Last summer, I spent a week in Memphis and Kansas City. Went searching for the best BBQ in the world. The idea for the trip came from my travel-companion, Ron. Ron is my wife Robin's older brother. He lives in Arizona.
Ron spent months researching where to go from 964 possibilities. We narrowed the list down to about ten places and ate BBQ twice a day, every day, for the whole week. You can't swing a possum in the South without hitting a BBQ restaurant, so we went down armed with recommendations from knowledgeable connoisseurs. We tried to avoid the ordinary restaurants and find the gems.
We did. I'm happy to report we achieved our objective. We found and savored the best of the best. As a culinary adventure, the trip was immensely satisfying. Plus, Memphis is a great city with music at its core.
The key to any good travel-experience is a suitable companion. Ron fit that bill. Ron is a boy of big appetites -- for food, beer and loud music. His natural inclinations propelled us into indulgence on a Herculean scale. The trip felt like a wild ride with Hunter Thompson where the extreme and unexpected tackle you without warning. Besides, you never know where your limits are until you exceed them, as we did on this trip.
The heart of the experience was, of course, the food. Real authentic BBQ has a complexity worthy of serious study. The range of seasonings used is diverse and, as I learned, often surprising (e.g., paprika). Our favorite place (Rendevous BBQ) makes ribs with no BBQ sauce on them at all! They are, instead, seasoned with a dry rub that penetrates the smoky meat during the long cooking process (8-18 hours). Their intriguing blend of spices was irresistible and I wolfed down a full rack as fast as my greasy hands could grab them.
Which is not to say I'm against BBQ sauce; quite the contrary. Our second favorite place (Arthur Bryant's BBQ) has a delicious tangy sauce that would make cardboard appetizing.
Some of our favorite finds are listed below, in order of preference. One interesting feature of these restaurants is their informality: they are all casual and comfortable. No pretensions here. And the cost is remarkably low. What other delicacy can you get the highest quality of for $8-15 a meal?
We made one exception to the steady diet of BBQ. We couldn't resist trying a place universally reported as serving the best fried chicken in the world: Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken. The reports are accurate -- Gus's chicken is phenomenal. It's fortunate I don't live in Memphis or I'd go there daily and end up looking like a Southern Santa Claus.
Memphis is a vibrant city full of music and history. For decades, it was the center of Blues music and, later, Rock 'n Roll. I loved the city's down-and-dirty character. Beale Street is an open-air party with endless nightclubs and license to drink beer outside in the street.
My best time there was at Sun Studio, a tiny recording studio where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and others began their careers. The single recording room hasn't been altered in 50 years. Being there gave me a palpable sense of music history. The legendary stories of those times are told many places but to physically touch the same acoustic wall-tiles and stand on the same linoleum floor as my idols did years ago was deeply inspiring.
We also visited Kansas City where, on the spur of the moment, decided to take in a ballgame. We saw the Royals play the Indians in beautifully-renovated Kauffman Stadium. Great seats, cheaply-priced, picked up right at the ballfield. I knew I wasn't in New York!
There was one small incident in Kansas City. After flying in, we rented a car to drive to Memphis. Not being familiar with the region, I asked Ron at the check-in counter if cars drove on the right-side of the street down there like we do in civilized New York. A Southern woman overhead, turned around and gave this Yankee the most withering look I've ever received. Then, when she realized I was pulling her leg, she broke into laughter.
There was more to the trip, but if you want to hear those details, you'll have to sign a Confidentiality Agreement. The statute of limitations on our nightly activities hasn't expired yet.
All in all, a wonderful time, largely thanks to Ron. Next year, a pizza tour?
P.S., I've decided to change my name to Willie. Sounds more Memphis-y.
1. Rendevous BBQ (Memphis) (http://www.hogsfly.com/)
2. Arthur Bryant's BBQ (Kansas City) (http://www.arthurbryantsbbq.com/)
3. Central BBQ (Memphis) (http://www.cbqmemphis.com/)
4. Neely's Interstate BBQ (Memphis) (http://www.interstatebarbecue.com/)
5. B.B.'s Lawnside BBQ (Kansas City) (http://www.bbslawnsidebbq.com/)
6. Jack Stack BBQ (Kansas City) (http://www.jackstackbbq.com/)
1. Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken (Memphis) (http://www.gussofms.com/)