As we drove up to the smoke house a few blocks north of Graceland, we had very good vibes. All the signals were right: the parking area outside smelled of smoking pork; a big, happy pig was painted on the exterior wall; and customers were walking out the front door with arms full of to-go containers.
At the counter where you stand and place your order you can hear the blissful smokehouse lullaby coming from the kitchen: chop-chop-chop on the cutting board as hickory-cooked pork gets hacked into mottled shreds and pieces for plates and sandwiches. The sandwich is the classic Memphis configuration: pork mixed with tangy red sauce piled in a bun and crowned with a spill of cole slaw. It occurred to us as we plowed through a jumbo that the slaw in a Memphis barbecue sandwich is as important for its texture as for its pickly sweet taste. The cabbage provides such nice little bits of crunch among the velvety heap of pork.
Beyond pig sandwiches, the A&R menu is full. You can have ribs (wet or dry), catfish dinner, hot tamales, meatballs on a stick (!), and that only-in-Memphis treat, barbecue spaghetti. That’s a mound of soft noodles dressed not with ordinary tomato sauce, but with – of course – barbecue sauce, laced with shreds of pork. It’s weird, but in this city, where restaurants also offer barbecue pizza and barbecue salad, it makes sense.
The ambiance of A&R is pure BQ parlor: quiet enough so you can hear the chopping in the kitchen while you concentrate on enjoying the meal. It is a big place with a lot of elbow room. Raw brick walls and florescent lights set a no-nonsense mood; and however hot it is outside, you can count on the air conditioning system to be running so high that it’s practically like going into hibernation. Or is the trance we experienced a result of hypnotically good food?