I drove four days from Quebec City to Memphis, Tennesse for a travel blogging conference. I went to two sessions and spent the rest of my time eating barbecue, driving around the city, and connecting with a handful of travel writers.
Barbecue was always a part of my Memphis plans. The thought of saucy succulent ribs kept me going on long driving days when I was questioning my travel choices.
Barbecue joints (restaurants) started popping up in Memphis after WWII. The restaurants were small, the smell of slow-roasting pork in a pit wafting through local neighbourhoods. I’m salivating thinking about it. Also, smelling barbecue every day would be the most delicious torture.
Shortly after my arrival in Memphis, I met up with Doug Mack, a travel writer who must always be aware of his surroundings. This, I’m told, is why he sucks at giving directions. He’s too busy taking it all in, crafting stories in his marvellous brain.
This becomes a running joke as I drive us around the city.
We kicked things off by dipping into Mississippi for ribs at Neely’s. Memphis is tucked into the southwest corner of Tennessee, spilling over into Mississippi. Alabama enticingly perched on the other side of the Mississippi River.
Neely’s was a disappointing start. I think we arrived too close to closing time. Or perhaps, the Mississippi location is not as good as it once was.
Over the next four days, we drove around Memphis, a sprawling city with an impressive number of churches, compelling culture, fun murals, and so much more.
I dream about the barbecue from Elwood’s Shack on a weekly basis. It’s located in East Memphis near the I-40, and eight miles from where the conference hotel (Sheraton Memphis Downtown). It was after 8 pm when a gaggle of hungry travel writers piled into my rental car. All of us desperate for good barbecue. A fitting meal for our first official night in Memphis.
When we spotted a small barbecue shack beside a Lowe’s parking lot, the smell of barbecue lingering in the air, my stomach rumbled. Elwood’s Shack is 1,100 sq ft of quirky charm. The walls are decorated with awards and kitsch, and the picnic tables outside are the best places to sit and eat. It’s a truly local spot, with contractors and first responders filling out the roster of regulars.
We arrived 20 minutes before closing, but they quickly assured us that there was plenty of time to relax and eat.
Friends, when five travel writers swoon about their food at the same restaurant, you know it’s good. I opted for ribs with a dry rub over saucy, which was served with coleslaw, baked beans, and Texas toast. The meat was tender, practically falling off the bones. A part of me wished I had ordered a full rack instead of half, but then I would have burst. Haha
Elwood’s Shack opens at 7 am, so I returned on my last day in Memphis, ordering a pimento cheese biscuit with bacon. This time I was alone, sitting at a picnic table and watching a handful of regulars.
Doug and I consumed a fair amount of barbecue over a four-day period. The car made it easy to venture into the outskirts of Memphis. Germantown Commissary was one of our stops. It’s located in an early 20th-century general store, which was converted into a barbecue joint in 1981.
I ordered a plate of barbecue ribs and brisket, ice-cold sweet tea, and a basket of pork rinds bigger than Doug’s head. The brisket was a tad dry (I’m a sucker for tender juicy brisket), and the ribs were good and a little sticky. It’s a small joint, and quite popular.
The white drive-thru tent at Corky’s BBQ was hard to pass up, despite having barbecue a couple of hours earlier. Corky’s has been barbecuing since 1984, and there are eight locations in Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina. Driving into the tent, a temporary pandemic solution, a waitress gave me an iPad to place my order. A quarter rack of ribs, and deep-fried pickle chips with horseradish dipping sauce.
The dry rub on the ribs is quite good, but the fried pickle chips were the true star of the meal. Mostly because the pickles still tasted like pickles, the breading was crunchy, and the horseradish dip pulled all of the goodness together.
I stumbled across Cozy Corner during my pre-trip research. Located in a strip mall on North Parkway, Raymond Robinson opened Cozy Corner in 1977. The front of the restaurant has an aquarium-style barbecue pit, the smell of barbecue wafting deliciously through the parking lot.
Although Raymond has passed on, the Cozy Corner remains a family-owned and operated barbecue joint. It’s appeared on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with Guy Fieri and celebs like Danny DeVito and Cybill Shepherd (a Memphian).
I visited Cozy Corner on my last day in Memphis, making sure I arrived when it opened so I wouldn’t miss out. I was delighted to see people line up at the door minutes prior to opening. It’s always a good sign. I ordered two saucy ribs with coleslaw, potato salad, and a side of peach cobbler.
I still regret this decision.
Friends, the ribs were saucy and tender and juicy. My fingers and mouth were a sticky mess as I devoured both ribs. The coleslaw and sweet potato salad were next. When I opened the peach cobbler and noticed I didn’t have a fork or spoon in my takeaway bag, I dug in with my fingers. Yes, I sat in my car, in the parking lot, eating peach cobbler with my fingers. It was… insanely good. As my mom would say, I was happy as a pig in heat. ha!
I wish I had been smart enough to buy a half or full rack. I could have eaten them cold later in the day.
a side of fried chicken (saucy ones, too)
Have you ever seen a small boxy drive-thru restaurant with a line of cars winding out of the parking lot, and down a busy street? If you do, go! It doesn’t matter how hungry you are at the time. Just go. That line is telling you it’s probably worth your time.
On my first night in Memphis, Doug and I saw such a line coming from BJ’s Buffalo Style Hot Wings. Doug doubted it was worth our time, but after our Neely’s disappointment, we lined up behind several cars on Elvis Presley Boulevard. We waited in line for over 30 minutes, placing an order as the restaurant was technically about to close.
A styrofoam container of hot wings secured, we parked outside Graceland and chowed down. They were quite good, despite being Buffalo-style wings.
It was early in the morning when I stopped at Dodge’s for gas and decided to give Dodge’s Fried Chicken a go. Gas station fried chicken is not fancy. There are no brioche buns or gourmet aïolis. It’s fried chicken in a hot-lamp-lit display case next to the cash register, and in the early morning (or late at night), gas station fried chicken is quite tasty.
gus’s fried chicken
Gus’s Fried Chicken was packed with people when I stopped there in 2018. I was driving through Memphis with a friend’s daughter, on our way to her university in Idaho (yeah, you read that correctly). Fast forward to 2022, and I walked through the door with my food buddy Doug and snagged a table.
Gus’s was founded in Mason, a small Tennessee town 40 miles northeast of Memphis. Today, there are over 30 locations across the US, but the one in Memphis is the best one. GQ wrote about this place in 2016, and after eating at Gus’s, I can say that every word of the GQ article still rings true.
Inside, the walls are white painted cinder blocks, and the ceiling is tin. There are neon-lit signs and a jukebox, and the tables have red or blue plastic gingham tablecloths. The ambiance and décor give small-town barbecue joint.
We ordered fried green tomatoes to share, and I opted for two pieces of fried chicken and a side of potato salad. The beginning of May is early for green tomatoes, but they were tasty despite being on the firm side. The chicken, which was my whole reason for being at Gus’s, had crunchy skin with a little kick. On the inside, the chicken was delightfully tender.
Gus’s was worth the four-year wait.
i knicked a small corner of memphis’s food scene
I spent four days in Memphis, eating as much as I could in a short amount of time. I ate a decent amount of barbecue and fried chicken. We popped down to Mississippi to eat breakfast at Waffle House, a new experience for both of us. It was wonderful in a no-frills diner kind of way.
We also drove to Arkansas in search of ice cream and ended up getting drive-thru hand pies and milkshakes from a place called Tacker’s Shake Shack. Another spot I have vowed to return to in the future. This place looks absolutely fabulous inside, kitschy heaven with a massive menu. I also had brunch at The Liquor Store (more on that in another post).
I didn’t expect to love Memphis, but after four days of Memphis barbecue, fried chicken, and other yummy eats, I am determined to return!