After watching Michigan secure what proved to be its sole conference win of the year, Sossy and I celebrated by sampling some of Memphis’s finest comestibles. We began with a late lunch at the Bar-B-Q Shop, a restaurant and bar located in a stubby old storefront, a few miles from downtown. The Shop consists of a brown dining room with brown walls, brown carpeting, and brown tables and chairs. Neon beer advertisements provide the sole evidence that there are other colors in the visible spectrum.
Of course, design and charm are irrelevant when pork barbeque is involved. But I was skeptical of this small urban outpost that appeared to lack the capacity for a genuine pit. Barbeque is, at heart, a rural form of the culinary arts. In the dusty towns and farmland circumscribing Austin, Texas, where barbeque is at its zenith, the form is austere and primitive, reliant on nurturing pits, post oak wood, and a languid, dreamlike pace of cooking. Venerable barbeques in Texas often trace their roots to the beginning of the 20th century when they opened as butcher shops, a function many still have.
Accordingly, I asked our haggard waitress if the Bar-B-Q Shop even had an honest-to-goodness pit, a question that could be construed as insolent considering that the Shop enjoys a stellar local reputation. She assured me that the Shop is so equipped and steeped in Memphis staples like pork ribs and pulled pork. So Sossy and I ordered the crispy burnt rib ends, a house specialty, and a pulled pork sandwich on Texas toast, which, at the Shop, involves some double-thick white bread fried in lard. The burnt ends were attached to the pork ribs themselves and not served separately. The ribs themselves were too fatty for me. But the burnt ends—that charred, black-red crust that formed at the end of ribs—were delicious. Underneath that crispy exterior was some tender rib meat. The potency of that combination is a rejoinder to anyone wondering why people would travel across the country for barbeque.
I loved the smoky pulled pork sandwich and drizzled on some of the Shop’s piquant barbeque sauce. It was an expertly prepared sandwich in its own right, accentuated by the residual smokiness, and well-proportioned to bring out the flavors without overwhelming my mouth. Memphis barbeque may not reach the ethereal realm of Texas’s finest, but it is solid.
During our meal, the owner, Eric Vernon, came over to our table and introduced himself. He possessed a salesman’s affability and was pleased that we had found the Bar-B-Q Shop, which has not found its way to the guidebooks. Since the Shop does not offer dessert, we solicited some advice from Eric on where to go. He directed us to an establishment called the Beauty Shop, a place he said made an outstanding strawberry cake.
I expected to encounter a nearby, black-owned bakery that served heaping portions of moist red velvet cake made by cherished grandmothers hewing to ancient recipes long ago committed to memory. But to my surprise, the Beauty Shop was an upscale, white-owned restaurant selling $25 entrées of wild striped bass in what amounted to Memphis’s progressive neighborhood – or, at least, corner. (That is, the Beauty Shop was next to the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, and the bicycle was the neighborhood’s preferred mode of transportation. The locals were white, youthful and dressed like cheerful versions of Troy Dyer and Lelaini Pierce. You will see all of them in Austin within five years’ time.)
I asked the Beauty Shop’s manager why he thought the Bar-B-Q Shop recommended that we drive all the way across town for their cake. My real question, which he intuited, was why did the black owner of a modest barbeque send me to a high end restaurant for dessert? The manager answered matter-of-factly, “The Bar-B-Q Shop has the best barbeque in Memphis, and we have the best cakes. We send people to the Bar-B-Q Shop.” The cross-racial recommendations vindicated my sense of liberal hopefulness in the city of MLK’s murder.
In a chazerish mood, I ordered a slice of each of the six cakes: strawberry, chocolate, caramel, red velvet, coconut, and a Southern yellow cake. They were all interesting, but the chocolate and caramel cakes were the standouts. Both were rich and had alluring textures that somehow compelled another bite… and then another… and then another… until nothing remained. Their flavors were restrained, but I was not.
The Bar-B-Q Shop
1782 Madison Avenue
The Beauty Shop
966 S. Cooper St.