What Is Memphis Style Barbecue?

An overhead view of a table of barbecue dishes
••• Charlie Vergos Rendezvous

Memphis is a city that takes great pride in its barbecue. We claim to have the best in the world and have become famous for it. From world renowned restaurants like The Rendezvous and Central BBQ, to the Memphis in May World Championship BBQ Cooking Contest, barbecue is an important part of our culture here in the Bluff City. But what exactly is Memphis-Style Barbecue? And why does it stand out above the rest?

Components of Barbecue 

The Meat

Though just about any meat can be used, traditional Memphis barbecue is usually smoked pork served in one of two forms: ribs on a slab or pulled. True Memphis smokers (those that smoke pork, that is) don't rely on seasoning alone to ensure a great barbecue. Instead, they use only the highest quality of meat and wood, then let the slow smoking process enhance its natural flavor. This results in pork that is tasty and tender, even without rubs and sauces.

Dry Rubs

Memphis is probably best known for its dry barbecue. Most frequently used on ribs, the dry style is highly flavorful and is less messy to eat than wet. In the dry process, the ribs are coated with a rub made from ingredients such as garlic, paprika, onions, cumin, and other spices. They are then cooked in a smoker until they are fall-off-the-bone tender. Typically, dry ribs are served with a sauce on the side.

Sauces

Memphis barbecue sauce has its own distinctive flavor, as well. Though the specific ingredients will vary from cook to cook, Memphis sauce is usually made with tomatoes, vinegar, and any countless combination of spices. It is generally thin, tangy, and somewhat sweet. Memphis sauce is poured over pulled pork or served along side of dry ribs.

Favorite Barbecue Dishes

How do Memphians eat their barbecue? Let me count the ways. Perhaps the most popular is to order slab or half-slab of ribs - either with dry rub or wet that the sauces comes already on the rib. After that, a close second is a pulled pork barbecue sandwich, served on a white bread bun or Texas Toast and topped with slaw on the sandwich. 

We're also into our BBQ nachos here in Memphis. Central BBQ probably mastered the art of the nacho, especially when made with house made potato chips topped with pulled pork, BBQ sauce, shredded cheese, and jalapeños. Vegetarians shouldn't worry, though. RP Tracks by Teh University of Memphis makes an incredble heaping platter of BBQ Tofu Nachos with black beans and other toppings.

Where To Eat

Ask 100 Memphians where to get the best barbecue, and you will probably receive 100 different answers. But one thing is certain—with the high standards that the locals have, any barbecue establishment in this city has to be good. If you're looking for a good place to start, though, be sure to check out these 12 barbecue restaurants first.