“Smoke is our sauce” is the Central BBQ mantra, referring to a 24-hour meat marinade followed by slow-smoking over hickory and pecan.
With four locations in Memphis, Central BBQ is well known around these parts. When you walk into Central downtown, it’s clear they know what they’re doing and are accustomed to big crowds. The line is long but moves quickly. Once you order at the counter, you sit down in one of three huge dining rooms. When we visited, each was full.
We ordered the pulled pork nachos with jalapenos and a combo plate with dry-rub ribs, brisket, pulled chicken, rolls, mac ‘n’ cheese, and BBQ baked beans. Then we found our spot at the bar, which was charmingly located in front of a bathtub tap. The food came out almost too quickly. But after one bite of the nachos, it didn’t matter.
Nachos? Yes, indeed! You see what looks like a Mexican dish. But when you take that first bite of rich, hearty pulled pork drenched in thick, slightly sweet BBQ sauce, it veers your mind right back to Dixie BBQ. The tender meat is cut by thin, salty chips which somehow don’t get soggy until the very end (and even then they’re delicious), and the pickled jalapenos balance everything out. It’s keeps you reaching for one more salty, sweet, crunchy, slightly spicy bite.
We tried all four sauces on our combo plate meats: mild, spicy, vinegar, and mustard. They are all good with different meats, but if I had to pick one to take home (which you can), I would go with the lighter, vinegar-y option. It’s mild with a really light, smooth texture and hints of citrus. This goes best with the pulled chicken, which is tender and juicy. I would put it on just about everything: salads, eggs, fluffy bread.
I think it’s worth trying all the meats without sauce, first — especially the ribs, which have a nice char. You don’t even need a knife because the meat falls right off the bone and is laced with a (very secret) dry rub that’s smoky with hints of cumin. The ribs are best in the sweeter, thicker, mild sauce. The thinly-cut brisket is good, with a thin trademark smoke ring around the edge, but feels a little stale compared to the others. Dip it in the mustard or spicy sauces.
The service here is legendary, and brings its famous reputation back down to earth. Everyone is extremely friendly, and why wouldn’t you be? Diners leave full, happy, and ready to rave to the next person they see about those addicting nachos.