Memphis is famous for many things, but in the world of BBQ, “Memphis Dry” stands out as an all American classic. Dry refers to the fact that the meat is not swimming in sauce, but succulent juices are sealed in with dry rubs that explode in flavor. Among the very best Memphis BBQ joints is Central BBQ.
Although they have more than one location, the location at 2249 Central Avenue is the place to visit. They are close to the University of Memphis campus and their fantastic BBQ means the place is usually packed. Get there early.
We arrived at about 11:20 on a Saturday afternoon and managed to get one of only a couple parking spaces left. We walked past a pile of chopped wood in back (always a good sign!) to find a line out the front door, but we only waited about 15 minutes to order. A huge painted menu out front helps you choose what to order while you wait. You’re in Memphis, so why not try the famous Memphis Dry style done right? Of course, you can choose from a huge array of dishes served in a variety of ways, including with sauce, or you can sauce your own at your table.
As we approached the counter, an Eastern European family who spoke some English had many questions about BBQ since it was a first-time cultural experience from them. The staff was polite and patient with them, and got them through the line fairly quickly. I ordered a half-rack, dry, with beans. Others in my party got the pulled pork (one of my favorites, and they’ll share, right?).
We found one of the last tables inside in the air conditioning and took it all in while we waited for the food, mouths watering. It was a full house full of sensory stimulation. The smell of aromatic hardwood filled my taste buds with anticipation. Laughing, smiling people were eating while customers bustled back and forth to serve themselves sauces and fill drinks in a crowded seating area. Although a bit of a tight squeeze, I didn’t feel claustrophobic. Colorful stained glass and tie-dye provided a visual feast matching the flavors, while upbeat music filtered through the crowd’s conversation.
Our meal was served in about 5 minutes. That half-rack of dry ribs? Well, let’s just say they were among the best ribs I’ve had from a BBQ joint. The dry rub was a little salty and had some noticeable heat that wasn’t too hot for the average customer and perfect for the pork. The rub had formed a beautiful bark that sealed in the meat’s moisture. These ribs had never been Texas-crutched, unlike others Memphis BBQ joints. The hardwood flavor was distinctly present but not overdone. Simply fantastic. The pulled pork was not as great.
A pulled pork sandwich is one of my favorite full-flavored dishes. Members in my party were disappointed with the pulled pork. Although the flavor was great, it was definitely on the dry side, as if the meat had been pulled before it had cooled down enough. If so, it is understandable given the logistics of serving such a volume of customers. Culinarily speaking, not a great experience for the customer unless you heavily sauce of your pulled pork and/or pile slaw your sandwich — the way Central typically serves their sandwiches. However, members in my party ordered their sandwich sans slaw, and wanted to taste the pork without drowning it in sauce. My recommendation for the pulled pork sandwich? Order it the way Central likes to serve it, with sauce and slaw. If you have never had a BBQ sandwich that way, you gotta try it.
One last thing. I mentioned I ordered beans with my ribs. Now, I am a little proud of my my bean recipe because everyone that tries them says they are the best beans they have ever had. Good beans are worthy of as much attention as meat dishes. Central’s beans were underwhelming. They tasted as if they came out of a can with little or nothing done to them. My thoughts? Central’s barbecued meat is deserving of better beans.
Want to visit? Find Central BBQ here.