I guess I’ve eaten at Tops Bar-B-Q about as long as they’ve been in business. They opened in 1952 and currently have 14 locations, including two in Mississippi and one in Arkansas. I always ordered their barbecue sandwich until a few years ago when I tried my first of many fabulous Tops hamburgers. So it was a surprise to hear Tops recently added two new items to its menu: beef brisket and ribs.
I began with the brisket. I stopped by the Tops on Union on Sunday night and placed my order. I was asked if I wanted a regular or jumbo, sweet, mild or hot sauce and slaw. I never thought about all those options with brisket. I ordered a jumbo with mild sauce and no slaw.
The meat is sliced, not chopped like the barbecue sandwich, so that was different. It tasted great, but the sauce tasted like the sauce they use on their barbecue, so it masked a lot of the brisket taste for me.
I returned the next day and ordered a jumbo brisket sandwich with no sauce. I liked that better. Very meaty tasting. Linda Duckworth, the manager at the Union location, told me to try the brisket with horseradish sauce. (I didn’t even know Tops served horseradish sauce.) That set it off perfectly.
Duckworth said they’re the fifth Tops location to serve the brisket and ribs. Each week, Tops will introduce the new items at another location.
Bluesman Preston Shannon, who, by the way, is getting ready for the upcoming opening of The Preston Shannon All Blues Club on Beale, was at one of the booths eating a jumbo barbecue. I gave him a taste of the brisket and asked him if he could describe the taste with a song. “The thrill ain’t gone,” he said. “The thrill is here with the brisket.”
On to the ribs. I stopped by the Tops location at Summer and Graham on Tuesday and ordered the full order of ribs with no sauce. They tasted great, like someone just pulled them off a grill in Tom Lee Park.
I let one of the customers, James Mack, 16, who said he’d never had Tops ribs, try one. “The ribs are good,” he said, but he added, “They need the barbecue sauce.” He would have gone with a mixture of sweet and mild, which sounds good. Some of my co-workers, who sampled some of the ribs in the newsroom, agreed they needed sauce. I still like them plain.
Tops general manager George Montague said he and Tops owner George Messick came up with the idea of introducing the ribs and brisket. They served both items on catering jobs in the past, but regular customers asked them to start offering ribs and brisket at their restaurants.
The shoulders are cooked in pits, but the brisket and ribs are cooked in Southern Pride smokers, Montague said. “We can more or less set it and forget it,” he said.
All the locations except the Thomas and Rhodes at Getwell locations will get smokers. Those two will share with nearby Tops restaurants. “I’m putting in the sixth cooker tomorrow at Olive Branch.”
Tops Bar-B-Q restaurants include the 1286 Union (725-7527) and 4183 Summer (324-4325) locations.
— Michael Donahue: 529-2797