Grand champion pitmasters bring Memphis-style barbecue to Mississippi.
Biting into a classic pulled pork barbecue sandwich.
photography by Justin Fox Burks
When our charming server at Memphis Barbecue Company asked if we had room for dessert, our party answered in unison with comments along the line of “too stuffed, no way.” Instead of ordering more food, we asked for boxes to carry home the ribs, slaw, and cornbread still left on the table.
Unfazed, our server smiled sweetly and pushed on: “Let me just tell you what we have,” she said, describing blackberry crème brulee, caramel bread pudding, and the Memphis Mud Pie, a layered concoction of brownie, chocolate syrup, ice cream, and whipped cream served in a type of oversized brandy snifter.
Swayed by her enthusiasm, we ordered the bread pudding and crème brulee, served in five minutes or so on pretty white plates with long-handle spoons for sharing. Were we impressed enough to eat every bite? Absolutely, but not before we admired the raspberry sauce and mint leaves alongside the ramekin of crème brulee and the wedge of bread pudding, sliced in thirds and wrapped in a fragrant blanket of caramel sauce.
Most barbecue restaurants don’t dress up dessert, assuming, rightly so, that customers fill up on ribs and pulled pork. But Memphis Barbecue Company is no ordinary roadhouse thanks to the smokin’ pedigrees of owners Melissa Cookston, Pete Cookston, and John Wheeler, competitive pitmasters with more than 100 grand championships between them. Most recently, Cookston’s barbecue team, Yazoo’s Delta Q, won the top title at Memphis in May, adding to her celebrity as the only woman in the world who is a barbecue grand champion.
Whew. No wonder the Memphis Barbecue Company in Horn Lake, Mississippi, is the local darling these days of national media, earning episodes on ABC’s Chew, the Food Network’s Chopped, and Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-in’s and Dives. Open since March, the barbecue restaurant is also hugely popular with customers from Memphis and other parts of Mississippi, so expect a wait on the weekends during peak dining times.
Located just off Interstate 55, the restaurant feels a little like a Cracker Barrel until a bevy of teen-age hostesses usher customers past rows of barbecue trophies, some five feet tall. We visited for dinner on a Saturday night and didn’t get seated for about 30 minutes, but the wait was mostly our fault. We didn’t hear our name because we were comfortably settled in the bar, drinking ice-cold drafts and ordering appetizers large enough for four.
Featured on Fieri’s Triple D, the golden-brown fritters are made with egg, flour, sour cream, green onions, and four different cheeses (mozzarella, parmesan, Swiss, and cheddar), then deep-fried, sprinkled with parsley, and served in a shallow yellow pool of honey Dijon dipping sauce.
Our server in the bar also kept slipping in baskets of melt-in-your-mouth pork rinds, fried crispy and sprinkled with the restaurant’s award-winning rub. I lost count at basket three.
The rub is a key player at Memphis Barbecue Company because the ingredients shape the restaurant’s Memphis flavor profile: mild smoke and sultry but still a little sweet. Combining, among other things, turbinado sugar, chili powder, granulated garlic, dry mustard, paprika, and cayenne, the rub shapes the restaurant’s barbecue sauce and its extensive selection of smoked meats. In fact, Memphis Barbecue Company serves up to four tons of meat every week, offering so many barbecue options that many first-time visitors might need extra time to decide between spare ribs, baby backs, pulled pork, pulled brisket, turkey, sausage, or chicken.
Numerous side options also complicate decision-making. We tried them all, and some (cole slaw, okra, and barbecue spaghetti) are much better than others (mac and cheese, grits, and red beans). Happily, the restaurant’s cornbread — delicious, cake-like and cut in triangles — comes with every dinner.
For our entrees, we opted for a combo platter with brisket (excellent) and turkey (nothing special) along with a full slab of baby back ribs, half wet and half dry, and a half slab of spare ribs. While the spare ribs were flavorful thanks to a little extra fat, the remarkable baby backs won our hearts. Smoked over pecan wood, the ribs were perfectly prepared, so all you need is a tiny tug to pull the meat off the bone in tender and succulent pieces.
Melissa Cookston credits the restaurant’s success to quality and consistency, a recipe she and her partners plan to duplicate in a new location opening this month or next in Fayetteville, North Carolina. For instance, pitmasters fine-tune cook times precisely because baby back ribs are specially cut for the restaurant in a consistent size.
“It’s a beautiful product, redolent with the mild smoke and flavor of the pits,” Cookston said about her favorite item on the menu. “I love them.”