Main Arts District near downtown Memphis. The downtown location is the biggest of the three Central BBQ locations seating over 250 patrons. The two also continue to do barbecue competitions as the time allows.
Even though we said we didn't want to visit Beale Street during our visit, we decided to head down and walk up and down the street to see if anything had changed since our last visit well over a dozen years before. Some things had changed - most had not. It was bike night on Beale Street that evening and a number of large motorcycles - many of them were tricked out - were parked up and down the block. We grabbed a beer from one of the many street vendors and sauntered up and down the street looking at the bikes.
After about a half hour of doing that, we decided to go get some barbecue from Central BBQ's original address on Central Ave. (See map) (Actually, we didn't know the downtown location wasn't far from where we were. See map) We got out to the Central BBQ location around 8:30 p.m. It turns out that they quit serving on weeknights at 9 p.m.
As you come into the Central BBQ location there's a large outdoor patio area. On warm weekend nights, I understand Central BBQ has live music on the patio. We thought about eating outside but it was rather buggy, especially with the hanging lights above the tables.
The main dining room inside is small, but well lit. There are a handful of booths and tables in the room. It's cozy and has a little bit of a good ol' funky vibe to the place. Classic soul music from the likes of James Brown and Sam & Dave were playing on the sound system in the dining room. A mixed crowd of urban hipsters and middle-aged people were in there that evening.
Entering the building, the ordering area up front has the menu on a board above the counter and a small bar area off to the right. The focus meat at Central BBQ is pork, but they also feature beef brisket, chicken, turkey, bologna and sausage from their smoker. Central BBQ is also somewhat locally famous for their smoked chicken wings and their barbecue nachos that feature pulled pork, cheese, jalapenos and barbecue sauce on tortilla chips. (You can also get beef, chicken or turkey for a meat topping on the barbecue nachos.) We noticed a lot of the younger people in the dining area noshing on the barbecue nachos. They actually looked pretty good.
We decided to get a combo plate - a half-rack of ribs with one side wet (with barbecue sauce) and one side the traditional Memphis-style dry rub along with sliced brisket and pulled pork. For sides we had our choice of items such as fries, green beans, potato salad, pork rinds, onion rings, collard greens and mac & cheese. They also had baked beans - a must for me - and cole slaw, which is what Cindy wanted.
We also got a couple beers with the dinner. They had Yazoo Brewing Company products on hand, a small brewery located in Nashville that I've had a couple times before. They had a limited release beer - the 10 Year IPA - that signified their 10-year anniversary of being a brewery that I got. Cindy wanted to try the Summer Seasonal beer they had on tap. After we placed our order and paid at the front counter, we were given a number and found a booth in the small dining room.
A young girl brought out our food about five minutes (or even less) after we ordered. We should have just ordered the ribs completely dry because Central BBQ has a couple of barbecue sauces that turned out to be very good. The mild sauce was sweet, but it had a little bit of a spicy bite on the backside of the taste buds. The spicy sauce, well, it certainly got my attention. You immediately got the spicy taste on the front of the tongue. Both were very good. (We ended up buying a bottle of the mild sauce before we left.)
The ribs pulled apart easily and were moist and meaty with a hint of a smoky taste on top of the dry rub that they used. It wasn't loaded with the dry rub like you find with other Memphis-style barbecue places. The pulled pork was moist and almost melted in your mouth. The brisket was a tad more dry, but still good enough with some sauce added. Out of the three I would say the pulled pork was the best, the ribs a close second and the brisket was an even closer third.
The baked beans featured chunks of pulled pork. I added some of the hot barbecue sauce to the beans to give them a little kick. I had a bite of the creamy cole slaw and while it was good, the beans were much better. Cindy thought the cole slaw to be just "all right".
Much has been written about Central BBQ since they opened over 11 years ago, so I really don't have much more to say than other people who have been there. I have to say that we were both very impressed with Central BBQ. I loved the fun and funky vibe to the place, the barbecue was very good to outstanding, and the overall experience was excellent. I knew there had to be better barbecue places in Memphis than the old stand-bys the tourists go to. Central BBQ showed us why they continually receive honors for the best barbecue in Memphis.