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Trip Report Memphis food experience

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Have alluded elsewhere here to my food experiences in a recent visit to Memphis, but thought a detailed description was in order.

--Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken.

One of a few times such claims may have validity. It's kind of a dumpy place, but the food was terrific. Got a 3-piece plate of dark meat chicken with sides. The chicken was nicely breaded, not too thin, not too thick, and cooked perfectly. The fried coating was indeed peppery spicy, but not brutally or inedibly hot. Getting a side of ranch sauce was a great idea -- this provides a nice cooling effect on the spicy chicken. Cole slaw was of the creamy variety and really good. The baked beans looked like they were out of a can but tasted much better than this thanks to some nicely subtle spicing. Had a slice of chess pie for dessert -- delicious version of this. Am thinking this place is a must.

--Automatic Slim's Tonga Club.

Pretty much the only time I decided to go more upscale in Memphis. It was good, if not spectacular. Had an appetizer of homemade potato chips with blue cheese dip (good, though a few of the chips underneath got a little less cooked than would be nice) and a main of jerk duck with bacon wrapped bananas on the side. The latter were very good, with a nice contrast of sweet and salty. The duck was tasty, though the spice didn't seem much like jerk to me, and the duck consisted of a nice, meaty leg but kind of a skimpy breast.

--Dyer's.

This place, basically giving off a diner vibe, is right on Beale Street and is famous for burgers prepared deep fried in a pan of hot oil (and oil that dates from when the place opened in 1912, strained daily and reused over and over) instead of being grilled or broiled or cooked a more usual way. Sorry, but I wasn't impressed. In short, the burger came out tasting pretty much like a slightly glorified, if larger, variant of a White Castle burger.

--Huey's.

Here's the place for a burger in Memphis if that's what you want. It's pretty much a bar with the usual types of food, but the burger here was on a sesame bun, large and juicy and cooked just right -- in short, a really good bar-style burger. Comes with thick steak cut fries which were decent enough.

--Blues City Cafe.

Ate BBQ at several places in this city, a place known for this cuisine -- and note well that "ribs" here always means "pork ribs." Sides are frequently limited to beans, slaw, BBQ spaghetti (more on that later), and maybe a few other items. Blues City Cafe likely is the place to go for BBQ if you want to stay just on Beale Street. The ribs were unlike those anywhere else I tried them -- they were of the "falling off the bone" variety and covered with a wet glaze sauce coating (meat on the bone and coated with dry rub with or without a slight glaze was pretty much the norm in my experience elsewhere). Still, the flavor of the ribs was good. Beans and slaw sides were also solid examples of the type, the former pleasantly spiced. Worth going to for sure.

--A&R BBQ.

Their primary branch is well south of downtown in a not-so-good area, but fortunately, they recently opened up a second location in downtown just north of Beale Street and the Peabody Hotel. The BBQ was very good and arguably the best such place I tried in this immediate walkable downtown area, if maybe not quite at the absolute top of the heap city-wide. Ribs were meaty and had a mild but pleasant dry rub on them -- asked for sauce on the side, which had an unusual but distinctive taste I couldn't identify (molasses?), and please note that the sauce was really good for all that. For sides, had fried okra (excellently executed) and BBQ spaghetti (a concoction unique to Memphis, essentially cooked spaghetti coated in a sauce combining light elements of marinara sauce and heavier elements of BBQ sauce, all flecked with pork bits), which was very good here if perhaps not quite as sweet or spicy as versions elsewhere. Definitely on my short list of worthy local BBQ joints, and I hope they get the business traffic they're seeking here to remain open.

--Corky's (airport location)

Is it fair to judge a place based on a location at the airport? Well, Corky's downtown location closed recently, and their main flagship restaurant is way out in East Memphis, only reachable via car -- so this was the one chance I had. Sorry to say, it was terrible, the worst BBQ experience I had here. Got what is considered a specialty of theirs, a chopped pork sandwich, which consisted of mostly large chunks of blah pork that lacked flavor (especially any hint of smokiness), on a pedestrian bun containing practically no sauce at all. A big-time miss.

--Interstate BBQ (airport location)

See above about the airport outpost caveat. Interstate BBQ has one restaurant far south of downtown in a not-good area, hard to impossible to reach via public transportation. So this was it for this place for me. Got a specialty of theirs, BBQ spaghetti, with a side of beans. The beans were actually pretty good, with a better than canned flavor and flecks of pork. But the BBQ spaghetti was lousy, with an aggressively harsh and biting spiciness that was not at all pleasant (maybe too heavy on vinegar? Hard to say). Not very impressed, sorry to say.

--Central BBQ

This was pretty middle of the road, not as bad as Corky's/Interstate, not as good as A&R, Neely's, or BBQ Shop. Had a smoked turkey and dry rub rib combo with sides. The ribs were good, with a pleasing dry rub. Turkey had decent flavor but was very dry and badly needed sauce. Turnip greens were basic but good, beans were very spicy and enjoyable. What was not pleasant here were the sauces on the side (they're available from pumps in the dining area) -- the vinegar sauce was unpleasantly astringent, the hot sauce had a really nasty and unpleasant taste suggesting it had gone bad. Surprisingly, the best sauce they offered, and by a mile, was a mustard based sauce one normally finds in the Carolinas.

--The BBQ Shop (on Madison)

This was one of the best BBQ joints I visited here. Started with an appetizer of fried, smoked bologna -- smoky and grilled just right, a wonderful guilty pleasure. Had ribs with sides for a main course. The ribs are done with a dry rub and then basted with a glaze, which made them a little sweeter than some locally, but really tasty and not cloying at all -- and the spice and smoke comes through all right. For sides, the beans were decent, slaw was very good and a little more vinegar based than others locally, BBQ spaghetti was sweeter than some but really delicious, among the best I had locally. Got hot and mild sauces on the side, which were good -- but believe them when they say "hot" on the former, as it's got a real kick. An absolute must.

--Neely's BBQ (on Jefferson)

If I could only pick one BBQ joint to return to in Memphis, this would be the place. Had the usual ribs and sides. Got half the ribs dry rubbed, the other half wet sauced. Both versions were terrific, with wonderful spicy, smoky flavor -- forced to choose, would probably would go with the dry ones, but that's pretty much splitting hairs. Despite reports on Yelp on this place, my ribs were not of the "falling off the bone" variety. Sides were splendid: beans had pork bits and solid heat, cole slaw had a surprising spicy kick and nice texture, BBQ spaghetti had both heat and flavor. The spiciness here in general was not as sweet-laced as that at BBQ Shop, but wasn't just a snarly blast, either -- really nicely done. Couldn't find a weak spot on the eats here -- loved it.

--Alcenia's

During the week, this is a meat-and-three soul food type spot, open for lunch or old folks ultra-early dinner (closes ca. 5 PM). I went for Saturday breakfast (the one day they offer this meal), and really liked what they dished up. Had salmon croquettes (beautifully crisp outside, soft and luscious inside with just the right amount of fish flavor), scrambled eggs (perfectly executed), grits (maybe the best I've ever had), a biscuit (also excellent, not greasy like some), and waffles (soft and more like pancakes but still very good). The last of these was topped with homemade apple butter, not like the irritatingly cloying stuff from a jar, but with chunks of fruit and a nice hint of tangy tartness. They make their own jams and preserves here, and if they're as good as the apple butter, I say go for it. Even the coffee was good. The woman who runs the place is very chatty and friendly, a really nice person who cares a lot about her restaurant. Very much worth it for breakfast.

Did not get to Rendezvous (dry rub ribs are their specialty) or either outpost of Payne's BBQ (known for chopped pork sandwiches topped with electric yellow cole slaw). Sadly, all were closed for vacation when I was in town. If I return, will try both.

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