A Memphis-style Smorgasbord

By all means embrace the smoke, but don't miss downtown's other culinary hideaways.

photograph by Lance Murphey / Memphis in May

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During the third weekend of Memphis in May, the city’s international celebration of music, culture, and food, more than 250 competitive barbecue cooking teams erect a tantalizing village of smokers and structures on the banks of the Mississippi River. They build two-story party tents, cook whole hogs all night, and tempt visitors with some of the world’s most succulent and flavorful barbecue.

Unfortunately, many of the 100,000 people who flock to the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest don’t get to taste award-winning pork. Instead, they buy barbecue sandwiches from concession stands or pour into the dozens of barbecue restaurants scattered across the city.

While concessions and local rib joints remain on this year’s menu, a new two-day event for the contest, called the Kingsford Tour of Champions, lets visitors sample and judge barbecue from four of 16 competitive teams. “The event is open to everyone,” says Diane Hampton, executive vice president of Memphis in May. “It’s a great way for visitors and novice judges to sample championship barbecue and to have a little fun.”

Here’s how the Tour of Champions works: Participants pay a $10 fee and pre-register online by May 14th for judging sessions scheduled May 16th and 17th from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 4 to 6 p.m. Then they meet at the official judges’ tent before each session to receive scorecards and tips on judging. (Hint: If meat falls off the bone, it’s overcooked.)

Flavor, tenderness, appearance, and overall impression also influence participants’ decision-making. Memories of an excellent barbecue plate do not. “For Memphis in May, judges only compare samples against each other, not against the great barbecue they ate growing up,” Hampton explains.

For barbecue fans who like sides and sit-down service more than judging, downtown Memphis also offers a number of places to eat. Some of the barbecue restaurants, such as Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, are internationally acclaimed. Others are equally good, but less recognized. The Cozy Corner, for instance, is tucked on the corner of North Parkway and Manassas and sometimes missed by visitors and local residents.

Hungry visitors can also easily miss some of downtown’s independent eateries that offer a delightful break from pulled pork sandwiches, slaw, and sweet tea. Here are three of our favorite restaurant hideaways well-suited to the international focus of Memphis in May. At each restaurant, menus are unique, informed by global flavors, and mindful of the South’s storied culinary traditions.

At Beale Street’s recently opened Twelve Bar Supper Club, chef Andrew Armstrong serves rich and sexy mash-ups such as Memphis Soul Stew, along with updated standards like cedar planked salmon with fried Brussels sprouts, bacon, and sweet potatoes. At Lunchbox Eats, owner Kaia Brewer deconstructs classic mid-day meals into delectable reinventions. For example, smoked catfish salad, fried onions, and sliced egg is her nod to the classic tuna fish sandwich. And at Evelyn & Olive, Kingston-born Tony Hall and his Memphis wife Vicki Newsum Hall marry Southern sensibilities with Jamaican spice with dishes like glazed pork tenderloin with rice, peas, and pineapple slaw.


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