When it comes to eating in Memphis, barbecue is the first and the last bite. That’s not surprising, considering more than 200 barbecue joints are officially listed in the Yellow Pages, which doesn’t include the countless undocumented holes-in-the-walls where savvy insiders can pick up a pulled pork sandwich.
Memphis is the home of “Memphis in May,” the world’s largest barbecue cooking contest, whose heroic feats of smoking, grilling, chopping, and pulling were chronicled by eminent food critic Jeffrey Steingarten in his bestselling book The Man Who Ate Everything. Noted regional food writer John Egerton, in his book Southern Food, summed up the symbiotic relationship between barbecue and Memphis this way: “Pork barbecue so thoroughly dominates the gastronomic image of Memphis that little else manages to shine through the smoke.”
While true, such a widely held assumption is enough to make Memphis magazine food critic Kay H. Womack a little bit cranky.
“Sometimes I just want to tell people who ask that we do eat something besides barbecue in Memphis.”
Still, Womack, who is a Memphis native, is more than happy to trace the history of barbecue in Memphis, beginning with DeSoto and his happy band of pioneers who roasted whole hogs while encamped near the Mississippi River. Later, Womack describes the arrival in Memphis of North Carolinian immigrantsbarbecue maestros in their own rightwhose barbecuing styles would only then be influenced by the arrival of African American slaves being brought up the Mississippi River. It was the African Americans who brought an awareness of spices and seasonings from Africa and the West Indies, not to mention some expert knowledge of New Orleans cuisine.
The question Memphians are most frequently asked is, “Where can I get the best barbecue?” Ask 100 people, and you’ll get 100 answers.
Rendezvousknown for its dry ribsand Corky’s are probably the BBQ eateries best known outside of Memphis, but the experts don’t necessarily steer folks there. Interstate Bar-B-Que is known for its wonderful beans, and Womack herself steers folks seeking “old-fashioned, genuine Memphis barbecue” to Mr. Hardaway’s place on Donovan Street. Called Big S’s Lounge, Mr. Hardaway “opens it when he wants to, not usually until sometime in the afternoon,” Womack says. “He’s also got the best jukebox in town.”
Another much-recommended BBQ shack is Cozy Corner. Owned and operated by Raymond Robinson since 1977, Cozy Corner is at 745 N. Parkway, a dicey part of town that may give nervous nellies cause to worry. On a recent visit, however, nothing much seemed to be bothering the racially mixed crowd of families who patiently awaited their food at the dozen or so tables. Robinson, with help from his children and grandchildren, serves slicednot pulledpork and beef sandwiches, and ribs, but the signature dish is barbecued Cornish hens ($6.95 for a whole hen with two sides and bread). Folks say Robinson was nearly laughed out of the business when he put them on the menu some years ago, but now he never has an extra one left in the kitchen at the end of the day.
Pushing aside the smoke, most agree that the dining scene in Memphis has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade. Like so many Southern cities, the prevailing social structure for many years meant that the best food was usually served in country clubs and private homes. California Cafe, one of the early attempts, by chef Richard Farmer, at introducing a more challenging, contemporary cuisine, opened in the spring of 1990 only to fold one year later.
But several turning points have spurred Memphis’ culinary development. One was the beginning, in 1983, of chef Jose Gutierrez’s tenure at the acclaimed Chez Phillippe in the Peabody Hotel. Gutierrez successfully marries his classic French training to regional Southern favorites like hushpuppies and greens. Besides the fact that he trained many of the city’s emerging young chefs, Gutierrez can generally be credited with raising the bar in Memphis kitchens.
Another turning point took place a decade ago, when businessman Tom Cassidy took over American Seafood wholesalers and started bringing fresh fish to Memphis restaurants. Then, in the early ’90s, Memphis began to see a wave of chef-owned or chef-driven restaurants. Richard Farmer, who had failed with California Cafe, succeeded wildly with Jarrett’s and has built a stellar reputation around his skills with seafood. Farmer is gaining a national reputation within food circles and recently cooked at the James Beard House in New York. Another Memphis chef with her own restaurant and national renown is Raji Jallepalli, who fuses French and Indian cuisines on a menu that changes daily at her restaurant, called Raji, in East Memphis.
When it comes to chef-owned restaurants, which in my view is an indicator of a city’s culinary development and sophistication, Memphis easily beats Nashville. “This would not have happened 10 years ago,” says Womack of the phenomenon. “It’s a combination of the availability of fresh ingredients; enthusiastic, creative young chefs; and an emerging populace from other places that demand more.”
By my count, Memphis has at least twice as many chef-owned restaurants serving good food as does Nashville. It is also currently experiencing an all new wave of chef/owners. Among them are Alex and Judd Grisanti, who are the sons of one of Memphis’ most enduring restaurant families.
The siblings got their start in the dining business when their father, who started Ronnie Grisanti and Sons restaurant, sent the boys to culinary school and on a tour of Tuscany before letting them take charge in his kitchen. When they took over, they jazzed up the restaurant’s baked pasta standards, and began creating spectacular specials based on the Tuscan coda of “freshness pulled from the ground.”
Another newcomer making waves on the Memphis dining scene is Tsunami, owned by young chef Ben Smith. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Smith, a Memphis native, spent three years at Jeremiah Towers’ San Francisco restaurant Stars, and nearly four years in the South Pacific, before returning home and opening Tsunami last July. Located in a renovated, older building in the emerging historic Cooper-Young district, Tsunami is making its mark with Pacific Rim cuisine, a confluence of Asian, Australian, and South Pacific influences. Among the standouts on the menu were, for starters, mussels in Thai red curry sauce, shrimp in coconut milk, curried vegetable egg roll with Vietnamese dipping sauce, and a warm red cabbage salad with walnuts and goat cheese. Seafood is the standout. The mixed shellfish with Asian noodles in a delicate miso-ginger broth and the pan-seared sea bass on black Thai rice with soy beurre blanc sauce were spectacular.
Like Hot & Hot Fish and Cafe Botega in Birmingham, Tsunami is one of those restaurants Nashvillians will visit and then say, “Why can’t we have more restaurants like this in Nashville?”
The pieces to the puzzlethe availability of fresh ingredients, creative young chefs, and a sophisticated clienteleare all in place. What Nashville needs is someone to put their money where their mouth is.