If a stranger to our town gathered the national television footage and press clippings from national publications about food in Memphis, he would likely think that all we eat is barbecue. Folks from other places sure do like to tell that as our story.
And do we mind? Of course not. Have at it.
The list has always included places such as the Rendezvous, The Bar-B-Q Shop, Cozy Corner, Payne’s Bar-B-Q and Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Q. Nowadays a story about barbecue in Memphis, in print or on film, is apt to include Central BBQ.
They go for the simple three-letter description of what you’ll find inside their restaurants, including the newest one at 147 E. Butler Downtown — as if your nose wouldn’t tip you off, give you a little heads-up.
They do a fine job with barbecue, which is the official and correct spelling of our municipal treasure.
The original Central BBQ on Central Avenue and the second location, on Summer Avenue, were opened in existing restaurants — the latter operated for years as a Red Lobster. The Downtown building was once the Mrs. Drake’s Sandwich building, where sandwiches were made, cut and stuffed in triangular containers for sale. This was back in the day when food trucks were called chuck wagons and folks didn’t imagine the day when mobile food offerings would include items as delicious as Central BBQ, one of the city’s most popular food trucks.
The building is large, with great covered outdoor seating in a space about the same size as indoors. You order at the counter when you go in. Save yourself a few minutes and pick up a paper menu from the table to your left as you stand in line; there’s no overhead menu to peruse.
We sampled a lot of food, and are familiar with Central from years of excellent lunches. Everything is good — you can order without hesitation, though I should mention this: I don’t really care for thin-sliced brisket served anywhere. I like brisket, but I want it cooked so that it’s tender when knife-cut to about ¼-inch, not so thin that it could be cut on a meat slicer, which is how it’s done here. The flavor is there — it’s beefy and smoky — and while tender, too, the enjoyment is compromised because of the cut.
Friends who ate with me weren’t concerned about this at all, and in truth, this is typically how brisket is served around here. Maybe nobody else really cares in this pork-lovin’ town, either.
And when it comes to pork, Central can smoke it. The dry ribs I recently ate Downtown were my ideal of a good rib. We can go back and forth all day about dry vs. wet and tender vs. tug, and what good will it do us? I want my ribs dry, with sauce on the side for me to apply as desired. And I also want them almost to falling-off-the-bone tender. It’s a preference; you might prefer yours with a little more resistance, and you can find them that way. But at Central, the meat easily slides off the bone to get right where it belongs, which is in your mouth. They were appropriately smoky, nothing overwhelming, and simply delicious served plain or with the hot barbecue sauce.
A quick note on those sauces: Central does them right. There are four self-serve choices — hot, mild, vinegar or mustard — that come out of the pump containers warm. Use the hot or the mild on anything, depending on your heat preference. The hot has a kick, the mild has a nice sweetness, but both are balanced. Use the vinegar sauce on your barbecue pork salad, then top with blue cheese. The mustard sauce, we were told, is good with the brisket.
It’s really a matter of choice, as we dipped ribs, pulled pork, chicken and even the killer potato chips in each.
The pork and the chicken are just as good as the ribs, solid representations of what pulled pork and barbecued chicken should be. You can order pork with extra bark, the crusty bits from the outside of the shoulder, and I recommend that if you want a bit more texture and smoky flavor in the meat. Once again, this is a preference; order to your taste. The chicken comes as a half and it’s excellent. The breast is as tender as the thigh.
Beans and slaw are the way to go on sides, though the potato salad is good and could stand in for the slaw. Barbecue cries out for beans as the main side and a second one that’s creamy. Both the slaw and the potato salad fit the bill.
A word about the nachos: OK, OK, I don’t like barbecue nachos. Shoot me. But I do like Central’s barbecue nachos, and here’s why: homemade potato chips.
You have to ask for the substitution, but you can order the big pile of pork, peppers and cheese on those heavenly chips instead of tortilla chips, and what a difference it makes in the taste and the texture. And while I didn’t try this, I saw someone with nachos topped with slaw, and I was intrigued.
I’m definitely going back for that.
Address: 147 E. Butler
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Reviewer’s choice: Chips and blue cheese ($4.99); pork plate ($8.79); chicken plate ($9.50); ribs ($21.99 full slab; $15.75 half)