By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1996 Gourmet Magazine
We venture off the road this month for another in an occasional series of city guides. Our goal is to direct you to restaurants plain or fancy, famous or little known, that provide a memorable taste of America’s good-eating towns.
Memphis sees a lot of action. Pilgrims come to find their fortune or their soul, to wail the blues on Beale Street or hobnob with high-cotton society at The Peabody hotel, and to honor Elvis Presley. The City on the Bluff is wilting hot in August, but because August is when Elvis died it is when thousands travel from all over the world to visit his home, his grave, and the flourishing souvenir business built upon his memory. Steamy and morbid at the height of summer, Memphis is actually a fantastic place to visit then. The lugubrious air fairly drips with a complex mixture of get-down sex appeal, spiritual longing, and Old South majesty. These incongruities, embodied by the young, swivel-hipped King, also permeate the culinary scene, which boasts a remarkable diversity of good restaurants fine or funky (and some that are both).
The best meals in town are also the sloppiest. We refer to barbecue, pork barbecue in particular—on the rib, chopped to smithereens, or pulled from the slow-cooked shoulder in bite-size shreds. Memphis is America’s pork capital, with boundless smoked, sweet variations on the theme. We won’t dally on such beguiling curiosities as barbecue pizza, barbecue salad, and barbecue spaghetti (limp noodles in a powerhouse sauce, frequently served alongside pork in lieu of beans). The primary things to eat are ribs—wet or dry—and the Memphis specialty known as a pig sandwich.
It was 1922 when pitmaster Leonard Heuberger devised the sandwich: pulled pork on a bun, drenched with tangy sauce and embellished with coleslaw. His logo was a pig in top hat and tails; the caption, “Mr. Brown Goes to Town,” told in code how succulent his barbecue was. The outside of the meat, which gets dark and chewy as it cooks, is still known among old-time connoisseurs as “Mr. Brown”; the interior, soft but not as deeply flavored, is “Miss White.” If Mr. Brown goes to town, your sandwich has plenty of those outside chunks. Mr. Heuberger and his smoke shack are gone, but you can still see his dapper neon pig and savor a superb sandwich at the modern LEONARD’S on Fox Plaza Drive, in southeast Memphis.
INTERSTATE BAR-B-QUE is a modest pork house four miles south of downtown, near Nonconnah Creek, that serves bone-sucking ribs, fiery sausages, and sliced or chopped pork with all the proper fixings (including addictive barbecue spaghetti). The pig sandwich is divine: shoulder meat, oozing juice and dripping sauce, piled into a bun with coleslaw. The bun melds with the wet ingredients; you should be prepared to lick a good portion of the pandemonious pork off your fingers.
If you have time for just one barbecue meal in Memphis (or anywhere on earth), go to DOZY CORNER, a hazy storefront shop just north of downtown, with its smoker in the vestibule and blues playing in the small dining room on the side. Blanketed with spices by pitmaster Raymond Robinson, Cozy’s pork shoulder develops a devilishly hot blackened crust that seals in the meat’s juices, yielding nuggets that are lip-tingling and downright voluptuous. Ribs here are sensational—lush and peppery, with meat that needs only slight encouragement to slide from the bone. Robinson’s specialty is barbecued Cornish hen—a small bird with burnished skin reminiscent of the perfectly roasted chicken we once had at Andre Soltner’s Lutece, in Manhattan.
Visiting the Cozy Corner is a delight. Mrs. Neval Jackson, Raymond’s mother, frequently holds court on a couch near the counter, where she chats with waiting customers. When we order barbecued bologna with ultra-hot sauce she exclaims, “That’s my son’s favorite!” She points to a row of effulgent aloe plants growing in plastic spice buckets along the windowsill and says, “They have been here for years. Look how healthy they are—they thrive on barbecue smoke!”
Two other essential pork parlors are GRIDLEY’S in the eastern suburbs, for opulently sauce-dripping “wet” ribs and buttery barbecued shrimp served in dimly lit environs suitable for gustatory meditation, and CHARLIE VERGOS’ RENDEZVOUS, for mouthwatering “dry” ribs (rubbed with spices that are then baked onto the surface) dished out by a boisterous waitstaff in a raucous downtown cellar reminiscent of a beer hall in The Student Prince.
Plate lunch is not as sexy as barbecue, but in Memphis it is an experience to stir your soul. No place is more soulful than the FOUR WAY GRILL, a neighborhood cafe a few blocks from the National Civil Rights Museum with a menu that boasts “Every Meal Is Supervised by Top Professionals.” A portrait hanging on the wall of three ministers from the Church of God in Christ is headlined AMERICAN IMMORTALS…MAKERS OF HISTORY…BUILDERS OF INTERRACIAL GOOD WILL. The kitchen’s glory is fried chicken with long-cooked vegetables, but we like breakfast best, mostly because of the awesome red eye gravy that comes with country ham. It is nothing but amber-colored rendered fat speckled with spices, one of the most delectable tastes on earth, like liquid bacon. Spooned onto rice or used as a dip for biscuits, it is the pinnacle of culinary luxury—served in a thick diner bowl with flatware wrapped in paper napkins.
Out by the train tracks, beyond the Mid-South Fairgrounds, is a well-worn café that Walker Evans might have photographed. Known for black-eyed peas and five-inch-high coconut meringue pies since the Great Depression, BUNTYN is the Valhalla of Southern cookery. When we walked in the door prior to the start of lunch hour, the staff stood circled around a table, their heads lowered and hands joined in prayer, asking God to help them bring joy into customers’ lives. They believe in what they do, and they want to make a believer of you.
Shattering crisp fried chicken and stew-thick vegetable soup are always on the menu; and a dozen classic side dishes are prepared each day, pungent turnip greens, buttered squash, candied yams, et al. Every meal comes with triangles of moist cornbread and/or yeasty dinner rolls. Desserts are exquisite—that coconut pie and lemon icebox pie, and banana pudding every Wednesday.
Other jewels in the plate-lunch crown:
ARCADE is a spacious old café, at the end of the historic-district trolley line, that serves its macaroni with patches of chewy cheese among the noodles and makes corn sticks with an irresistible sour-milk tang. Great plates include chicken and dumplings and meatloaf with perfect mashed potatoes. Above the boomerang-patterned Formica counter a sign says WELCOME TO THE ARCADE. COCKTAILS, ANYONE?
THE LITTLE TEA SHOP has been the luncheon haunt of Cotton Row traders and other Memphis business folk for nearly eighty years. It is one of the few restaurants anywhere that regularly serve pot likker—the exhilarating vegetable broth created when greens are cooked with fat-back. The greens themselves are available with salt pork or, accompanied by crunchy corn sticks, as one of four choices on an all-vegetable meal.
As hallowed as tradition is in Memphis, some notable restaurants defy it, or at least give it a twist. In the posh baroque dining room of CHEZ PHILIPPE, in The Peabody hotel, high rollers savor chef Jose Gutierrez’s inventive New South hush puppies stuffed with shrimp provengale or smoked pork tenderloin with fried green tomatoes and grits pilaf. Mr. Gutierrez offers smoked sweet potatoes to accompany venison a la Choctaw, and he pairs seasonal vegetables with marinated shrimp, providing sugarcane and persimmon ketchup to sing harmony.
Fusion cuisine is nowhere more precious than at RESTAURANT RAJI, where foodies dote on artistic meals that join French technique with Indian spices (foie gras in sandalwood sauce, supreme of duck with blackberry turmeric emulsion, cardamom creme bridge). There is no choice on the prix fixe menu; like a guest in a private home, you eat what chef-proprietor Raji Jallepalli has decided to prepare that day. Oenophiles call ahead so she can match courses with their favorite bottles.
Named for both a character in a legendary blues song and a rockabilly-era teen hangout, AUTOMATIC SLIM’S TONGA CLUB (which has a very different-tempered branch in New York City’s Greenwich Village) attracts a lively crowd to its downtown leopard-skin–decked dining room, where Southwestern and Caribbean flavors are fused in such robust inventions as coconut mango shrimp with citrus pico de gallo and crisp-cooked red snapper with jalapeno relish. There is fine art by Southern artists on display, and suppertime entrées such as roasted Jamaican jerk tilapia and Oaxacan chicken mole demand an epicure’s respect; but Auto-Slim’s is not a restaurant that takes itself too seriously. Just around the corner from old Beale Street, it is a good-time place and one of the hottest live-music venues in town, especially late at night, when the guitars ring and Memphians quaff Tonga Martinis under beefcake photographs of young Elvis on the walls.
Automatic Slim’s Tonga Club
Buntyn (permanently closed)
3070 Southern Avenue
Chez Philippe The Peabody
Four Way Grill
Gridley’s (permanently closed)
6065 Macon Road &
6430 Winchester Road
Restaurant Raji (permanently closed)
712 West Brookhaven Circle