MEMPHIS - On a recent Saturday morning at Central BBQ, soon after the place opened, people already were lined up out the door. The smell of smoked meat hit us as soon as we got out of the car. The ordering process was brisk, and the dining room filled up quickly. This was a place for serious eaters.
But that's true for Memphis as a whole, a city whose dining scene has broadened in recent years, thanks to a community of chefs and a passionate clientele.
"When I first opened, Memphis was a meat-and-potatoes kind of town," said Central BBQ owner Craig Blondis. "In the past 10 to 15 years, it's taken off tremendously. We've got a lot of good chefs in town; it's not just barbecue."
Still, what's a trip to Memphis - a dining trip, no less - without at least one good plate of the city's specialty?
Blondis and co-owner Roger Sapp opened Central in 2002 after years of competing in local and regional barbecue contests. Their ribs are dry style, marinated in a rub for 24 hours and then slow-cooked with hickory and pecan wood for four to five hours.
When we were at Central, my husband's order of ribs ($15.99 for half slab, $22.99 for full slab) was black with char, so each bite had a slight crunch that gave way to the tender meat underneath. Blondis even throws a bone to non-meat eaters, not just with a good set of salads and sides but also with a portabella mushroom sandwich ($4.99) marinated in balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and spices and served on a soft bun with Gouda cheese, a dollop of slaw, and mild sauce.
The restaurant offers four sauces to accommodate visitors with different tastes.
Blondis, however, recommends ordering the meat without sauce. "If barbecue is cooked properly, the sauce is meant to be an accompaniment," he said. "You want to taste the rub, the smoke flavor."
Between visits to Graceland and Sun Studio, tourists could easily spend an entire trip trying barbecue spots in town, but the city is a feast of other food offerings.
"What people are surprised about with Memphis dining is how diverse it is," said Kelly English, a chef who has built a reputation for food inspired by his New Orleans hometown. English trained for years with famed Louisiana chef John Besh and opened his first venture in Memphis, the French-Creole Restaurant Iris in 2008. Five years and many accolades later, including being named one of Food & Wine magazine's best new chefs and a 2010 James Beard semifinalist for best chef Southeast, he opened the more casual Second Line next door to Restaurant Iris.
English says chefs are putting their personalities into their menus. "People's stories and their heritage and family histories are coming out in their food," he said.
For English, that's especially true with Second Line, which has the kind of New Orleans food the chef grew up with: po'boys and fried seafood. And the restaurant, set up in a converted house, feels homey. The orange, blue, and brown interior gives the space warmth, and a few TV screens let diners know it's OK to sneak a peek at the Memphis Tigers game.
The appetizers are listed on the menu under the heading "eat these things first," so we did. English pays tribute to his mentor with Besh BBQ Shrimp ($13), made with a sauce of butter, Worcestershire, lemon . . . and more butter. As our server noted, the shrimp and the bread that goes with it are really just vehicles to enjoy that sweetened browned sauce. The andouille, crawfish, and pimento cheese fries ($12) are as indulgent as they sound, oozing with cheese and healthy chunks of crawfish atop firm, slightly glistening french fries.
English is faithful in his approach to the sandwiches of his hometown. "The po'boy's downfall is when it's gussied up too much," he said. The bread is from Leidenheimer's in New Orleans, served with iceberg lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayonnaise. In the fried Gulf oyster po'boy ($15) that bread and generous portions of seafood deliver a good crunch but don't weigh down the dish.
The fried seafood plate ($18) uses a crispy cornmeal-flour coating for shrimp, oysters, and catfish, and the same treatment for slightly sweet, cakelike hush puppies. Frankly, if it weren't a nutritional no-no, the next time I go to Second Line, I would just get a big plate of hush puppies and cheese grits ($4), the best use of corn, cheddar, and butter I've ever tasted.
Memphians Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman honored their Italian heritage and gave it a Southern twist when they opened their first restaurant, Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, in 2008. But like English, the duo wanted to show another side to their cooking, so they opened a casual sister restaurant, Hog & Hominy, in East Memphis in 2012.
From the outdoor bocce court to the cheery, plaid-shirted servers, Hog & Hominy embodies a laid-back attitude. The Neapolitan-style pizzas make up a third of the menu, so we opted for the Prewitt ($15), with fontina, tomato sauce, scrambled eggs, and boudin sausage. The pizza's creamy and salty toppings complement one another (and uphold my rule that everything tastes better with an egg on top of it). The crust is thin, soft in the center, and light and chewy on the edges. Dishes are served family style, and come out of the kitchen when they're ready. Of the From the Farm selections, one standout is the kale salad ($12), which has Kalamata olives, red potatoes, and a delicate smoked catfish with buttermilk dressing. A more unusual dish was the leeks ($14), a kind of deconstructed vegetable tamale with shrimp, sun-dried tomato, peanuts, and cumin-chili.
Do not leave Hog & Hominy without dessert. Peanut butter pie ($7) riffs on the Elvis sandwich with layered banana pudding, peanut butter, and whipped cream on a cookie crust. The Carol's Delightful Smile pie ($7) is a chocolate-lover's dream with an Oreo crust, chocolate filling, and crumbled Whoppers on top. I know why Carol is smiling.
A spot that tells a different kind of story worth experiencing is Kwik Chek in midtown. A convenience store that also has a menu of Mediterranean and Korean specialties, it may not have a lot of ambience, but it has bibimbap ($9.99). The Korean comfort food is made with rice topped with vegetables, chili pepper paste, and a perfectly cooked fried egg.
After you place your order at the counter, sit at one of the eight tables next to commercial-size freezers and racks of candy, and try a plate of mandu ($4.59), small dumplings filled with pork and beef (a vegetarian version also is available). When your sizzling bowl of bibimbap arrives, don't dive in immediately. Wait a couple of minutes for the rice at the bottom to crisp a little from the heat of the bowl, then stir everything together and let the egg yolk ooze over the rice, tofu (or chicken or beef), and julienned vegetables. You don't need a nice tablecloth to have a memorable meal.
Though the main nighttime tourist attraction are the bars and blues clubs on Beale Street, end at least one evening at the Lobby Bar in the elegant Peabody Hotel. This seating area also is the best place to watch the famous ducks march at 11 a.m. every day from the hotel elevator to the fountain in the center of the lobby, or see them retire for the evening with a walk back to the elevator at 5 p.m. The lobby is packed around duck-viewing times, so get a seat early if you want a good spot.
For a less-crowded experience, go late to enjoy a cocktail and dessert. The chocolate espresso tiramisu ($7.50) is served in an edible chocolate cup filled with mascarpone cheese, cream, and espresso-soaked ladyfingers. (Yes, we ate the entire cup.) The blueberry mojito ($13) mixes muddled mint and blueberries with Stoli Blueberi, lime juice, simple syrup, and soda. The drink isn't cloying, and the blueberry, lime, and mint combine for a clean flavor. Don't let the crushed berries go to waste; they soak up the liquid and are worth sampling.
For a classic brunch spot that also captures some Memphis history, try the Majestic Grille. Housed in a building that began in 1913 as a movie theater, the Majestic Grille pays tribute to old Hollywood with a large screen that shows vintage movies and cartoons.
Chef Patrick Reilly has a something-for-everyone menu with salads, flatbreads, sandwiches, French toast, and shrimp and grits. The specialties include four kinds of eggs Benedict ($10-$15) - classic, filet mignon, crab cake, and artichoke - served with generous chunks of breakfast potatoes. The Majestic mimosa is a great deal, $14 for a bottle of champagne, orange juice, and orange slices. But before you taste your entree, you have to stop eating the buttery biscuits served at the start of the meal. They're hard to beat.
IF YOU GO
2249 Central Ave. (also 147 E. Butler Ave. and 4375 Summer Ave. in East Memphis), 901-272-9377, cbqmemphis.com.
2144 Monroe Ave., 901-590-2829, secondlinememphis.com.
Hog & Hominy
707 W. Brookhaven Circle, 901-207-7396, hogandhominy.com.
2013 Madison Ave., 901-274-9293
149 Union Ave., 901-529-4000, peabodymemphis.com.
145 S. Main St., 901-522-8555, majesticgrille.com.