This is the second of a series of reviews of new barbecue restaurants, leading up to the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest next weekend.
Memphis Barbecue Co. in Horn Lake is a joint venture between two Memphis in May champions, Melissa Cookston and John Wheeler, she of Yazoo's Delta Q and he of Natural Born Grillers. They're both respected in the barbecue community, and Cookston holds the distinction of being one of a handful of female champions. What they do right at Memphis Barbecue Co., they do right indeed.
Start with the barbecue shrimp appetizer.
Take your favorite New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp, the kind that come swimming in a pool of spicy, buttery sauce.
Then back up a few steps. Take the shrimp out of the sauce, peel 'em, wrap 'em in bacon, get 'em crisp, and then put them back in the sauce. Put some toast on the side for sopping.
It's exceptionally good.
The ribs are excellent: meaty with a bit of tug but tender, too. The dry rub is both sweet and salty, and while neither the regular nor the spicy sauce stands out alone, both make an excellent addition to the rub on the ribs.
You have a choice of baby back, spare or loin ribs (the latter in a sampler platter), and there are numerous combinations on the menu that make it easy to try ribs with pulled pork, brisket, chicken and sausage. You get plenty of food for your money, as these are served with two hefty sides.
But it's not all up to par with the shrimp and the ribs. On our first visit, we were struck by three things. The first was that the seasoning was the same on the shrimp, the ribs, the chicken and the turkey, and that encouraged taste bud fatigue.
The second was that the pulled pork was not only lacking in flavor -- not even smoke -- but also that it was mushy, as were the chicken and the brisket.
The third was that the sides were bland. The macaroni and cheese looked fabulous, creamy and thick, but the pasta was overcooked and the cheese sauce largely devoid of flavor. The red beans and rice were seemingly without spice, and the turnip greens were overcooked and underseasoned.
I left with the impression that the kitchen was seriously off its game, but with the ribs, the shrimp and the friendly and enthusiastic server who told us that everything was made in house, I also felt like the next visit would be better.
The pulled pork and the chicken were both much better, though the pork still possessed little flavor. It took spicy barbecue sauce mixed with Louisiana Hot Sauce to liven it up a bit, but the texture was much improved.
The chicken, which is marinated and smoked, was good and smoky, adding another layer to the mystery of why the pork was not.
On that visit, our server explained that not everything in the kitchen is actually made there, but that most things are. The onion rings were very good, crisp, with bits of onion peeking through the crust, and I would've thought they were cut fresh. Not so, he said. No on the onion rings, the French fries, the fried okra and the turnip greens.
But he gave a heads-up to the baked beans and the potato salad, so I ordered both.
The baked beans are among the best I've tasted in a restaurant. They're on the soupy side, and I while prefer beans a bit dry, I'd eat these with no complaint. The sauce is sweet with peppery back notes.
The potato salad could do with less dressing, but the flavor was nice. Chunks of potatoes were firm, and they were tossed in a creamy mayonnaise blend that would've been a great cooling touch if I'd had sauce hot enough to require it.
A hearty dish of shrimp and grits was good. The shrimp were again bacon-wrapped, cooked until the bacon was crisp. Grits were stone-ground, thick and hearty, and like everything else at the restaurant, plentiful.
A basket of pork rinds, cooked fresh and dusted with barbecue spices, is served before each meal. They're good, especially when warm, but keep in mind that all the food you've ordered will be served with a generous hand.
The menu is large and varied, with a couple of steaks, catfish, grilled salmon and salads available for anyone not up for barbecue. A whole butt is also on the menu, and a selection of sandwiches includes a burger served on a donut and one called The Squeeler, which is a full pound of pork or brisket served with "Blisterin' BBQ sauce."
Memphians might need a reminder that smoking is still allowed in Mississippi restaurants. You'll smell the smoke when you enter Memphis Barbecue Co. -- the bar is toward the front of the restaurant, so that's where the smoking section is. But once we were seated in the nonsmoking section, we didn't smell cigarette smoke at all.
-- Jennifer Biggs: (901) 529-5223
Memphis Barbecue Co.
Address: 709 DeSoto Cove, Horn Lake, Miss.
Telephone: (662) 536-3762
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Reviewer's choices: Ribs (baby back and loin ribs reviewed, spare ribs also available; baby back, $22.99 full slab, $15.99 half; spare ribs are $1 less); BBQ shrimp appetizer ($7.99); shrimp and grits ($14.99).
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars