Hold the judgment, but I dined out 12 times during a recent four-day trip to Memphis, home of Elvis, B.B. King and Kathy Bates. Bluff City is famous for blues and Beale Street, but nowhere is its soul more apparent than in its grub. Most cities do a few things right, and for Memphis one of those things is barbecue.
One of the best places? Payne’s BBQ. You’ll find the converted service station turned smoked meat joint in Rozelle, a Memphis neighborhood plopped between the more notorious South Memphis to the west and the historic, hip Cooper-Young district to the east.
The recipes go back at least 100 years.
As soon as you swing open the lobby door, the sweet aroma of smoked hickory punches you in the face — a swift reminder that this isn’t the average ’cue joint. It immediately feels like a family-run show. Flora Payne and her son, Ron, run the business originally founded by Flora’s father, Horton, and his mother, Emily, who set up shop at this location in 1972. Before that, Emily had been slinging the family recipe “for nearly 50 years in West Memphis,” Flora says. “The recipes go back at least 100 years,” she adds. Behind the counter, Miss Flora loudly chops the fresh meat with a giant cleaver, just as her father and grandmother did before her. If you’d visited Memphis in 1973, the world outside that white brick building would be different, but your plate would be the same.
When most people think of Memphis barbecue, ribs come to mind. From charcoal-cooked, dry-rub racks to slow-smoked, saucy slabs, pork ribs are a way of life in the City of Blues. Payne’s smoked dry ribs are popular, but I recommend the pork shoulder, which can be ordered pulled or chopped, as a sandwich or on the plate with slaw and beans. The chopped pork plate ($7.75) is a game changer, and a refreshing change to the safer pulled pork offerings found at any other barbecue joint. Roughly chopped into a mixture of moist meat and crisp, crackling edges, it’s perfectly juicy, sweet and smoky, with a flavor that captures the spirit of this age-old cuisine. The hot, red barbecue sauce tiptoes between tangy and spicy, and is thin enough not to stick to your fingers like typical overbearing rib sauce.
And don’t let Payne’s secret weapon — the bright yellow side serving of mustard-based coleslaw — go to waste. Payne’s mustard slaw is a hotly debated choice that you won’t find anywhere else in town. Throw a forkful of meat, slaw and beans on a bun, and it’s your new favorite slider. Just remember to breathe as you inhale it.
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