10 August 2008
Exploring Memphis Barbecue (Part 2)
A&R Bar-B-Que, located in south Memphis on Elvis Presley Boulevard, is another of the diamonds in the rough that Memphis seems to have so many of. It's discovering places like this that makes exploring Memphis barbecue so much fun.
I had heard that A&R makes a mean barbecue sandwich, so that's what I ordered. I was not disappointed.
The sandwich is served in the traditional Memphis style, with chopped pork, barbecue sauce and slaw. This is definitely a more traditional slaw than is served on the sandwich at Payne's, but in the same way, this slaw adds to the overall harmony of the sandwich, rather than just being a gratuitous add-on. The pork here was outstanding - juicy and tender, with lots of bark in the mix. The barbecue sauce is mild and sweet, and there is lots of it. Overall, another incredible sandwich. Were it not for that sandwich at Payne's, this would be the best barbecue sandwich I've ever tasted. Another item that is not to be missed at A&R is their fried pies - including sweet potato!
After a couple of great barbecue sandwiches, I was ready for a change of pace. Cozy Corner, on North Parkway near downtown, is known for their barbecued cornish game hens. Unfortunately, by the time I got there, they had sold out of the hens, so I went with some ribs and a sliced pork sandwich.
Now these were the real deal ribs I'd been looking for! They were perfectly cooked, with a nicely set up bark on the outside, but still tender on the inside. They had a really strong smoke flavor, which is complemented nicely by a glaze of cinnamon-sweet sauce. Good stuff!
The sandwich was an interesting variation of the Memphis classic. The pork was served in thick slices on an oblong sesame seed bun, with barbecue sauce and slaw (of course). Eating this sandwich made me realize why most pork sandwiches are with either pulled or chopped pork. The meat was not cooked to that almost melt-in-your mouth tenderness that you normally find with pulled or chopped pork shoulder. In this case, the slices were fatty and rather tough. That awesome barbecue sauce that was on the ribs made a return appearance, though, and cured all manner of ills.
Neely's is another Memphis legend of which we have a replication in Nashville. To be honest, although it has a pretty good reputation, the Nashville Neely's has never done much for me. With Corky's, it turned out that the Nashville apple did not fall far from the Memphis tree. Would Neely's prove the same? No. I could tell right away when I walked into the original Jefferson Avenue location that this was a different animal. This one featured table service, and the atmosphere was a bit more upscale, with a cool, clubby atmosphere. Needless to say, the televisions were all tuned to the Food Network. I ordered a pork sandwich and a rib plate.
The pork sandwich was another winner, which is to say, par for the course in Memphis. The pork was chopped a bit more coarsely, with great pork flavor and just enough smoke. The sauce and slaw were applied a bit more sparingly than at other places in these reports, allowing the quality of the pork to really shine. This was a great sandwich.
The ribs were where this Memphis location really separated itself from their Nashville counterpart. Unlike the flaccid, mushy ribs I regularly find at home, these ribs were cooked and finished very nicely. They were just shy of fall-off-the-bone tenderness. They were meaty and had the same touch of smoke the the chopped pork on the sandwich had. The sauce added a sweet, tangy element to the taste, but did not overpower. All in all, this Neely's, at least on this day, did a great job.
I thought that back-to-back would be the best way to take in the "other" Neely's brand in Memphis - Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Que. Interstate actually pre-dates Neely's by several years. Jim Neely opened on South 3rd Street in 1979. In 1988, his nephew Pat, who had worked in the restaurant, decided to branch out and start his own restaurant - thus Neely's was born. Interstate definitely has a more old-school feel than Neely's. The menus, however, are remarkably similar. Again, I ordered a sandwich and a rib plate.
If you're thinking, "I can't see the slaw on that sandwich," it's not just because of my shoddy photography. The slaw is actually under the meat - an interesting twist. Even in this blurry photo, though, it's easy to see that this sandwich is swimming in sauce. Now I do love barbecue sauce, Dear Reader, but this was overkill. I found myself spooning off sauce to try and get the meat/bun/sauce ratio back to a reasonable level. The pork that I uncovered, however, was not really worth the effort - mushy and bland. This sandwich fell well short of the high standard set by the likes of Payne's, A&R, and Neely's.
Another terrible photo, and I'm sorry for that.
I could tell right away that these ribs were off the mark. They had the appearance that they'd been simmering in a big pot of barbecue sauce. Tasting did nothing to dissuade that suspicion. They had the consistency of a pot roast, disintegrating upon touch. After scraping off some of the sauce, I found the meat to again be mushy and completely lacking definition. The taste was overwhelmingly of barbecue sauce. Very disappointing.
So...at least on this day, in the head-to-head matchup of Neely vs. Neely, the nod clearly goes to the young upstarts.